The San Patricios


When Taylor’s van entered Santa Isabel on March 25, 1846, part of the town and most of the outlying fields were in flames. The farmers and then the townspeople had panicked at the approach of the norteamericanos , and those with the means had fled across the river to Matamores. Those left behind were in terror, screaming, crying, expecting to be butchered by soldiers who, speaking no Spanish, were helpless to calm them. “All were Mexicans,” recalled a U.S. officer, “acknowledging none but Mexican laws. Yet we … drove those poor people away from their farms, and seized their custom-house at Point Isabel.” Several weeks later an antiwar congressman from Illinois named Lincoln asked his colleagues in the House what indeed they had expected to happen when Santa Isabel was occupied: “It is a fact that the United States Army in marching to the Rio Grande marched into a peaceful Mexican settlement, and frightened the inhabitants away from their homes and growing crops. … Possibly you consider these acts too small for notice. Would you venture to so consider them had they been committed by any nation on earth against the humblest of our people?”

If the incident at Santa Isabel affected a U.S. officer and stirred the eloquence of Abraham Lincoln, Mexican historians think it might have convinced John O’Reilly that he was on the wrong side of a war. One suggests that the flame and fear the private saw in Santa Isabel reminded him of the tales told in Ireland by those who had lived through the horrors of the Rising of 1798. Whatever his motivation, O’Reilly deserted.

For some reason, it took two weeks for him to be posted as a deserter. By that time the private was in Matamoros, and so were thirty other acknowledged U.S. deserters. General Taylor was not particularly concerned; he described the absent men as “old offenders,” most of them gone off to Matamoros for the liquor and women. They’d be back. But as more and more soldiers slipped across the Rio Grande in the darkness, Taylor was forced to order his pickets to “shoot to kill” any man who refused to return to Texas on a sentry’s command.

On April 4, some of the deserters did return. Under the cover of night John O’Reilly and a few Irish- men, wearing their old U.S. uniforms, ranged through the camp, dropping off leaflets that called upon all of Taylor’s European-born soldiers to recognize the U.S. presence on the Rio Grande as an aggression upon which “the civilized nations of Europe look with the utmost indignation.” The leaflets were signed by Gen. Pedro de Ampudia.

Three weeks later O’Reilly and his men were back, this time delivering leaflets addressed to the Irish, Germans, French, and Poles in the U.S. Army. Any one of them who chose to go to Mexico would receive full citizenship and a land grant of at least 320 acres. The acreage increased in proportion to rank and experience; a first sergeant, for instance, would receive 500 acres plus an additional 100 acres for each year of service. This leaflet was signed by Don Mariano Arista, Ampudia’s commander.

Arista, impressed by the daring and coolness with which O’Reilly had led these two nocturnal sorties, commissioned him a lieutenant in the Mexican Army and authorized him to raise a company of volunteers from among the expatriates in Matamoros. Mexican sources state that O’Reilly quickly recruited forty Irishmen and four esclavos negros —slaves brought along with Taylor’s army as grooms and valets to Southern-born officers. In Georgia or Alabama freedom was a long and treacherous run northward; in Texas it was a river away, and these blacks were free men and soldados de Mexico now. As for the others, not all were Irish. Thomas Millet, Hezekiah Akles, John Hartley, Alexander McKee, and John Bowers were among the early recruits, and these five men may have been responsible for the direction the company was going to take. All were deserters from Battery H, 3d U.S. Artillery. Field guns were one arm of the service in which even a junior lieutenant could exercise independent command. O’Reilly determined that his would be an artillery company.

The expatriates were in training when Arista learned that Mexico had declared war against “ La Injusta Invasión Norteamericana .” Mexican lancers engaged and defeated U.S. cavalry north of the Rio Grande, but Taylor lost little time in defeating Arista at PaIo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. In both these battles U.S. “flying artillery” units distinguished themselves, dashing about the field and starting fights, rather than wait for the fights to find the guns.

Arista’s chief artillerist, on the other hand, managed to get himself captured, and no one seemed to have had any idea what to do with the guns once he was gone. The still obscure Lieutenant O’Reilly’s company, which had seen no action as yet, pulled back with the rest of Arista’s forces to Monterrey, leaving Taylor’s army to wait out the broiling summer months in Matamores.