The Saint Patrick’s Battalion:  Loyalty, Nativism, and Identity in the Nineteenth Century and Today

By Kevin Lavery ’16

Two decades before the Irish Brigade covered itself with glory, an earlier unit of Irish immigrants had won renown for its service during the Mexican American War. Calling themselves the Saint Patrick’s Battalion, these men marched under a flag of brilliant emerald decorated with Irish motifs: a harp, a shamrock, and the image of Saint Patrick.

Unlike the Irish Brigade, however, the Saint Patrick’s Battalion fought against the U.S. Army. Led by the disgruntled Irish immigrant John Riley, this elite battalion was comprised of roughly two hundred Irish-American deserters who pledged their loyalty to General Santa Anna and the Mexican government. When Los San Patricios were defeated and captured by U.S. forces, fifty-seven deserters were sentenced to hang for their crime.

In American memory, Riley is a traitor, a deserter, and a mercenary. But this summer while exploring County Galway, Ireland, I stumbled upon a monument to his memory given to his hometown by Mexico in recognition of his service. The experience delivered to me some perspective. To pass judgment on Riley and his men, we must understand their times.

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Although surprising to American sensibilities, the people of Mexico gave this monument to Clifden, Co. Galway, in honor of John Riley (or Reilly) for his service as commander of the Saint Patrick’s Battalion. Photograph by the author.

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A bit about Germans in the CW . . .

By Heather Clancy, ’15 In a changing historical landscape that is constantly evolving to include complexities of race, gender, regional identity, social class, and more into our dialogue about the past, ethnicity is a factor in historical analysis…

By Heather Clancy ’15

In a changing historical landscape that is constantly evolving to include complexities of race, gender, regional identity, social class, and more into our dialogue about the past, ethnicity is a factor in historical analysis that is becoming difficult to ignore. Indeed, in this era fraught with ongoing immigration disputes and the resultant beginnings of a full-on American identity crisis for some, viewing historical events such as the Civil War through the lens of ethnicity is an absolute necessity. German-American immigrants were one group which participated robustly in the Civil War, but whose story is often overshadowed.

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