When Irishmen fighting under the flag of the St. Patrick’s Brigade fought against the US.
By DAMIEN CAVE
LA ANGOSTURA, Mexico — On the grassy, windswept hill where soldiers from north and south fought one of the most important battles of the Mexican-American War, the crunch and grind of a sand and gravel mine deafens any attempt at contemplation.
Some wars get no respect. And this one, which Ulysses S. Grant called the most “wicked war” ever waged, has never been held in particularly high esteem. How many Arizonans condemning illegal border crossers want to recall that their homes sit on former Mexican territory? How many Mexicans want to remember the lost battle here, which they should have won?
And yet, there are lessons here in these hills — for Mexico and the United States — that two Mexican history buffs are determined to teach. They have spent years collecting artifacts and are now pushing to preserve the site as historic, though not many seem to care. Their three-room museum in nearby Saltillo, opened in 2006, is usually as lonely as a funeral home between wakes, a tangible reminder of the complicated past many Americans and Mexicans have overlooked.
A museum in Saltillo, Mexico, is devoted to the Mexican-American War’s Battle of Angostura.
“People don’t know what happened here,” said Reinaldo Rodríguez, 68, a retired government planner as tall and thin as a torch, pointing to a diorama of the battle in the museum, which sits behind the Saltillo cathedral. “People don’t know that this was the place where the Irish died alongside the Mexicans.”
The San Patricios, or St. Patrick’s Brigade, they called themselves. They were all recent immigrants to the United States who had joined the American Army, then defected to fight with Mexico. Most were in fact Irish. Some came from Germany or England, and historians say they fled in disgust, fed up with one of the United States’ ugliest flaws: prejudice.
“One reason why so many people deserted was that they were Catholic and they felt like they were being mistreated by their Protestant officers,” said Amy S. Greenberg, a historian at Pennsylvania State University.
At the time, in the 1840s, many Americans saw Roman Catholics as an invading horde and a threat to American values. Hatred and discrimination were widespread, and in the military, historians note, rank reinforced bigotry: a majority of the full-time Army regulars were poor immigrants and Catholics, while officers and part-time volunteers were overwhelmingly wealthier white Protestants.
The Mexican-American War also had little to do with principle — historians on both sides of the border describe it as little more than a land grab — and desertion was a problem even before the conflict started. As troops massed on the American side of the Rio Grande in 1845, scores of soldiers, including many immigrants, disappeared across the border.
The San Patricios, whose numbers grew into the hundreds, became the most famous deserters. They made their first appearance as a unit in September 1846 at the Battle of Monterrey. “No one had ever seen people from another country, especially Europeans, come and help the Mexican Army,” Mr. Rodríguez said. And they were tough, too.
“They became the most effective fighting force that Mexico had, largely because they knew how to use the armaments of the U.S. Army,” said Professor Greenberg, author of “A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico.” They had a special talent for capturing American cannons, she added, “and for using them against the Americans incredibly effectively.”
Here at the battle of La Angostura, which the Americans call the Battle of Buena Vista, the San Patricios occupied a spot near the base of the hillside, just below where the gravel mine can now be found. By most accounts, they pounded the Americans, and kept them from advancing for two days.
But it was not enough. The Mexican commander, Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna, retreated after the second day of battle on Feb. 23, 1847. His troops outnumbered the Americans three or four to one, and many historians argue that the Mexicans were defeating the ranks of volunteers and regulars led by Gen. Zachary Taylor, whose hero status in the war ultimately led him to the White House.
General Santa Anna fled anyway, essentially giving up on the war for northern Mexico. Some historians have theorized that he left because his soldiers needed food and water or because he needed to deal with an internal rebellion back in Mexico City. But Mr. Rodríguez blames one of Mexico’s ugliest flaws: corruption.
“When you look at this closely, you have to think he made a deal,” Mr. Rodríguez said. “It encapsulates the whole problem of Mexico.”
And perhaps that helps explain the struggle to draw more attention to the battle. Mr. Rodríguez and his partner at the museum, Isidro Berrueto Alanis, say they dream of a day when these hills are a military park where Americans and Mexicans can walk together, as Southerners and Northerners tour Gettysburg, Pa.
But for many, the past still pricks the sensitivities of the present. When Absolut Vodka ran an ad in Mexico a few years ago with a map showing California, Texas and much of the West belonging to Mexico, there were threats of a boycott in the United States as many Americans insisted that the company was calling for redrawn borders or mass Mexican immigration.
The furor subsided only after Absolut posted a message on its website explaining that the map was simply a portrait of North America before 1848, “a time which the population of Mexico may feel was more ideal.”
Mexico also tends to see the war through its own narrow lens. Some scholars argue that the conflict, or “the invasion,” as Mexicans call it, unified the country by providing a common enemy and a legend of brave opposition. Yet residents here in the small town of La Angostura, like many of their countrymen, struggled to explain what occurred a few steps from their homes. Some just said they were proud to live near a site associated with Mexican courage.
Mr. Berrueto, 59, the Angostura Battle Museum’s quiet, professorial director, has been seeking a broader range of answers from the area for years. Roaming alone, waving his own small metal detector over the craggy ground, he found many of the most interesting artifacts now in the museum.
One glass case, for example, is filled with broken earrings, a reminder that the mothers of many young Mexican soldiers insisted on going to war with them so they could provide succor to their sons near the front lines.
At the battleground a short drive to the south, Mr. Berrueto and Mr. Rodríguez planted a “peace tree” a few years ago at the top of the main ridge. Swaying in the breeze, it is a more subtle memorial than the small stone monument down by the highway, erected decades ago, now surrounded by weeds.
And every February, they make the climb to where General Santa Anna stood, retracing the steps of the soldiers who died here by the hundreds. Occasionally they have been joined by officials from the Irish consulate and Mexican-Americans from San Antonio. Mr. Rodríguez, whose father was born in Texas, said those are some of the happiest times at the site because they remind us that “the war without satisfaction” need not define the future.
“The Americans who fought this war are not the same Americans who live there now,” he said. “We don’t want to relive this war; we just want to remember it.”
Words are powerful weapons, be careful how you use them.
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