Memorial to John Riley and the men of St. Patrick’s Battalion

When Religion and Politics Collide

by

John J. Dunphy

Published in the Winter 2012 issue of Secular Humanist Bulletin. An earlier version of this article appeared in The [Alton, IL] Telegraph.

Nidal Hasan, a psychiatrist and U.S. Army major, horrified our nation when he went on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, on November 5, 2009. Shouting “God is great,” Hasan killed thirteen people and wounded thirty-two more. Al-Qaeda publicly praised Hasan as “a pioneer, trail-blazer and role model.” Paralyzed by the police bullet that ended his attack, Hasan’s trial was postponed in August 2012 so that the court could decide whether he could be forcibly shaven. Hasan and his attorney demanded that he be allowed to observe his religion by wearing a beard, despite the fact that it is a violation of military protocol.

The Fort Hood massacre made some Americans question the loyalty of those members of our armed forces who are Muslims. They believe that Hasan is the only American soldier who has allowed his religion to trump his allegiance to the United States. Historians, however, know otherwise.

The Mexican-American War of 1846–1848 was surely one of our nation’s most controversial conflicts. Strongly supported by President James Polk, a slaveholder, and powerful southern politicians who wanted territory for the expansion of slavery, the war was opposed by abolitionists and other Americans of conscience. Ulysses S. Grant, who would command Union forces during the Civil War and later become president of the United States, served in the American Army during the Mexican-American War, later denounced the conflict as “one of the most unjust wars waged by a stronger nation against a weaker nation.”

During the war, several hundred members of the American Army betrayed their country’s colors and threw in with Mexico. This unit, known as St. Patrick’s Battalion, was such an embarrassment to the U.S. Army that it officially denied the battalion’s existence until a 1915 congressional inquiry.

Many members of St. Patrick’s Battalion were Irish immigrants who deserted from our nation’s army because they felt a greater affinity for Catholic Mexico than for the predominantly Protestant United States. Catholics — especially Irish Catholics — were loathed by many Protestant Americans and routinely subjected to discrimination and persecution. Irish immigrants in the U.S. Army suffered harassment by their Protestant officers and fellow soldiers. Although our country’s enemy, Mexico was a Catholic nation, and these Irishmen reasoned that it was nonsensical to remain loyal to a country that regarded them with contempt. They decided to throw in with their fellow Catholics.

Commanded by John Riley, who was born in County Galway and had served in the British Army, the men of St. Patrick’s Battalion fought under a green flag that featured an image of St. Patrick as well as a shamrock and an Irish harp. The battalion began as an artillery unit but later served as infantry. Its men fought well in several engagements. The Mexican government awarded the War Cross to several battalion members and granted others battlefield promotions.

When the Mexican Army and St. Patrick’s Battalion were defeated at the Battle of Churubusco, American military justice was swift and deadly. Most of the captured deserters were hanged, including Francis O’Connor, who had endured the amputation of both legs the day before his execution. Riley and a few others, who had deserted from the army before war with Mexico was officially declared, were sentenced to receive fifty lashes followed by being branded with the letter D for deserter. These men were also forced to wear iron yokes around their necks for the duration of the war.

About eighty-five members of St. Patrick’s Battalion retreated with the Mexican Army and were soon joined by additional deserters. The battalion was disbanded after Mexico’s defeat in the war. These Irishmen are regarded as heroes in Mexico and are honored each year on September 12, the anniversary of the day when so many of them were executed, and — appropriately enough — on St. Patrick’s Day.

Protestant Americans had long argued that American Catholics owed their ultimate allegiance to Rome, which made them incapable of genuine loyalty to the United States. The soldiers of St. Patrick’s Battalion, whose religious convictions led them to join forces with the Mexican Army, bolstered this contention. Anti-Catholicism permeated American culture well into the twentieth century. Al Smith, the first Catholic nominated for the presidency, suffered a crushing defeat in 1928, partly because of his religion. The razor-thin margin of victory by John F. Kennedy demonstrated that anti-Catholic prejudice still existed as late as 1960.

Some Americans question whether U.S. military personnel who are Muslims can be trusted to fight an enemy that shares their religion. They evidently are unaware that American Muslims serving in our armed forces have fought for the United States throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just as the treason of St. Patrick’s Battalion should never have been used to impeach the loyalty of American Catholics, Nidal Hasan’s rampage should not be used to impugn the loyalty of American Muslims.

John J. Dunphy is the author of Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois, Lewis and Clark’s Illinois Volunteers and From Christmas to TwelfthNight in Southern Illinois. His latest book, Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials, will be published in December by McFarland.

John J. Dunphy owns The Second Reading Book Shop in Alton, IL USA. Google him to learn more about this enigmatic person who is such a gifted writer and poet.