- Historic Sites
The San Patricios
Most of them were American soldiers who fought with skill, discipline, and high courage against a U.S. Army that numbered Ulysses Grant in its ranks. The year was 1847.
November 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 7
Scott determined to push on at dawn. He knew Santa Anna’s army was virtually destroyed, strung out from the battlefield clear to Mexico City in an agonized retreat that was converging on a bottleneck at the bridge over the Río Churubusco. Yet some generals were calling out to units of this beaten army as they trudged by, and those units joined the sweat-streaked men who were sandbagging positions on the bridge for a last stand. In all, some fifteen hundred regulars and national guardsmen stood ready to fight a delaying action. The San Patricios had their guns emplaced at the bridgehead, camouflaged with cornstalks; their cannoneers would fight beside two other companies, the Bravos and Independencias , while the rest drew off to a secondary position, the Convento de San Pablo. The convent, now a thicket of stockades and chevaux-de-frise, resembled another holy place not so very long before turned into a fortress by desperate men. Its defenders were all that stood between Scott and Mexico City. They waited in the convent, in the trenches, and at the bridgehead.
By midmorning the Mexican generals could taste victory and begged Santa Anna to send up reinforcements. But few came.
Advance U.S. scouts under Gen. William Worth saw nothing but the debris of a shattered army at the Rio Churubusco next day. General Scott had sent a division under Gen. David E. Twiggs along a northern causeway at dawn, expecting to flush out and flank any rear guard at the Churubusco. Twiggs was moving along grandly, skirmishing now and then with Mexican cavalry, and still, nothing was stirring at the Churubusco.
When given the order to advance, General Worth hurled his division forward. He was determined to beat Twiggs to the gates of Mexico City, and, with no cavalry screen or skirmish line, his three brigades walked right into the trap. The Mexicans opened fire at point-blank range, smashing two brigades and sending the third scrambling for cover in the cornfields. The murderous crossfire from the bridgehead and the convent beat back wave after wave of U.S. attacks.
By midmorning the Mexican generals could taste victory, and they begged Santa Anna for reinforcements and ammunition. But few reinforcements came, and most of the ammunition sent back was useless. Furious Mexican soldiers at the Río Churubusco, men who would have gladly died for the republic, were not going to get themselves slaughtered for Santa Anna. Entire regiments shouldered empty muskets and marched toward Mexico City.
The U.S. Army was also in bad shape, but Scott noticed the slackening of the Mexican fire, and at his command troops under Franklin Pierce and the Irish-born James Shields flanked the battalions at the bridgehead.
These Mexican troops retreated on the convent, but not all of them obeyed the order to withdraw. As the victors approached the abandoned gun emplacements, the U.S. soldiers could see the San Patricio bodies sprawled in their trenches and lying across their cannon. Then, on McHerron’s command, the dead sprang to life, fired one last volley from their heavies, and about sixty of them came screaming out of the smoke with swords, bayonets, and clubbed muskets. Young Lt. Ulysses Grant recalled it as “the severest battle fought in the valley of Mexico…the gunners who had stood their ground were deserters from Gen- eral Taylor’s Army on the Rio Grande.” Among the few San Patricios who survived the action was a wounded Ned McHerron.
The fighting now shifted to the stockade in front of the convent, where O’Reilly and his men put up a stiff resistance until U.S. troopers materialized before them. It happened that these cavalrymen were actually Mexicans of the U.S. Spy Company. When this outfit had been recruited at the Puebla jail, the U.S. authorities believed the men to be political prisoners. In fact they were common criminals commanded by a convicted murderer and bandit named Manuel Domi’nguez, now a brevet colonel. But they had rendered yeoman service to Scott, operating behind the Mexican lines, and they were the first U.S. troops to breach the walls of the convent.
For a few desperate minutes the San Patricios fought among the rearing horses and hacking sabers, trying to plug the breach. But U.S. infantrymen now were scaling the walls, dropping into the courtyard, and joining the melee.
At last the Mexican forces were forced back into the convent, where they piled debris into makeshift barriers, while overhead their marksmen blazed away at the men attempting to ram through the doors. When two draftees attempted to show a white flag, a San Patricio sergeant knocked them senseless. Then the entire convent shook as a direct hit from a U.S. cannon carried away part of the upper floor. The Mexican commanders, deciding that any further resistance was pointless, had the cease-fire sounded.