- 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
O‘Reilly and the others sentenced to be flogged were tied to trees in front of the Church of San Angel. Two mule drivers with bullwhips took turns laying the fifty lashes on O’Reilly’s bare back. His flesh, said one observer, soon had “the appearance of a pounded piece of raw beef, the blood oozing from every stripe as given.” O’Reilly suffered through his flogging in grim silence, but he screamed and passed out when branded on the right cheek. An officer inspected the damage and noticed the brand had been applied upside down. The captain was brought back to consciousness, and the brand was reapplied correctly.
As the mule drivers moved on to the next man, a U.S. officer found the entire scene “revolting,” and a reporter described it as “the most cruel and sanguinary scene that was probably ever enacted in a war.” Captain Davis wondered what kept these men alive: “it was a marvel to me.” Some were fitted with eight-pound iron collars; they were to be confined at hard labor and dishonorably discharged when the U.S. Army left Mexico. The U.S. surgeon at San Angel had to treat the men after their punishment. “They were lured from their duty by the magnificent promises of Santa Anna,” he wrote, “bore the brunt of his battles, were poorly paid, and finished their career in damning ignominy.” The next day, September 11, four San Patricios were hanged at Mixcoac.
Mexico did not forget O’Reilly. After the war a San Patricios monument was raised; in 1960 a commemorative medal was struck.
Mexico was outraged by what its papers termed “barbarities” inflicted on men “who had carried themselves with the highest courage.” But the outcry over the San Patricios was eclipsed by the renewal of the war. Charging Santa Anna with violating the truce, Scott sent his army down Molina del Key to attack Mexico City. The key to the city’s defense was the fortress at Chapultepec, and as the U.S. soldiers prepared to attack it on September 13, 1847, thirty San Patricios were brought to Mixcoac to be hanged. All of them were bound at chest, hands, and knees, and the nooses set in place. Then they waited, watching the white fortress of Chapultepec Castle two miles away.
Col. William S. Harney, commanding the execution detail, pointed his sword toward the fortress and told the condemned that at the very moment the Mexican flag was replaced by the Stars and Stripes—“the flag you have dishonored”—they would die. For hours they waited in the shadow of death under the broiling sun. One soldier in the detail thought it “a gross refinement of cruelty such as we might expect to find among the Indian tribes.… The soldiers were unanimous in their expression of abhorrence and detestation at the diabolical inhumanity of the proceeding.”
But Colonel Harney was in command. Clouds of gunsmoke hid the flag as the U.S. troops battled their way into the fortress. Section after section had to be taken, often in handto-hand combat, and in one of those sections a wounded Captain Murphy was captured. The U.S. soldiers decided that he was a San Patricio, and Murphy, sword in hand, was about to die gamely when a senior Mexican officer intervened, pointing out that Murphy was the son of Mexico’s minister to Britain. The U.S. soldiers apologized and pressed on with the battle.
And in the end, the lives of the San Patricios at Mixcoac rested in the hands of an eiehteen-vear-old cadet named Augustín Melgar. Mexico’s West Point was housed in the fortress at Chapultepec, and Santa Anna had ordered “the boys” out before the battle. But the boys, los niños , voted to stay and fight, and their courage was epitomized by Melgar, who made his stand under his flag. Ammunition gone, he fought with his bayonet until he died.
The U.S. platoon that took Melgar’s position was commanded by a West Pointer named George Pickett, and he carried an American flag in his tunic. In the next war, Lieutenant Pickett and one-quarter of the U.S. Army’s officer corps would switch sides to fight for another flag. Even Raphael Semmes, who found the San Patricios “dishonored and dishonorable men,” would follow his conscience and serve against the Stars and Stripes. So it is interesting that Pickett, whose famous charge was the high-water mark of one lost cause, raised the flag that meant death for men who had fought gallantly for another. Pickett ran up his flag: and when the guards at Chapultepec saw it, they started to cheer. “As soon as the flag was seen floating in the breeze they were launched into eternity,” an artillery man remembered. “What must have been the feelings of those men when they saw that flag—for they knew their time had come! But on the other hand, a cheer came from them which made the valley ring.”
John O’Reilly and the surviving San Patricios were imprisoned at hard labor in the Citadel. A few more San Patricios turned up, but now that the war was over, the United States had little interest in them. However, the Mexican Army did have, and the Foreign Legion companies remained on the rolls. Captain McHerron wanted to retire to his Mexican lands, and the vacancy was filled in October 1847. The new commander of the San Patricio Battalion was a distinguished U.S. officer, Michael O’Sullivan, who resigned his commission to rematerialize as a full colonel in the Mexican Army a week later.