- Historic Sites
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
After General Winfield Scott bombarded Vera Cruz into surrender and pushed on into the interior, Colonel Ethan Alien Hitchcock recruited a counterforce to the San Patricios. At Puebla he found a weaver named Manuel Dominguez who, robbed by a Mexican officer, had left his trade to become a bandit chief. Hitchcock organized Dominguez and his band as the Spy Company, officered by Americans. Raffishly uniformed in green cavalry jackets and pantaloons, trimmed with red, and straw sombreros with red streamers, they proved extremely useful as scouts and in carrying messages through the lines and were often assigned to secret missions out of uniform. Paid $25 a month and furnished arms, rations, and clothing, they were guaranteed safe passage with their families to the United States or a neutral country after the war. As Scott’s army fought its way toward the capital, the Spy Company rode with it.
It was on the second day of the Battle of Padierna or Contreras, August 20, 1847, that the Americans again met O’Brien’s “Bulldogs.” After the costly repulse of an attempt to cross the lava bed on the 19th, a brilliant flanking movement around the enemy left brought a blue brigade, supported by Captain Simon Drum’s battery, 4th Artillery, down on the Mexican rear in an overwhelming attack. In a close-up duel with Mexican artillerymen, stubbornly standing to their guns, Drum recognized their two bronze pieces as O’Brien’s. Instantly he limbered up and signaled the gallop for a stirring, hell-for-leather charge. A volley of grapeshot swept the color-bearer out of his saddle, but the flag was caught as it fell by Lieutenant Calvin Benjamin. As the head of the column crashed into the position, Drum vaulted from his saddle to lay hands on the trophies.
Although the ensuing rout of the Mexican Army reached the proportions of a panic, a hard core of veterans rallied and at Churubusco later the same day barred the American advance. There the San Patricio made its last stand.
Churubusco, derived from an Aztec word meaning Place of the War God, justified its name that day. Riley’s gunners, mainstay of the defense of the bridgehead to the massive-walled Convent of San Pablo, served their pieces with verve and fury. Their cannon smashed back assault after assault and they only yielded the bridge and retired to the convent when infantry crossed the river to outflank them and artillery enfiladed their position. To the deadly fire of the deserters, who took particular satisfaction in spotting and picking off their former officers, was attributed a large part of the considerable American losses: 137 killed, 879 wounded and 40 missing.
During the storming of the convent, which Santa Anna ordered held to the last to cover his retreat, the San Patricios fought with the utmost desperation. There was no thought of surrender among men who could feel the hangman’s noose around their necks. At last Riley and his remaining men, their ammunition exhausted, were overpowered. Seventy-five survived out of a battalion of 260; the rest, except for some who escaped, lay dead in the uniform of Mexico.
The Mexican Government would angrily term their punishment an act of Gringo barbarism, “a cruel death or horrible torments, improper in a civilized age, and for a people who aspire to the title of illustrious and humane.” Yet they were tried with scrupulous fairness, though feeling against them ran hot, and their sentences were strictly in accordance with the rules of war and the enormity of their offense. Some were acquitted as having been legitimately captured and forced into the ranks but refusing to fight. Riley and others, who had deserted before the commencement of hostilities, were sentenced to lashing and branding. Fifty were condemned to be hanged as deserters in time of war.
Ex-Sergeant John Riley, bound to a post, took his fifty lashes without a moan. But when he was branded with a “D” for deserter on the cheek bone, according to regulations “near the eye but without jeopardizing the sight,” he cried out under the agony of the redhot iron, for he suffered it twice. Since the letter was seared on upside down the first time, it was righted in a second branding.
Riley would labor as a convict as long as the army remained in Mexico. Then, head shaven, buttons stripped from the uniform he had once worn with honor, he would be drummed out of camp to the derisive fifing of “The Rogue’s March.”
Meanwhile he was forced to dig graves for the comrades who were to be executed. One group, hands pinioned and nooses around their necks, were placed in carts, driven out from under long gallows at San Angel. High drama featured the carrying out of the death sentence for the remainder. At Mixcoac they were stationed on a scaffold affording a view of the final assault on Mexico City. As American troops stormed the ramparts, the deserters watched the eagle and snake banner of Mexico lowered from its staff on Chapultepec Castle and the Stars and Stripes rise in its place. Just before the traps were sprung, with their last breath in a shout that was heard across the valley they cheered the flag they had betrayed.