St. Patrick's Battalion (1998)

St. Patrick's Battalion (Directed by Jason Dominick Hool,  1998. ) This documentary attempts to show the justification for the formation of Saint Patrick's Battalion -- Mexico's Foreign Legion -- during the U.S.-Mexican War, 1846-1848. The issues covered include: the Irish Potato Famine of 1845 and the subsequent mass emigration from Ireland to the United States, Canada, and Australia; the popular myth of Manifest Destiny prevalent in the United States at that time that bore considerable fruit after the Mexican War's end: and the pointed hatred toward the Irish and German immigrants based on the active presence of nativism in American society.

    It was perhaps the anti-Catholic nature of nativism, especially as practiced by junior officers in the U. S. Army, that generated decisions by so many U. S. immigrant soldiers to desert. The Mexican military authorities added some icing to their invitations: free land, instant citizenship, the possibility of family, all in addition to living in a Catholic country like their native Ireland. The immigrant soldiers, mostly Irish and German Catholics, who found a combination of brutal discipline, anti-Catholic rampages, hatred, fear, and hostility all around them, quite naturally considered the benefits of the Mexican offers enticing, nearly irresistible. They deserted in relatively large numbers to the promised land of Mexico.

    Although not the first to swim the Rio Grande River to the Mexican city of Matamoros, John Riley, a former member of the British Army in Canada, became the icon around whom the Saint Patrick's Battalion was formed. They fought their former messmates and comrades in battles at Buena Vista, Monterey, and many others, knowing full well that, if captured, their fate destined them to the hangman. Fortunately for Riley and some others, they deserted before formal hostilities were declared by Congress. When finally captured in battle, they were tried for treason and sentenced. The early deserters were not executed en masse with the fifty later deserters. Instead, Riley and others were dishonorably discharged, branded on the face with a D for deserter, and turned loose in Mexico.

    The point of this excellent documentary is to show that the Irish and German immigrants were denied the right to practice their Catholic faith wrongly by hostile American officers dripping in the nativism of the era. Second, Mexico was a Catholic country  offering powerful enticements to these European expatriates. Third, President James K. Polk embodied the notion of Manifest Destiny and aggressively pursued annexation of Texas in 1845 as a slave state and sought the purchase of Mexican territory including California. The Mexicans declined to sell the land, now the American southwest, and disputed the Texas border. Sadly for them, the Mexican Army was in no position to defend it properly. That Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor, "Old Rough and Ready," to show American force in the disputed land between the Nueces and Rio Grande rivers in 1846 is offered as an act of unjust aggression in the documentary but was, in fact, the causus belli of the U. S. - Mexican War. Although there were many other issues in this conflict, this documentary focuses only on one of them, the story of St. Patrick's Battalion, a sad, true, and cautionary tale about the effects of hatred.

The director, Jason D. Hool, is related to the producers of One Man's Hero, starring Tom Berringer who played the most famous soldier of the St. Patrick's Battalion, John Riley.
Robert Doyle    Franciscan University at Steubenville            rcdoyle@sbcglobal.net

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