John Riley & St Patrick’s Battalion Part 2: The end of the Irish “deserters”

Words by Stephen Canavan

Read John Riley & St Patrick’s Battalion Part 1: The Irish Heroes of the Mexican-American War Part 1 here 

By 19 August 1847, the Saint Patrick’s Battalion were ordered to form a defensive line at the town of Churubusco after hearing that the divisions of General Winfield Scott and General David E Twiggs were marching towards Mexico City. The next day, the Saint Patrick’s battalion, now two units of nearly 200 men, repelled the US forces as they met them outside the walls at a bridgehead, which was about 450 metres (1,476 feet) from the fortified convent.

Engaging them with a battery of heavy cannons, several US Infantry charges were driven back again. However, the inexperience of the supporting Mexican battalions, most of whom were untested militia units, saw the bridgehead compromised. When extra ammunition arrived, the nine and a half drachm cartridges proved to be only compatible with the Saint Patrick’s Brown Bess muskets of which there were few in comparison to the Mexican rifles.

A stray spark from an artillery piece firing grape shot at the charging Yankees set alight a portion of the newly arrived ammunition, and in the resulting explosion, Captain Santiago O’Leary and General Anaya were badly burned, as the Saint Patrick’s were forced to retreat behind the convent walls.

Battle of Churubusco, during the Mexican–American War, painting by Carl Nebel.
Battle of Churubusco, during the Mexican–American War, painting by Carl Nebel.

Outnumbered and with barely any ammunition, the defenders fought desperately as the US troops swarmed into the convent. Mexican officers who tried to raise the white flag of surrender were threatened with death by the Saint Patrick’s Battalion. Captain Patrick Dalton himself tore down one raised white flag with his bare hands, prompting General Anaya to order his men to fight on. As US troops swept over the shattered walls, the battalion fought the American soldiers in brutal and savage close-quarter fighting. Riley himself was wounded but his battalion still fought on.

Appalled at the carnage and the madness of the defenders, US Army Captain James M Smith raised his own white handkerchief aloft, and brought an end to the slaughter, preventing his own blood-crazed men from bayonetting the Saint Patrick’s Battalion prisoners on the spot. The New Orleans correspondent George Kendall admitted:

“The boldest in the holding out were the deserters of the Saint Patrick’s Battalion, who fought with desperation to the last, tearing down, with their own hands, several of the white flags hoisted by the Mexicans in token of surrender.”

General Santa Anna lamented: “Give me a few hundred more men like Riley’s and I would have won victory.” It is estimated that at least 60 per cent of the regiment fell at Churubusco, with the surviving 85 members, including Riley and Dalton, being marched away for trial. 72 were immediately charged with desertion by the US Army.

Two separate courts-martial were held, firstly at Tacubaya on 23 August 1847 and another at San Angel on 26 August. No legal representation was given and 48 of the men were sentenced to be hanged by General Winfield Scott in a direct violation of the Articles of War, which stipulated that the penalty for desertion or defecting to the enemy at time of war was death by firing squad.

The Convent at Churubusco
The Convent at Churubusco

John Riley was only spared the rope, to the fury of many, because he had deserted before war between Mexico and the US had been declared. In the largest case of mass executions in the history of the United States, 50 Saint Patrick’s were hanged on three different days at three separate locations. 14, including Riley, were stripped to the waist and flogged by a Mexican Muleteer, with presiding General Twiggs ‘forgetting his count’, and thus, instead of 50 lashes, 59 lashes were put upon the Saint Patrick’s backs.

Riley was then branded on the right cheek, just below his eye, but the branding iron was applied with the ‘D’ upside down, and therefore the brand was reapplied a second time on Riley’s left cheek. Captain Patrick Dalton suffered the most, literally choking slowly to death on the scaffold. The survivors were then forced to bury their friends before being marched off to prison.

Following his conviction and branding, Riley was finally released alongside his fellow Saint Patrick’s on 1 June 1848 as part of the Treaty Of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The Rogue’s March was mockingly played by the US soldiers as they were released, and although the regiment continued to function as two infantry companies under his command, they were officially mustered out in late 1848.

Riley continued to serve in the Mexican Army as a permanent major until he retired on medical grounds on 14 August 1850 while stationed in Velacruz. John Riley fades from historical record from this date as the US army and government hoped to bury the record of the St Patrick’s Battalion from public knowledge. For nearly a century they were successful in doing so. Indeed, it was not until the 1970s that the records became fully accessible to the public.

The mass hanging of San Patricios, as portrayed by Samuel Chamberlain, c. 1867
The mass hanging of San Patricios, as portrayed by Samuel Chamberlain, c. 1867

Between 1886 and 1915, numerous enquiries about the existence of an Irish deserters regiment during the war received the same bland reply. “Dear Sir… we have no official record sustaining such a belief and no knowledge of any such deserters from the army.”

In 1915, Congressman William Coleman of Pennsylvania and Frank Greene of Vermont launched an enquiry into the War Departments obfuscation about the existence of the St Patrick’s Battalion. The army was forced to admit that “a few men did desert” and that they “fought under command of John Riley, a catholic and an Irishman” during the Mexican-American War. As a consequence, Congress ordered the US Army to hand over to the National Archives all their records in 1919.

John Riley Saint Patrick’s Battalion
The Saint Patrick’s Battalion memorial in Mexico City

Perhaps history shall never reveal the fate that finally befell John Riley, but history has revealed and will continue to show that he was a man of courage, principle, and heroism. Like the soldiers of the St Patrick’s Battalion, he fought for a country’s freedom and in defence of his faith. That perhaps is epitaph enough.

• The Rogue’s March: John Riley and the St Patrick Battalion 1846-48 by Peter F Stevens
• The Irish Soldiers of Mexico by Michael Hogan
• Wherever Green is Worn by Tim Pat Coogan
• Shamrock and Sword: The St Patrick’s Battalion in the US – Mexican War by Robert Ryal Miller

For more amazing stories of wartime heroism, pick up the new issue of History of War here or subscribe now and save 25% off the cover price.