Las Compañías de San Patricio
By Scott Lipkowitz
Wars are not fought solely on the battlefield. They are also fought in the mind, through the power of ideas. Physical force has always been, and will most likely always be, at the center of human conflicts; but the narratives we create around these struggles, the counter narratives of those on the other side, and how those ideas interact, play an equally important role. Case in point, our treatment of Syrian refugees. Abroad we paint ourselves as defenders of liberty, fighting against the seemingly medieval era scourge of ISIS. At home, however, those seeking refuge are confronted with armed civilians outside their places of worship and Presidential candidates seeking to prohibit the members of the larger group to which they identify from ever reaching our shores. These two ideas are mutually exclusive and reveal our inability to understand how other groups perceive themselves and the situations unfolding around them. Is it any wonder then, the ambivalence that many of these refugees may harbor towards their adopted home? How can the former idea hope to fight the ISIS view of a western world hostile to Muslims when the latter seems a fact of American life? Thus a counter-narrative is born; the power of which we ignore at our own peril - a counter-narrative that can turn potential allies into deadly enemies. Syrian refugees are not the first group in the United States to be caught up in a conflicting war of ideas, however. Refugees have been seeking sanctuary in the United States from the very moment of its tumultuous birth. In the mid 1840’s, in a conflict over territory in what is now the southwest United States, it was the Irish who would demonstrate the power of ideas, and the consequences of ignoring them.
Every high school student who studies American history learns about ‘Manifest Destiny’- the narrative of the inevitable westward expansion of the United States, cloaked in the idea that such expansion would spread democracy and civilization across the North American continent. Of course this idea was not the driver of territorial expansion itself. Instead, it provided the ideological facade for more sober realities. Founders, such as Thomas Jefferson, saw territorial expansion of the United States both in terms of national security - aiming to undermine the influence of European powers on the continent - and of economic prosperity - the seemingly endless resources would surely provide wealth and opportunity for generations of Americans. Jefferson himself initiated the first major fulfillment of this view with his purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803. By the 1840’s the lure of west coast ports and agricultural lands in California and Texas added to the American desire for a continent wide empire. Technological advances such as steam boats and the telegraph would make westward expansion more economically viable. Population pressures along the East coast, the result of an influx of migrant groups from Europe, would make it a necessity. The United States, however, was not the sole occupant of North America. Mexico, still undergoing internal turmoil following its war for independence from Spain, claimed as part of its sovereign territory much of the land that the United States sought to possess.
The rebellion of Texas, on Mexico’s northeast border with the United States in 1835, provided an opportunity to make good on that desire. Although provisionally recognized as an independent republic following initial hostilities, Mexico none-the-less considered the rebel province to be just that: a portion of its sovereign territory under the temporary control of revolutionaries. A stalemate of sorts continued for nearly 10 years, when, in 1845, the United States offered to incorporate Texas into it’s union. On December 29th of that year, annexation became a fait acompli and Texas became a part of the United States. It is important to understand that from the point of view of Mexico, Texas was akin to the Confederate states during the Civil War. Imagine what the reaction of the Union would have been had Great Britain extended an offer of incorporation to the Confederacy, that such an offer was accepted, and that the Confederacy was now in partnership with a potentially lethal belligerent. It is not difficult then to see why Mexico threatened to invade Texas in order to retake its wayward province following the offer of annexation. In response, the U.S. dispatched Brigadier General Zachary Taylor to set up defensive positions in Corpus Christi. Negotiations to reduce the rising tensions between the two nations ended without result, and Taylor was ordered to take a defensive position on the north bank of the Rio Grande. The Mexican government responded in kind, fortifying Matamoros on the opposite shore. On April 26th 1846, the conflict came to a head; shots were fired, and 14 U.S. soldiers were killed or wounded. Though in a very real sense the initial aggressor, the United States took offense to this attack, and following President James K. Polk’s urging, declared war on Mexico. The Mexican-American War had begun.
It was against this narrative of “American blood…shed on American soil”, as Polk would state, that one of America’s recent immigrant groups would find themselves caught up in the war: the Irish Catholics. Prior to the 1840’s the majority of European immigrants coming to the United States were Protestant, even those from Ireland. Yet, with increasing food insecurity starting in the late 1830’s, and culminating in the Famine of the 1840’s, more and more Irish Catholics emigrated to the U.S. in search of a new start. Food, however, was not their only reason for leaving. Centuries of oppression and persecution at the hands of their more powerful and Protestant neighbor, Great Britain, drove many to seek refuge in the supposedly tolerant United States. Their reception could not have been further from that notion. Polk may have made much of American blood and American soil, but at the time there was very little idea about what an American actually was. Instead, Americans defined themselves more by what they were not than by any common national identity; and what they were not, was Irish Catholic.
At it’s core, this anti-Catholic sentiment centered on the belief that anyone entrenched in the hierarchical Catholic faith and beholden to the Pope’s authority in Rome could not be a productive, or even trustworthy, member of a democratic state. At the very least Catholics would be incapable of independent thinking or morality, and so could not be expected to safeguard American ideals. Being an American and at the same time being a Catholic was a contradiction in terms to the American mind. They practiced an alien and, to many Protestants, unconscionable religion. They often spoke a foreign and strange sounding language, and their customs did not seem to fit. While it would be tempting to assume that in the modern era we have overcome this prejudice, we should remember that in 1960 John F. Kennedy, nominally a Catholic, had to make reassurances to the American public that he would not bow to Rome or papal authority. Religious enmity runs deep. The American Bible Society, in 1830, urged all Protestant denominations to present a united front in combating Catholic influence in the United States. When Irish Catholics began arriving en masse in the 1840’s, the groundwork for their opposition had been thoroughly laid.
It was widely believed that the Irish were incapable of becoming a healthy part of the Republic, a view similar to that held by the British. Americans were encouraged to view the Irish as “inactive, slothful, and lazy” with a “hanging bone gait…the low brow denoting a serf of fifty descents…dark eyes sunken beneath the compressed brows” and possessing all the trappings of “savage ferocity”. Poor and pushed into ghettos in many of the major Eastern cities, it seemed that the promise of the New World would not be freedom and tolerance, but rather more of the same oppression and injustice endured in their native land. Fear of immigrant labor and religion sparked riots in Philadelphia in 1844, 2 years before the outbreak of the Mexican - American War, resulting in the destruction of two Catholic churches and the entire Irish ghetto. Many Irish Catholics sought refuge, and perhaps a way to become ‘legitimate’ Americans, in military service. Although often formed together into fighting units, the Irish were still subject to Protestant officers and commanders. Any hope of proving their worth to their adopted home by serving its armed forces seemed to be virtually non-existent. Writing of Irish troops he encountered in the U.S. Civil War, Robert Gould Shaw stated that the “Irishmen seem sometimes utterly unable to learn or understand anything” and that black soldiers under his command learned “all the details of guard duty and camp service infinitely more readily than the Irish.”
That similar dismal appraisals of Irish soldiers existed at the time of the Mexican-American War is not hard to imagine. Taken with the harsh treatment of Irish in civilian society, it should not have been surprising when John Riley, an artilleryman and native of Clifden, County Galway in Ireland, deserted from General Taylor’s ranks, taking the Irish artillerymen under his command with him. Dubbed “Las Compañías de San Patricio”, Riley and those who followed him - mostly Irish Catholics, but soon joined by other Catholic Europeans from surrounding areas – lent artillery support and expertise to the Mexican forces. Fighting under a green banner displaying an Irish harp surrounded by the Mexican coat-of-arms, the San Patricios took part in the battles at Matamoros, Monterrey, and Angostura. Mexican General Francisco Mejia, commanding the San Patricios at Angostura, stated that their actions were “worthy of the most consummate praise because the men fought with daring bravery.” John Riley was given a Captain’s rank, and in 1847, in the war’s second year, General Santa Anna incorporated the San Patricios into the Mexican foreign legion. On August 20 of that year, the San Patricios would fight in what would become one of the bloodiest battles of the war, at the monastery of Churubusco. Setting up defensive positions within the monastery, the San Patricios, alongside other Mexican regiments, repelled U.S. troops until their ammunition ran out. Anticipating defeat, the Mexican garrison raised the white flag of surrender, only to have it torn down, supposedly, by Captain Patrick Dalton of the San Patricios. Spurred on by this gesture of resilience the garrison fought on until superior U.S. bombardment brought the battle to a close. 35 San Patricios paid with their lives. Riley and several other captains were wounded in action. Prisoners were taken, of which 72 were charged with desertion from the U.S. army and tried by court martial.
On September 8, 1847, 20 San Patricios were hanged, a further 16 on September 10. Many of their comrades were made to dig their graves. Those who were not executed received brutal lashings and were branded with the “letter ‘D’ for deserter” and made “to wear iron yokes around their necks for the duration of the war.” A final 30 San Patricios were hanged on September 13, including Francis O’Connor, who had lost both legs at Churubusco. Dragged from his hospital bed he was none-the-less fitted for a noose. Such horrific treatment provoked shock and horror in Mexico; but seems to be in line with American sentiment towards the Irish at the time. Despite their sacrifices for the Mexican cause, their efforts were not enough to affect the eventual outcome. The United States, vastly superior militarily, eventually occupied Mexico City in late 1847, forcing negotiations for a peace settlement. Mexico would recognize the annexation of Texas, and cede to the United States New Mexico and ‘Upper’ California (California minus the Baja peninsula). The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed in May 1848, saw the fruition of all of America’s expansionist desires. The fight of the San Patricios, it would seem, had all been for naught.
All of this begs the question then, why? Why did the Irish desert from a superior force? Why did they risk the horrible punishment that was meted out to them upon their capture – surely they knew of the repercussions? What were they thinking? Many American accounts of the desertion have emphasized the offer of land or money -reinforcing the negative view of the Irish as without principle or honor – and neglecting what was most certainly a prime factor: the common Catholic faith of the Irish and the Mexicans. Days before the desertion, leaflets written by Santa Anna were distributed among Taylor’s men. They read:
“Can you fight by the side of those who put fire to your temples in Boston and Philadelphia? Did you witness such dreadful crimes and sacrileges without making a solemn vow to our Lord? If you are Catholic, the same as we, if you follow the doctrines of Our Savior, why are you murdering your brethren? Why are you antagonistic to those who defend their country and your own God?”
A contemporary account of the war, The Mexican War, by an English Soldier: Comprising Incidents and Adventures in the United State and Mexico with the American Army, written in 1860, further reinforced this root cause, stating:
“As the majority of these deserters were Irish, the cause commonly assigned by the officers for their desertion, was, that as they were Roman Catholics they imagined they were fighting against their religion in fighting the Mexicans.”
The author’s description of himself as ‘English’, even though he fought for the United States army, is revealing in and of itself. Money and land may have been on offer; but it is not unreasonable to conclude that John Riley and his San Patricios viewed themselves as Irish fighters serving a nation that mistreated them, and maintained the level of oppression and aggression against them common to their previous dealings with the British. It does not require much of a push then, for these same men to view a commonality between their struggle and the struggle of Mexico, who were similarly Catholic, and similarly attempting to resist the incursions of their Protestant neighbors. The power of self-identity, and the beliefs and ideas upon which such an identity are built, are powerful motivators. The American narrative failed to dovetail with the way the Irish saw themselves; but the Mexican narrative did.
Such interactions between narratives and counter-narratives are often driven by what we would now refer to as ‘identity politics’. At the time, Americans maintained a national identity defined by all of the things they were not, married to the narrative of ‘Manifest Destiny’. Mexico, awash in turmoil, saw themselves as the victims of outside aggression, in part, though not necessarily true, because they were Catholic. One could argue that Catholicism had little to do with the reasons behind American ambition; but it did happen to dovetail with how the Irish in the United States saw themselves; and helped to push some of them to change allegiances. As humans, we often fail to account for how others see themselves, and when we do, it is often for divisive purposes. Americans of the 1840’s certainly knew that the Irish immigrants coming to their shores embraced a specific identity, and chose to use that fact as a way to exacerbate religious, political, and economic divisions. Rather than trying to create a common ground - perhaps built around a common opposition to the British - Americans at the time ignored anything they may have know about the nature of Irish Catholic identity, often with violent results, and certainly leading to the desertion of Riley and his men.
Though John Riley and the San Patricios did not turn the tide of the Mexican-American War; their transformation from ally to enemy is instructive. Today we are similarly engaged in a struggle against an opponent with a conflicting narrative: one that seeks to show the animosity of the Western world towards Islam. We are also presented with a similar group of immigrants, fleeing from violence and persecution, looking for refuge and inclusion in the United States. However, as with the Irish in the 1840’s, the narrative we have on offer is contradictory: champions of freedom abroad, fearful and xenophobic at home. It is this very same clash that allowed Santa Anna to separate Riley and the San Patricios from the United States military. Americans of the 1840’s were unwilling to look beyond their prejudices - even if only for strategic purposes- to solidify the allegiance of their new immigrant community. It cost them one artillery battalion; today, we cannot afford to be so callous. The price of turning potential allies into bitter enemies may be more than we are willing to pay. If the San Patricios reach out to tell us anything, it is that there is a limit to how much any group will endure; especially when confronted with the same hostilities they were initially trying to escape. We seem either to fail to, or refuse to acknowledge that self-perception and self-identity are powerful facets of human nature. If we are to truly win in any war of ideas, then understanding this fact will be an important part. Imagine the defeat ISIS would see if the United States welcomed Muslims with open arms. We must be more sensitive to how the narratives we create align with or contradict those of the people who reach our shores, and abandon those which only serve to undermine or go against our best interests. In a war of ideas, it is often those ideas that compliment the stated goals that come out on top. The only way to combat bad ideas is with good ones.
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