- 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
Capt. James Smith was the first U.S. soldier into the smoky alcove where hundreds of Mexican troops had been penned up with the surviving San Patricios. A Mexican colonel there determined to make a fight of it if the San Patricios were attacked, and this seemed a real possibility because, as one U.S. soldier wrote, “every deserter would have been bayoneted or shot dead on the spot.” Smith had his hands full trying to prevent an atrocity, and O’Reilly did not help matters by refusing to surrender to a mere captain. A colonel was produced, but even he was not good enough for the Irishman. And the situation remained explosive until General Twiggs himself entered the convent and accepted John O’Reilly’s sword. Capt. George Davis of Scott’s staff thought that the capture of the San Patricios “proved a greater source of gratification to our entire army than any other single event of that memorable day’s victories.”
A head count revealed eightyfive San Patricios at the convent. Eleven others had been captured the day before at Contreras. About ninety-six were accounted for out of a battalion once perhaps three hundred strong. Although captured, the San Patricios were not quite defeated. An officer, apparently Patrick Dalton, informed a U.S. colonel that if the men were treated as prisoners of war, “we will not take up arms against the United States again .” The threat was only implied, but it was enough of a threat to cause the U.S. authorities to split up the men of the battalion.
It is interesting that George Pickett, who fought for one lost cause, raised the flag that meant death for men who had fought gallantly for another.
As the prisoners waited under guard at San Angel and Tacubaya, another attempt was made to negotiate an end to the conflict. The war correspondent George Kendall, who denounced the San Patricios as “a precious set of scoundrels,” voiced a general concern when he wrote that if peace came too early, “the rascals might get off easily.”
But the rascals were not going to get off easily; sixty-five men were tried and condemned by U.S. courts-martial. In reviewing the cases, however, Scott found that the courts had been overzealous. Two naturalized Mexican citizens, an Irishman and an Englishman, had offered important testimony that was disregarded. Exonerated were John Brooke and Henry Never, who, as stretcher-bearers, had risked their lives many times to save wounded U.S. soldiers. Lewis Preifer was pardoned because he was mentally deficient, and Davey McElroy was freed because he was only fifteen years old.
A surprise pardon was given to the San Patricio lieutenant Ned McHerron, who had earned the respect and interest of Captain Davis. There was a strange extenuating circumstance in McHerron’s case: His soldier son had displayed such gallantry on the U.S. side that he was now a brevet lieutenant. Davis recalled that “the deserter condemned to death was unconditionally pardoned, and the only reason assigned by General Scott for this unexpected clemency was…‘In the hour of the greatest temptation, his son was loyal and true to his colors.’”
Some of the death sentences were modified because of technicalities. Millet, Akles, Hartley, McKee, and Bowers had deserted before the war and thus could not be executed under the U.S. Articles of War. And on that same argument John O’Reilly could not be executed either. Scott gave him the stiffest punishment allowable for desertion in peacetime: fifty lashes and a branding with the letter D for “deserter,” the brand to be set “high up on the cheekbone, near the eye, but without jeopardizing the sight.”
Captain Davis wrote of “intense dissatisfaction and an urgent remonstrance among the officers of the army” at this finding. Some officers declared that they would rather see all the other San Patricios spared than have John O’Reilly escape the hangman on such a base and obscure point. Scott retorted that he had reviewed the cases as honestly as he could, and before he did an injustice to any man, he would “rather with his whole army be put to the sword!”
In General Order No. 281 Scott left fifty death sentences standing, and on the night of September 9 sixteen San Patricios at San Angel prison camp were told they would die the next morning.
At dawn on September 10, eight transport wagons drew up under a specially built gallows. Two San Patricios stood in each wagon. Among them was the young captain Patrick Dalton. At the trials he had been repeatedly identified as O’Reilly’s second-in-command, but he was apparently the battalion’s adjutant. He was the only San Patricio officer to draw a death sentence, because he had deserted after war was declared. A drum sounded, the wagons rolled out from under the men’s feet, and fifteen “died without a struggle,” a witness reported. The exception was Dalton: By accident or design, his noose had been loosened, and he spent a long time strangling.