In November of 1846, as the war between Mexico and the US raged, an unusual unit of the Mexican army was formed by General Santa Anna, it was called the San Patricios or St. Patrick's Company. Commanded by John Riley, a deserter from the company K of the 5th U.S. Infantry, who probably gave it the name, it was made up entirely of foreign born troops. Although more were Irish born than any other nationality, about 40%, the other 60% were from England, Germany, Canada, France and native born Americans as well; but there was one thing the vast majority of them had in common: they were deserters from the American army. Less than two years later, fifty of them would be hung for desertion.
The desertion rate of the American Army during the Mexican War was the highest of all American wars, double the rate of Vietnam. Why did the Patricios desert in the face of the enemy? Certainly it was not cowardice, since they would end up fighting in the same battles from the other side. For most of them, born in foreign lands, many having been here only a short time, their allegiance to the US was not strong. Many had been brutalized by the harsh military justice system and many had faced racial and religious discrimination both in the army and out. The Mexicans were offering them land and the chance to live in a country where their religion was not looked down upon. Many also looked on the Mexican war as a war to expand the southern slave holding areas of the country, it was unpopular with many segments of the population.
(Below: Hanging of thirty of the San Patricios
after the Battle of Chapultepec, by Sam Chamberlain.)
What was the attitude of American soldiers toward these deserters? Certainly very negative, as one might expect, but it varied from soldier to soldier. Lieutenant James Longstreet was a character witness at the trial of Sgt Abraham Fitzpatrick, who was not actually a Patricio, but claimed only to have got drunk and captured by the Mexicans. He claimed to have twice refused to join them while in prison, but he was sentenced to be shot. It would be hard to conclude that his race was not the major factor of his conviction, since no evidence was given that he had been a Patricio. His sentence was commuted, however, and he returned to the US army as a private. He died of wounds he suffered at the battle of Molino del Ray the day after he rejoined the army.
Another American was not so kind in his attitude toward the Patricios. Raphael Semmes, then serving as a Navy lieutenant with the Marines in Mexico, had this to say about the fifty death sentences: "These sentences, which would have been appropriate at any time, were particularly so now. .... The salvation of the army might depend upon an example being made of these dishonorable and dishonored men." So it would seem that Semmes attitude toward those who would desert their countries flag was a rigid one. After all, these men, in spite of the loose ties many of them had to this country, had taken an oath of allegiance to the US, had they not? Such men are "dishonored and dishonorable," he believed.
(Above: Captain Semmes on the deck of the CSS Alabama at Cape Town, South Africa - August 1863.)
Apparently, Semmes attitude had evolved a great deal less than fourteen years later, when he resigned his commission, deserted his flag, and later fired on it as Captain of the famous Confederate commerce raider "Alabama."
He sailed the Atlantic sinking and capturing ships, until the USS Kearsarge sank the Alabama off Cherbourg, France on June 19, 1864, flying the flag he had taken an oath to protect. It was a flag he had been born and raised under while most of the Patricios had only lived beneath it for a short time, did he ever think about those fifty Patricios, hanging from the gallows? One would like to think so.
Semmes would face his own trial, for treason and piracy, in December of 1865. He was also charged with mistreating prisoners and violating the rules of war. He never came to trial, however, as all charges were dropped after he had been in jail for three months.
(“Battle of the USS Kearsarge and the CSS Alabama 1864” by Jean-Baptiste Henri Durand-Brager (1814-1879)
As he sat in that jail cell, contemplating the consequences of decisions he had made, loyalty, oaths and what a man fights for may not have seemed as black and white as it did to that Navy Lt. back in Mexico. Perhaps if he had been tried he might have ended up with a Mexican War veteran or two on the panel, men who may have remember his attitude toward those soldiers who deserted their countries flag less than twenty years earlier. Would Raphael Semmes have been judged by them: "Dishonored and dishonorable?"
“The Irish Soldiers of Mexico” by Michael Hogan
“The Death of John Riley Revisited” by Michael Hogan