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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Written by
Domenico Bettinelli