St. Patrick’s Battalion

When Americans think of traitors, Benedict Arnold springs to mind. But seventy years later, a much larger group of soldiers defected to the enemy. Meet Saint Patrick’s Battalion.

In 1835, Texas was still part of Mexico. That year, it seceded, forming the Republic of Texas, which includes all of the modern-day state of Texas and parts of five other western states. While the United States recognized the new country, Mexico did not; war broke out between Texas and Mexico.  Texas prevailed, but Mexico was not yet through. Plans of reconquering Texas were still bubbling up, and in 1845, Texas accepted the United States’ offer to annex the Republic and make it a state. Mexico ended diplomatic relations with the U.S. over the act, and a year later, war broke out between these two North American nations.

But for roughly 200 soldiers, most of whom were Americans conscripted to fight against Mexico, religion changed their minds. For these soldiers — all Catholic — taking up arms against Mexico (which then, as now, was a nation mostly of Catholics) at the behest of sometimes abusive Protestant commanders was a non-starter. These soldiers were mostly immigrants to the United States from Ireland and Germany, and by and large were not yet U.S. citizens, although citizenship was promised as part of their agreement to enlist in the U.S. Army. But at that point, they were still outsiders and conscripts — and, having no allegiance to the United States, had little qualms about switching sides. So that’s what they did.

Their desertion and later defection to the enemy’s cause made them traitors, as far as the U.S. was concerned. But for Mexico, they — collectively known as Saint Patrick’s Battalion or San Patricios — were well-regarded as heroes. The San Patricios were trained and armed as artillery and were perhaps the best suited Mexican battalion to fight in the war. In fact, they were some of the most effective, being responsible for some of the highest casualties suffered by the Americans.

But in the end, the U.S. prevailed over Mexico and the San Patricios who were captured were tried for treason, with roughly 50 members executed, most by hanging. The battalion is still honored in Mexico; the plaque above is in their memory. In the U.S., the opposite was true; the Army denied the existence of the mass desertion for over 50 years after the war ended.


Bonus fact: While he would later turn traitor on the Revolutionary Army, Benedict Arnold’s command decisions played a key role in the Battles of Saratoga, which itself were widely regarded as the turning point of the Revolutionary War.  Arnold, who had previously suffered injuries to his left leg, severely wounded it in the second battle of Saratoga.  (He would later have it set, and poorly — his left leg would forever be two inches shorter than his right.)  His achievements at Saratoga are marked by the Boot Monument, commissioned a century after the war.  While clearly a reference to Arnold, the Boot Monument does not address him by name because of his treachery.

From the Archives: Father Figure: The bonus fact makes reference to the Mexican-American War.

Related: “St. Patrick’s Battalion: A Novel of the Mexican-American War” by James Alexander Thom. Four stars on eight reviews.

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