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Mexican War Traitor, Hero, and Irishman: The Three Faces of John Riley

By the end of the Mexican-American War, 1846-48, John Riley wore three labels – American traitor, Mexican hero, and Irish nationalist.  Which of these three best fits the tough, charismatic Galway man?  The answer is that they all do.

No U.S. Army has ever encountered the problems of desertion that plagued Generals Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott during the Mexican-American War.  Of the nearly 40,000 regulars who saw duty during the conflict, a stunning 5,331 – nearly 13 percent of the ranks – deserted.  Of that figure, nearly 1,000 were Irishmen, 445 Germans, and 457 other Europeans.  Approximately 5,000 Irish enlisted in the regular army, and nearly 20 percent went over the hill.  Many were apprehended; many more simply disappeared.  Many others fought in the St. Patrick’s Battalion alongside John Riley.

Born in County Galway sometime between 1812 and 1818, Riley cut his martial teeth in the British Army, earning a sergeant’s stripes and a deep knowledge of artillery.  In 1843, Riley’s route led mysteriously to Mackinac, Michigan.  His detractors claim that he deserted the 66th Foot in Canada in the early 1840s, enlisted in the U.S. Army at Fort Mackinac, again earned his sergeant’s stripes, served as a recruiter, and trained West Point cadets how to service artillery.  The truth is that he never saw duty in a recruiting office or at West Point, and he never wore a sergeant’s stripes in the U.S. Army.  He did wear stripes in the British Army, he was an expert gunner, but he never deserted.  In 1843, Riley was mustered out with little more than his noncommissioned officer’s kit bag and his memories of duty done well.  Leaving his family behind in Galway, he crossed to Canada or the United States to start over, with the likely intent of sending for them when he was settled.  He turned up at the “Golden Door of America” in Mackinac, Michigan.

Riley and other immigrants soon learned that in America of the 1840s an anti-Catholic, anti-foreigner movement called “Nativism” raged.  Nowhere did it thrive more harshly than in the U.S. Army, in which Irish immigrants fleeing famine and political oppression in their homeland enlisted “to soldier” out of desperation for employment of any sort.  With the combination of many Nativist officers and thousands of Irish-born and German recruits, trouble beckoned.

In Mackinac, Riley chafed as a laborer, his boss contending that the immigrant “was increasingly at variance with those he came into contact with.”   On September 4, 1845, he enlisted in the 5th U.S. Infantry Regiment at Fort Holmes in Mackinac. The muster rolls described him as twenty-eight years old, six foot one and three-quarter inches tall, blue eyed, and dark haired.  He vowed “to attain my former rank or die” and would rise far beyond his previous rank – but in the uniform of the Mexicans.

Riley and other immigrant soldiers quickly found that Nativism, which filled publications with simian-like caricatures of “Paddy and Bridget” and had ignited the bloody anti-Irish Philadelphia Riots in 1844, infected many U.S. Army officers.  They applied iron-fisted discipline throughout the ranks, but “the foreign-born soldier, especially if he happened to be Irish or German, automatically received a harsher sentence than a native American would for the same offense.”  A dreaded punishment was “bucking and gagging,” in which a soldier was trussed and gagged for hours of joint-searing agony.

Of those brutal practices, an immigrant soldier wrote:  “The various degrading modes of punishment often inflicted by young, headstrong, and inconsiderate officers…for the most unimportant offenses, were exceeding galling to…the sons of the Green Isle.”  An Irish Catholic artilleryman lamented:  “If a poor devil wants to be ever so religious, it’s no use of trying it here [in the Army].  I suppose that’s what you call liberty of conscience in this blessed free republic of ours.”

As war with Mexico loomed in the spring of 1846, other factors besides hard discipline simmered among would-be deserters of all backgrounds.  Rough weather, boredom, rancid rations, dysentery, and other timeless trials of military life drove desertions.  For some soldiers, the impetus was love for Mexican women, and for Irish Catholics in the U.S. Army, echoes of church bells from the town of Matamoros across the Rio Grande and scenes of Mexican priests splashing holy water upon their soldiers’ gun emplacements may have led some Catholics to wonder if they were serving in the wrong army.

The Mexicans, aware that Catholic immigrants filled nearly half of Taylor’s companies, circulated pamphlets urging foreigners to desert, join the Mexican Army, and receive free land, cash bonuses, and citizenship.  Similar pamphlets would appear throughout the war.

Riley and many other immigrant recruits had not lived in America long enough for naturalized citizenship.  They could not vote in American, but could die for it.

Among the first soldiers to “go over the hill” to the Mexicans was Riley, who deserted “on the advice of my conscience” on April 12, 1846.  Having obtained a pass to attend a Catholic mass near the American camp, Riley plunged into the Rio Grande and swam over to the Mexicans – and into notoriety.

Riley soon parlayed his military experience into an officer’s commission in the Mexican Army, organizing fellow deserters and foreign nationals into a crack artillery company.  His so-called Legion of Strangers would become the St. Patrick’s Battalion, or San Patricios.  At the Battles of Monterrey, Buena Vista, and Cerro Gordo, he and his men pounded their former officers and their old tent-mates.  An American soldier wrote:  “Reily [sic] was the greatest artillerist of his day, and we suffered greatly on his account.”

By mid-August 1847, General Winfield Scott’s U.S. regiments stood only ten miles from Mexico City, poised for the final savage steps “to the Halls of Montezuma.”   Riley, now a major, helped draft a circular appealing to “my countrymen, Irishmen,” to desert the American army and to join Mexico’s ranks on “common bonds of religion and Ireland’s long kinship with Spanish-speaking Catholic nations.”

The pamphlet never made it to the American camp.  On August 20, 1847, Riley and 204-220 San Patricios – including 142 Irishmen – defended a fortified monastery at Churubusco.  They knew that capture by the Americans meant the gallows.

The St. Patrick’s Battalion fought furiously “with the malignity of private revenge against their old army.”  Three times a white flag went up – and three times a deserter tore it down.

Finally, Scott’s regiments overwhelmed the defenders in a bloody hand-to-hand melee when they ran out of ammunition, and only the intervention of an American officer stopped the battered victors from killing eighty-five captured San Patricios, who included the wounded Riley.

Seventy-two would face court-martial; after Scott’s review of every case, fifty deserters were sentenced to the noose.  There was no doubt whose execution U.S. Army officers craved most:  “From his high intelligence and his influence, Riley was believed by our officers to have been the principal cause of the desertion of the others.”

To the shock of the U.S. Army, Scott reduced Riley’s sentence from hanging to “whipping and branding.”  The American commander stated that because Riley had deserted before the conflict’s actual declaration, the Articles of War dictated that he could receive only the lesser sentence.

Scott’s verdict sparked outrage in the American ranks.  Captain George Davis wrote:  “It was urged upon General Scott that it would be far preferable that every one of the rest of the deserters should be pardoned rather than that Riley should escape death, more especially as we were in possession of the knowledge of the high estimate placed upon him as an officer by the enemy.”  Scott, however, would not listen to dissenters.

On September 10, 1847, Riley and six other prisoners were stripped to their waists and bound to trees in the plaza of San Jacinto.  Then, rawhide lashes delivered 50 blows – 59 for Riley when the officer in charge of the punishments “lost count.”  Captain Davis recalled:  “Why those thus punished did not die under such punishment was a marvel to me.  Their backs had the appearance of a pounded piece of raw beef, the blood oozing from stripe as given.”

“Each in his turn was then branded,” the smoldering irons burning a two-inch-high “D” – for deserter – into each prisoner’s cheekbone near the eyes but without jeopardizing the sight.”  Riley’s brander applied the “D” upside down and seared the Irishman’s face a second time.

The whippings and brandings done, sixteen San Patricios were hanged on a forty-foot-long gallows.  “After digging the graves of those…hung,” Riley and the others were off to imprisonment as a military band piped the taunting strains of “The Rogue’s March.”
Four more San Patricios were hanged from a tree at Mixcoac on September 13, 1847.  The executions of the last thirty condemned deserters would prove to be tragic drama of the highest order.

On September 13, 1847, on a hill outside Mixcoac, Dragoon Colonel William S. Harney, a sadistic disciplinarian, brought the condemned to a gallows within view of the battle raging around Chapultepec Castle.  He would not hang the condemned until the American flag flew above the ancient fortress.  When the American troops finally planted the Stars and Stripes above Chapultpec, the thirty San Patricios were swung off “in a fearful dance of death.”

The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the war, and Riley and the remaining San Patricio prisoners were freed.  Riley returned to the Mexican Army and a subsequent promotion to colonel.  Later, he was briefly arrested on suspicion of taking part in an abortive revolt against the Mexican government, false rumors of the Irishman’s execution by a firing squad nearly fueling a revolt by the reorganized St. Patrick’s Battalion.  Although an American dragoon claimed that soon after Riley’s most recent turmoils, the Galway man married a wealthy, beautiful Mexican woman and raised a family, no proof of the marriage exists.

Riley’s path in Mexico ended at the Atlantic port of Vera Cruz after his honorable discharge with full back pay from the Mexican Army.  He likely intended to board a ship bound for Ireland, where he had a son.  In 2000, the late historian Robert Ryal Miller discovered the August 31, 1850, death certificate of “Juan Reley…a native of Ireland.”  He was buried in the “general cemetery of Vera Cruz.”  He soon disappeared from history’s stage.

An indisputable fact about John Riley was his pride in his desertion from the American Army:  “I have had the honor of fighting in all the battles that Mexico has had with the United States and by my good conduct and hard fighting, I have attained the rank of Colonel.”

An American traitor, a cynical mercenary, or a Mexican hero – one can make a case that Riley was any of these.  Of his affinity for the Mexicans, he testified:  “Be not obscured by the prejudice of a nation, America, which is at war with Mexico…for a more hospitable or friendlier people…than the  Mexicans there exists not on the face of the earth to a foriner [sic] and especially to an Irishman and a Catholic.”

Above all, Riley did hold fast to his true roots, Irish ones.  “I forgot to tell you under what banner we fought so bravely,” he wrote.  “It was the glorious Emblem of native rights, that bring the banner which should have floated over our native Soil so many years ago, it was St. Patrick, the Harp of Erin, the Shamrock upon a green field.”

Today, an old wall in a cobblestoned Mexico City plaza, so far from Riley’s native Galway, where a plaque in Clifden commemorates him, seventy-one names adorn another memorial.  Most are men of the St. Patrick’s Battalion.  The plaque is emblazoned with a Celtic cross, a gamecock, a pair of dice, and a skull and crossbones – emblems of gamblers who lost their wager and, in fifty cases, paid with their lives.