Viva! Los Colorados Valientes
By Teresíta Sabín
March 2006 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 22, Number 7

     “Los Colorados Valientes” or “the brave redheads” is the way many Mexicans affectionately refer to the Brigade of Irishmen called “Los San Patricios”—The Saint Patrick’s Brigade—who fought alongside the Mexican people in every major campaign from 1846 until 1848, during the infamous Mexican-American War. Of course, they weren’t all Irishmen, although the majority were; nor were they all redheads. So many were, though, that it became the nickname they were given by the Mexicans, who love nicknames.
     The Saint Patrick’s Brigade, consisting of two hundred and four men divided into two battalions, is probably one of the most controversial groups in history; yet in the United States very little is known about them, as they are rarely mentioned in history books about that era. In U. S. history, they are considered traitors of the worst sort. By the Mexican people they are so revered that on September 12, 1959, the Mexican government erected a commemorative plaque to “Los San Patricios” in the Mexico City suburb of San Angel across from the San Jacinto Plaza.
     A special mass was held, school children placed floral wreaths on the plaque, and after reciting the names of each of the dead, said “Se murió por la patria” (“He died for the country”). The national anthems of both Mexico and Ireland were played by the Mexico City Symphony Orchestra, and the dead soldiers were eulogized by both Mexican officials and the then Irish Ambassador Tadgh O’Sullivan.
     All over Mexico they are still honored with great ceremony twice a year: on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day; and on September 12, the day before the majority of those captured were ignominiously executed. Even some Mexican surnames, and names of streets and towns, are derived from Irish names. For example, the Mexican surname Gil (pronounced “heel”) is derived from the Irish surname Gill. Obregón is the Mexican version of O’Brian. Sonora has its Ciudád Obregón.
     Alvaro Obregón (1880-1928) was one of Mexico’s most famous and admired soldiers and statesmen. You can hardly find a town or city in Mexico without a Calle Obregón. And red hair is greatly admired by the Mexican people.
     Why is this group of immigrants, forced to leave their homelands by extreme poverty, so revered in Mexico, yet so reviled in the United States? To this day among American historians there is still ongoing debate about what motivated them to aid the Mexicans. Books have been written about them; documentaries and movies have been made about them. The most recent was One Man’s Hero, starring Tom Berenger as Sargeant John Riley (later Captain Riley), the leader of the San Patricios, filmed in 2003 in the state of Durango. Although it, too, whitewashed the atrocities and injustices committed by the U.S. Army in Mexico and against the captured Saint Patrick’s Brigade, its portrayal of the San Patricios and their fate is fairly accurate.
     The only thing that both sides agree on is that they were extremely brave men, not only while fighting, but even while being beaten, tortured, branded, humiliated and executed by hanging after they were captured when the U.S. defeated Mexico. Several major Mexican military officials, including the President of Mexico at that time, Generál Antonio López de Santa Anna stated that if they had commanded a few hundred more men like the San Patricios, they could have won the war for Mexico.
     So why did they join Mexico? And why, after the war, were they given punishments much more severe than all other deserters, even more severe than those stipulated by the codified Articles of War for spies out of uniform, and for those guilty of “atrocities against civilians”? Of over 5,000 U.S. soldiers who deserted during the Mexican-American War, only the San Patricios were so brutally punished. They were also the only ones hanged.
     Some historians say they deserted over religion. They were Catholics being ordered by Protestants to kill other Catholics. Certainly the stabling of U.S. military horses in the Shrine of San Francisco in Monterrey, the murdering of priests, the rape and murder of nuns, the burning of churches, often with women and children trapped inside seeking refuge; and the looting, raping, senseless killing and destruction of property of civilians—poor civilians, at that—by the American troops must have disgusted and enraged them.
     Other historians insist they defected out of greed, that they were promised land and gold by the Mexicans. Yet all around them, they saw abject poverty, often even worse than they and their own families had suffered before emigrating. And the majority of the land was obviously in the hands of a small elite group of wealthy hacendados who didn’t appear disposed to willingly share it, even with their own people.
     Perhaps, then, we should take a look at what it was like to be an immigrant in the United States during those times, especially an Irish Catholic immigrant; and in the military. In the 1840s most people who had settled in America in the 18th and early 19th centuries had no strong sense of national identity. They considered themselves first and foremost Virginians (if from Virginia), “Down Easters” (if from Maine), Texans or Texicans (if from Texas), etc. There was normally a steady influx of immigrants, but the Great Potato Famine (or Blight), reaching its peak in 1845 in Ireland, had profound effects on more than the Irish and the rest of Europe.
     The death toll due to massive evictions, starvation and sickness was considered greater than that caused by the Black Death (the Plague). For those fortunate enough to scrape together the fare or work it off to go to America, tens of thousands died on the way because of inhuman conditions on Great Britain’s vessels. Even so, enormously overwhelming numbers of Irish immigrants began appearing in the U.S.
     Soon Americans began to define themselves not by what they were but by what they were not. In their words, an American was “not a Negro, not an Indian, not a Mexican and most definitely not an Irish Catholic!
     American scientists, using both the pseudoscience of phrenology and the respectable science of physiology, stated that the short, full figure of the Irish indicated they were “inactive, slothful and lazy.” Their “coarse red hair and ruddy complexion” showed they were “excitable and selfish with hearty animal passions.” Their low brows, said the scientists, indicated “savage ferocity,” and denoted “a serf of fifty descents.” Politicians proclaimed the Irish as “unstable, ignorant, feckless, easily led and incapable of participation in a republic.”
     U.S. historian Thomas Gallagher wrote, “All the world knows that Yankee hates Paddy.” Anti-Catholic riots broke out in Philadelphia in 1844, leaving the Irish ghetto in ruins and hundreds homeless, as well as two Catholic churches burned to the ground.
     Yet a significant number of Irish, Scots and German immigrants joined the military, mainly because it guaranteed them American citizenship, even though conditions for all enlisted men in the military were deplorable at that time. The immigrant enlistees were constantly subjected to the contempt and hatred of their fellow soldiers.
     In 1846, they found themselves being sent to invade a peaceful foreign country because the U.S. wanted land Mexico refused to sell (two-thirds of Mexico’s territory—which now makes up California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, over half of the present state of Texas, and parts of Kansas and Colorado). Many of the immigrant soldiers found it easier to identify with the Mexicans, with whom they had much more in common.
     Irishman John Riley, who led the defection (many, including Riley, joined the Mexicans before war was officially declared, therefore were technically not “deserters”), stated, “A more hospitable and friendly people than the Mexican there exists not on the face of the earth.” He summed up the gut-level affinity the Irish had—and still have today—for Mexico and its people.
     The feeling is equally strong among the Mexicans for the Irish. The fact that the Irish were excellent artillerymen, and fought valiantly and inexhaustably in every major battle of the war increased even more the high esteem the Mexicans still hold for the Irish. The disgraceful and ignoble punishment meted out to the San Patricios captured when Mexico lost the war, enfuriates the Mexican people even today, however.
     General Winfield Scott issued orders for courts-martial of the seventy-two San Patricios captured. At the first court martial on August 23, 1847, only two defendants did not receive the death sentence: one who was deemed insane, and another who had never technically enlisted.
     The Mexicans were outraged. The Archbishop of Mexico City, the British Minister to Mexico and a large number of prominent Mexico City residents, including many U.S. citizens, made an appeal to Scott on behalf of the San Patricios.
     Another court martial was held three days later on August 26. This time, forty-eight were sentenced to hang and the other twenty-four to whipping at the stake, branding and a life sentence of hard labor.
     Scott ordered Col. William Harney to carry out the executions. Harney had twice been disciplined for insubordination and was notorious for his brutality. During the Indian Wars he’d been charged with raping Indian girls at night then hanging them the next morning. In Missouri he had been indicted by a civilian court for beating a female slave to death.
     The 1821 Articles of War and William De Hart’s “Observations on Military Law, and the Constitution and the Practice of Courts-Martial” (1847) clearly stipulated that desertion during war was punishable by death by firing squad. Desertion before declaration of war was punishable by any one of the following: “branding on the hip in indelible ink, fifty lashes or incarceration at hard labor for a determined period of time.”
     All the San Patricios received more than fifty lashes; according to one American witness “until their backs had the appearance of raw beef, the blood oozing from every stripe.” They were then branded with a “D” on the cheek with a red-hot branding iron. Eighteen were hanged on September 8, 1847, after being beaten and branded.
     On September 13, a little before five in the morning, twenty-nine of the remaining thirty condemned men, who’d also already been beaten and branded, were bound and brought to a hill in Mixcoac within sight of Chapultepec Castle, where the final battle of an already-lost war was being fought. They were stood in wagons with nooses around their necks. The thirtieth man, Francis O’Conner, had lost both his legs in battle. Harney ordered him brought from the infirmary and propped up on his bloody stumps with a noose around his neck too.
     At 9:30 a.m., when the U.S. flag was finally raised over Chapultepec Castle, after standing bound and noosed for four-and-a-half hours in the sun in 90-degree-plus heat, the remaining men were hung. Harney’s sadistic violation of the Articles of War earned him a promotion to Brigadier General.
     Ireland considers the San Patricios national heroes, and honors them every year in John Riley’s home town of Clifden, County Galway, Ireland. Mexico continues to honor their unquestioned bravery and loyalty every year also, not only in Mexico City, but also Monterrey, Saltillo, Buena Vista and Churubusco, where they were in major battles, as well as in other areas.
     A color guard of crack Mexican troops marches forward displaying both the Mexican flag and the Irish colors to the accompaniment of flourishing drums and bugles. The Himno Nacionál is played, followed by “The Soldier’s Song.” And cries may still be heard of “Viva los San Patricios! Viva los Colorados Valientes!