Were San Patricios traitors?

Were San Patricios traitors?

My friend who’s assisting in the campaign to get the movie “One Man’s Hero” released, sends along his thoughts in reply to some of the comments about the Irish soldiers in Mexico:

Thanks for posting, Dom.  I think your response to Rod Dreher was on the mark.  Some others were not as receptive as Rod, and I respectfully submit they need to examine history a little more closely and not attempt to evaluate the San Patricios’ actions through their own lens as life-long, post 9-11 Americans. 

The San Patricios are rightly honored as heroes in Ireland and Mexico.  Most were fresh off the boat and promised religious and other civil rights in America.  Promised but not delivered.  America, in fact—perish the thought—betrayed them.  In addition, these men identified with Mexico not only because of its Catholicity, but because it was being invaded by a stronger, overwhelming Protestant country—the United States.  They had just come from a similar political situation: Catholic Ireland oppressed by the Protestant British.

Let’s cut our Catholic brothers in Christ a little slack in this situation.  How can they be called traitors when many of them were betrayed from the git-go by the U.S. government?  John Riley, who is showcased in the film, had been in America for awhile, but he too became fed up with the American double standard for Catholics.  While many immigrant Catholic soldiers did not defect, let’s not be so hasty to condemn the ones who did as “traitors.”  They didn’t exactly encounter the New Jerusalem when they got off the boat here.  They were a distinct, oppressed minority in an overwhelmingly Protestant country.  They deserted, yes, and fought with their brothers and sisters in Christ in Mexico.  I don’t think that’s treasonous, but rather noble, all things considered.

As one soldier says so well in the movie: “Traitor to what?”  Having experienced what they experienced in Protestant America, I think they can be excused for not expecting their religious rights as Catholics—and those of those Mexican brothers and sisters in Christ—would be any more respected if America succeeded in conquering all of Mexico.  If a Catholic is construed as a traitor for fighting for his religious rights—and those of other Catholics—against an unjust incursion by a country that betrayed him, I submit that such charges of treason are rather dubious.

The U.S. Army was not virtuous in its actions in Mexico.  During the Battle of Monterrey, they gratuitiously shelled the Cathedral and then blasphemously stabled their horses there.  They also wantonly killed fleeing, unarmed civilians.  This precipitated more desertions after that battle, so disillusioned were some Catholic soldiers with the actions of the U.S. Army.

By the way, there was religion in public schools in those days in America, and it was Protestant.  Something to think about both for Catholics not aware of U.S. history during those days, as well as political liberals who frequently argue today that we have a constitutional separation between church and state, and that we can’t have religion in the nation’s public schools.  That would have been constitutional news to the legislature and courts of the 1840s era.  When Catholics rebelled in Philadelphia because of this imposed Protestant religion in public schools Protestant mobs wreaked havoc in two Catholic neighborhoods in Philly in 1844, with a good number of Catholics killed and much Catholic property destroyed.

I don’t think some of your respondents realize what an anti-Catholic country America was in those days.  It was against the law to have Catholic chaplains in the army.  Against the law.  Two Jesuits were allowed to serve belately toward the war’s end, when the Army was concerned about the morale of its Catholic troops.  But the U.S. Army had become smart otherwise, letting its Catholic troops participate in Mass in occupied Mexico.  Permission to go to Mass was more readily granted after one predominantly Cathlic unit almost declared mutiny on its commanding officer when Mass was denied.

Re: Mexico being the “aggressor,” people should know that the State of Texas was once a Mexican state, and that the government of Mexico permitted English settlers to start settling in the 1820s, with the clear stipulation that the settlers would embrace the Catholic Faith, become Mexican citizens and obey Mexican laws.  However, most of those who made the formal declaration of Catholicism were not Catholics, nor did they become Catholic, and few bothered to learn Spanish.  These dishonest settlers eventually banded together over time and declared their “independence.”  Given its Manifest Destiny designs, America took the liberty of annexing this new state, providing the convenient reason that Mexico had attacked America on “American soil” when Mexico took exception to the American land grab.

No doubt that Mexico had its share of corrupt officials and that Santa Ana engaged in atrocities, most notably at Goliad.  And yet that doesn’t excuse gross American mistreatment of its Catholic troops, the serious wrongdoing in which the U.S. Army engaged, particularly after conquering Mexico and taking up office in Mexico City for awhile.  Lots of rapes and killing of civilians by U.S. troops.  A good book on the Mexican-American War, particularly regarding the San Patricios, is The Irish Soldiers of Mexico by Michael Hogan, an American who is the head of the Department of Letters and Humanities at the prestigious American School in Guadalajara, Mexico.  He is also an orthodox Catholic.  I close with his response to the blogs posted by early Friday evening, which points out that two future U.S. Presidents, Lincoln and Grant, took grave exception to America’s action in the Mexican-American War, as did many other Americans.  Here is his brief but insightful comment:

“A good illustration that this period of history is not taught in schools in the U.S. One might note that Abraham Lincoln, an Illinois congressman then, declared that the declaration of war was unconstitutional and that we had invaded their territory, not the other way around. Also, U.S. Grant called it “the most unjust war ever fought by a stronger nation against a weaker.” So, whose history is revisionist? Seems to me that of U.S. textbooks if they mention it at all, which most don’t or only in passing.”

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1 comment
  • Apologies for bringing up such an old topic but i have only recently seen the “comments” and “Beliefs” of several Americans on the San Patricios.

    Firstly let me say this. I’ve noticed that American Catholics (And Catholics in predominately non-catholic countries) seem to take their religion many times more seriously then Catholics here in an undeniably Catholic country. Maybe we’re simply more lax here.

    Anyways on the above situation.

    1. Most of you seem to be under the impression that the Irish enlisting in the American Army during this period and in later periods, or in any foreign army (French, Spanish, etc) were doing so out of some sort of feeling of “Allegiance” to said Country.

    In fact most, if not all Irish joining foreign armies joined so for a few reasons. a) A Job, b) A chance to fight the Brits, Irish men would join the armies of anyone fighting the Brits en masse, c) Training to someday fight the Brits. (It was illegal for Irish Catholics to join the British Army for a few decades).

    2. Also many of you seem to think this is somehow unique.

    I’m sure your all familiar with the New York 69th Regiment, the “Fighting 69th”. Before the war officially began, the NY69th was ordered to parade in front of the visiting Prince of Wales, they refused and the CO was imprisoned. (although, whoever thought it was a good idea to parade a regiment of armed fenians in front of the future king of England needed their head examined). The 69th, later a part of the “Irish Brigade” was one of, it not the most decorated US regiment of the period and if you think for one moment those mens allegiances was with the US over Ireland you’d be sadly mistaken. If there was a choice then the “old cause” would win every time no matter the cost.

    3. Many of you seem to be so pro-American and un-moving on your opinion that the Irish of this era felt the same you seem to not see the fact these men probably couldn’t have cared less. You all have grown up in America, these men were displaced from their home to a Country where they were treated like “White niggers” to coin a phrase. They were looked down upon because of religion and race, not that they weren’t used to it but to suggest they held the US in high esteem or were unconditionally loyal to it is unbeliveable in itself. The fighting 69th itself was simply started out as a means of recruiting and training Fenians to go back and kick the Brits out.

    How can these men be called traitors ?

    1. Because they left the service of one country and joined another ? Why is that traitorous ? Their loyalty was to Ireland, not to a country which oppressed them as badly as the Brits. What in their eyes was the difference between Uncle Sam and John Bull (generic name for English establishment/englishman) ?

    2. Because they fought former comrades, some of whom were Irish ? We’ve being doing that before Christ was born. In almost every war in every country in the world there have being Irish on both sides of the conflict and they treated eachother worse then they treated other nationalities.

    In the American Civil war you had Kellys Brigade (CSA) and the Irish Brigade (Union), in the Boer war, in the American war of independence, in the Nepoleanic wars, in the Spanish Civil war in WW1/2. I defy you to find a European or post-Colonial American war where there wasn’t Irish on both sides.

    Look at the North of Ireland.