The San Patricios
Richard said, “I recall an episode of Bonanza which mentions this, but generally it hasn’t gotten much attention from movies or television; despite being an interesting and controversial subject.”
The Bonanza episode was Danger Road (Season 11, Episode 15, screened January 11, 1970). Little Joe meets up with “Gunny O’Riley” (Robert Lansing), a freighter who is on his way north to Canada with his loving wife Serafina (Anna Navarro). O’Riley has a D branded on his cheek, covered now by a beard. Gunny is what gunnery sergeants are called. Bad guy Cambeau (William Sylvester) has a freighting monopoly in those parts, and he and his nasty sidekick Willard (Jay Jones) don’t want O’Riley around as competition. The Cartwrights have timber to haul but won’t pay Cambeau’s exorbitant rates.
Now Ben recognizes Gunny and is furious. It seems Ben commanded men who were killed by Riley’s San Patricios at Churubusco. Gunny says he spent fifteen years in the American army (a slight exaggeration, that; it was really about six months) and got nothing for it. Ben says Gunny should have stayed loyal because he was not an Irish immigrant, but born under the Stars and Bars (that’s wrong too, and anyway there were no Stars and Bars then). But eventually Ben relents and Gunny succeeds in the difficult task of hauling three huge timber beams (ponderosa pine, presumably) for the Cartwrights. Now Gunny, with Ben’s help, takes on Cambeau in a race to win a freight contract. Despite foul play by the wicked Willard (don’t worry, Little Joe gets him), the goodies win. Gunny does the decent thing. He and Ben part if not as friends at least with mutual respect, and it’s off to Canada – whence, in a way (see below) he came.
The teleplay of Danger Road was by Milton S Gelman, and he also wrote the screenplay of a feature film which told the story of Riley (or O’Riley) and his adventures in Mexico.
This picture was the last of Orion, before it was taken over by MGM, and was nearly buried as a TV movie but star Tom Berenger campaigned for it, and it got a limited theatrical release in 1999, so it counts as a feature. It was called One Man’s Hero, inviting us to finish the phrase with …is another man’s – and here you fill in the blank with coward, traitor, what you will. And that’s fair enough because while many, especially in Ireland and Mexico, regard John Riley as a real hero, others, especially in the US, think of him as a base deserter who fought against his own kind.
There are biographies of Riley, also known as John Patrick O’Riley and O’Reilly, for example one by Christopher Minster and one by Tim O’Brien, though the hard historical facts for much of his life are thin on the ground. We don’t even know for sure when and where he was born and when or where he died.
Riley (let’s call him that) was probably but not certainly born in Clifden, County Galway,
Ireland in 1817 or 1818. He was more likely named Seán Ó Raghailligh, which would have been ‘Englished’ into John Riley. He seems to have served with the British Army in Canada, perhaps in 1843, deserting possibly (we do not know) and joining the US Army in Michigan in September 1845. He served in Company K of the 5th US Infantry regiment, which was moved to the Rio Grande as war with Mexico seemed likely, but he deserted in early 1846.
He left no autobiography or letters, and we don’t know precisely why he changed sides, but we can make some good guesses. As an Irishman he was considered a second-class citizen and frequently insulted as such. Worse, he was mistrusted as a Papist. In the movie various prejudiced officers (especially a captain played by Stephen Tobolowsky, whom you may remember as Ned from Groundhog Day) accuse him of having a stronger allegiance to Rome than to the Stars and Stripes. It is suggested that he could not progress in the ranks because of this, despite being an experienced and capable soldier, and that he came to resent it. The movie even has him as a sergeant, denied deserved promotion to captain by vicious and petty local officers. It is also suggested (especially in the movie and in Blake’s novel) that the Irish came in for more of their fair share of ultra-harsh military punishments for the slightest misdemeanors. That was undoubtedly the case. Certainly Irish expatriates, sometimes known as wild geese, had a long tradition of serving in military forces of Catholic countries.
In the film Riley nobly saves some fellow troopers from an unjust flogging and crosses over into Mexico with them. Once he’s got them over the border he himself wants to return and face the music, but his men persuade him that they need him to lead them, and so he continues. Believe that if you will.
He falls in with a band of bandits led by the charismatic Cortina, played by Antonio
Banderas’s nemesis in Desperado, Joaquim de Almaeida. This Cortina is more of a Pancho Villa-style revolutionary than just a plain robber. Now, I don’t know if this is supposed to be Juan Cortina, the Red Robber of the Rio Grande, the famous caudillo and regional leader who effectively controlled the Mexican state of Tamaulipas as governor and fought the American Texans in the late 1850s and early 1860s. He would only have been 22 in 1846, but I guess it could have been him. In the movie he is recruited into the regular Mexican army for the duration of the Mexican-American War. He is the arch-rival of Riley because you see, Riley was wounded and nursed back to health by Cortina’s woman, Marta (beautiful Daniela Romo), and as we know, patients always have to fall in love with their nurses. It was obligatory. So Cortina is jealous.
All this sounds very much like Hollywood and rather little like the historical fact. But I guess that’s par for the course.
Anyway, the real Riley, with a companion named Patrick Dalton (who does not appear in the movie) joined the Mexican army and formed a foreign legion which they baptized the St Patrick’s Battalion and which the Mexicans called the Batallón de San Patricio. Its members were promised citizenship, money, 320 acres (1.3 sq km) of land each, promotion on merit, and above all, freedom to follow their Catholic faith and respect for doing so. It would have been a tempting offer. None of this had been accorded to them in the States. It appears that the battalion wasn’t exclusively Irish: there were Germans and Poles and other nationalities, and even it is suggested, some escaped slaves. Slavery was illegal in Mexico, which was in so many ways a more enlightened country at that time, though the scornful Yanquis certainly did not think so.
Of course it’s Marta who makes the famous green flag. No more Stars and Stripes for Riley.
This was before war broke out in the spring of 1846. When hostilities commenced, Lt. Riley as he now was had experience as an artilleryman which he put to very good use on the Mexican
behalf. General Zachary Taylor (colorfully played by the excellent James Gammon in the movie) crossed the Rio Grande and built a stronghold he named Fort Texas (later renamed Fort Brown after one of the men killed there) across from Matamoros. Mexican artillery bombarded it for 160 hours. Taylor led a relief force but Mexican General Arista intercepted it and fighting broke out. All this was before the official declaration of war (the US Congress approved the American declaration of war on May 13; Mexico declared war on July 7).
The Saint Patrick’s Battalion first fought as a recognized Mexican unit in the Battle of Monterrey on September 21, repelling two or three American attacks. The San Patricios’ tenacity, however, did not affect the Mexican commanders’ decision to capitulate and abandon the position. The battalion grew in number, by some estimates reaching an enlistment of over 700 men.
At the Battle of Buena Vista (known as the battle of Angostura in Mexico) in Coahuila on February 23, the San Patricios once again engaged US forces. They were assigned the three heaviest—18 and 24 pound—cannons the Mexican army possessed, and during the battle they captured two more guns, which they used on the enemy. But once again the Mexican forces retreated in disorderly fashion. The San Patricios lost about a third of their men but General Francisco Mejia described them as “worthy of the most consummate praise because the men fought with daring bravery.”
Once the rather odious Santa Anna had returned from Cuba and taken over, the San Patricios were ordered to muster a larger infantry battalion and Riley was given command of one of the companies. The Battle of Churubusco (August 20, 1847) was the bloodiest of the war. One San Patricio quotes Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” Riley quotes Marcus Aurelius. They seem an educated lot. Poor command and lack of ammunition contributed to another Mexican defeat. Blake suggests that the San Patricios only had roundshot (cannonballs) while the opposing forces used explosive shells, though in the movie both sides are using shells. The Mexicans ran up the white flag but Patrick Dalton of the San Patricios tore it down, prompting General Pedro Anaya to order his men to fight on, with their bare hands if necessary. American Private Ballentine reported that when the Mexicans attempted to raise the white flag twice more, members of the San
Patricios shot and killed them. But it only delayed the inevitable.
General Anaya stated in his battle report that 35 San Patricios were killed, 85 taken prisoner (including a wounded John Riley) while about 85 escaped with retreating Mexican forces. Those captured were treated as traitors and seventy-two men were immediately charged with desertion. Two separate courts martial were held but at neither of these trials were the men represented by lawyers, nor were transcripts made of the proceedings. Thirteen from one trial and eighteen from another were sentenced to hang, in violation of the Articles of War then in force.
Those soldiers who had left military service before the official declaration of war on Mexico (Riley among them) were sentenced to “receive 50 lashes on their bare backs, to be branded with the letter ‘D’ for deserter, and to wear iron yokes around their necks for the duration of the war”.
In the movie General Winfield Scott, now in command, takes delight in the fate of the San
Patricios and it is he who orders that they not be hanged until they see the Mexican flag replaced by the American one in a siege then going on. However, this is inaccurate. If anything, Scott seems to have been a moderating force who sought to mitigate the punishments.
As for Riley, we do not know for certain what his fate was. The movie has him reunited with the belle Marta and going off to a life of married bliss as a campesino, the two of them and a donkey like Joseph and Mary. This is improbable. For a long time it was thought he had died penniless in Veracruz in 1850 after a bout of drunkenness, but more recent research has thrown great doubt on this. For one thing he was a teetotaler, and for another he had only recently mustered out of the Mexican army with a very substantial payment. But how, where and when he actually died we do not know.
At any rate, it’s a great story. The movie is a bit lame, to be honest, and Berenger’s Riley is a rather goody-goody softy, unlike James Carlos Blake’s; Blake’s Riley is a huge, charismatic figure with as many faults as qualities, and you believe him as a man who achieved such remarkable things. Furthermore, there’s much cruelty to horses in the film; the American Humane Association branded it as “unacceptable”. It was directed by the producer, Lance Hool, but it drags at over two hours and needed better editing.
The film critic of The Tucson Weekly said, “Low-budget leading man Tom Berenger’s acting is beyond wooden – it’s petrified” and added, “a film critic should get time-and-a-half for watching this malarkey”. (Editor’s note: No).
There are also a couple of interesting documentaries on Riley and the San Patricios, as well as several novels, not only Blake’s. So plenty of material if you want to dig deeper into the story.
But so long for now.