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Tragic Story Of The San Patricio Battalion
Ne’er-do-wells and deserters, these soldiers lived hard, fought hard— and died when they saw a flag go up
June 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 4
In the 5th U.S. Infantry, stationed with General Zachary Taylor’s army on the Mexican border in 1846, Sergeant John Riley was rated a good soldier. Before his present duty he had served as a drillmaster for the Corps of Cadets at West Point which demanded high competence. Such was Riley’s ability that he was in line for a lieutenant’s commission, and rising from the ranks was rare at that period. He hail only one apparent fault, a grave one. He could enforce discipline but found it hard to take.
Soon after a reprimand from his captain for disobedience of orders, the smoldering Riley asked for a pass to attend Mass. He never reported back. The American Army had lost an able infantry sergeant. Mexico and General Santa Anna would gain a top artillery commander.
Riley joined the stream of deserters crossing over to the Mexicans, defections causing Zach Taylor considerable concern. They included others of the numerous foreign-born, many of them recent immigrants, who wore the blue—Irish, German, English, French, Polish. The Mexican Government had assiduously been urging all of doubtful loyalty or otherwise disaffected “to abandon their unholy cause and become peaceful Mexican citizens.” Bounties and land grants of 320 acres, rising with the deserter’s rank, were promised rewards. Impetus was added by harsh discipline in units of the U.S. Army where flogging was legal. Riley, like many other Irishmen, may well have been irked by the strong anti-Irish sentiment then prevalent in the United States.
But he and others who deserted before and alter the commencement of hostilities also met with contemptuous treatment in Mexico at first. This was wartime, and “peaceful Mexican citizens” were not desired. It was when the former sergeant organized his fellow turncoats into the San Patricio Battalion, ready to fight for their adopted country, that they began to win respect.
The San Patricios also were called the Colorados or “Red Company” because many of them were redheaded. Though they carried a banner blazoned on one side with a figure of St. Patrick and on the other with a harp and the arms of Mexico, only a proportion was Irish or Roman Catholic. They were composed of half a do/en nationalities, besides native Americans, and came from every branch of the service: infantry, cavalry, and artillery.
The last was Riley’s choice for the San Patricios. Equipped by Santa Anna’s order with heavy fieldpieces, he and the veteran artillerymen among the deserters trained the rest into crack gun crews.
The San Patricios manned Mexican guns in the stubborn defense of Monterrey whose storming cost the Americans heavy casualties. When the city yielded after a three-day battle, and the garrison marched out under the terms of capitulation, the deserters were recognized by former comrades and jeered and hissed. Silent and sullen, Riley and his men glared back. They would soon find an opportunity to take revenge for the scorn heaped upon them.
At Buena Vista on February 23, 1847, the San Patricios again stood prepared for action. Their 18and 24-pounders, emplaced to rake the plateau, formed part of General Santa Anna’s imposing array: other ready batteries, deep columns of infantry, long ranks of splendid lancers. General Taylor in nondescript civilian clothes lounged in the saddle of Old Whitey and watched out the spectacle before he gave the order to attack.
From the high ground the guns of the San Patricios opened, and battle flamed across the plateau. Lieutenant John Paul Jones O’Brien of Captain John M. Washington’s light battery—“D,” 4th Artillery—kept his “Bulldogs,” as he called his guns, barking. They hurled roundshot, then shifted to grape and canister to blast back charges by the Mexican lancers. Riley’s expert gunners retaliated by cutting up a squadron of the First Dragoons. The advantage of position and weight of metal lay with the Mexican guns, and the San Patricios, inflicting bloody losses on their former comrades, beat back the blue waves and concentrated on O’Brien. Most of his crews down around the smoking pieces, his horses killed, he stood and fought it out unsupported. His “Bulldogs” hung on until advancing enemy drove back survivors of the battery and captured its two guns not disabled.
Braxton Bragg’s flying battery, whirling up into action at a headlong gallop, began the turning of the tide. Obeying Zach Taylor’s command, “Double-shot your guns and give ‘em hell!” (let the shade of Old Rough and Ready stand absolved of the traditional, mild “A little more grape, Captain Bragg"), the artilleryman directed a hot and rapid fire that routed the Mexicans. Victory swept across the field. In Santa Anna’s retreat, the San Patricio Battalion carried off O’Brien’s two bronze 6-pounders.