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Narrated by two soldiers on opposite sides of the Mexican-American War of 1846, Saint Patrick’s Battalion tells the true but little-known story of an Irish immigrant who deserted from the U.S. Army and was joined across enemy lines by hundreds of comrades. Driven by the abuses of Protestant West Point—trained officers and the realization that they were attacking fellow Catholics, John Riley and his San Patricios abandoned their adopted country and took their place proudly alongside the dashing Hidalgo horsemen and stolid native Indians who were being used by the Mexican army as cannon fodder against the foreign invaders. Though hopelessly misled by the vainglorious Santa Ana, and facing such future military legends as a brooding young Ulysses S. Grant and the brilliant captain Robert E. Lee, Riley and his fighters were responsible for an enormous number of American casualties–and would eventually pay a brutal price for their treachery.
Its narrative foreshadowing America’s Civil War, Saint Patrick’s Battalion asks haunting questions about American expansionism, racism, and the machinations of a war that began before it was declared. From horrific depictions of cannonade warfare to the quiet corners of doubt, courage, and love in men’s hearts and minds, James Alexander Thom’s novel takes us on an astounding adventure into beautiful, harsh Mexico–and dramatically chronicles a crucial, bloody chapter in the making of America.
Agustin Juvero Speaks to the American Journalist on the Pilgrimage Road
There in the shade by the wall is a bench. Let us sit on it so that I need not look up at you while I talk. Eventually looking up hurts my neck. And as you can see, I cannot stand as tall as you.
¿Bueno, y que? Please let me taste what you carry in your flask. Thank you.
¡Uf! This Norteamericano liquor is so bad, I might almost leave some! But no, I will drink it all, in order not to insult you in my country. ¡Salud!
What you want from me you will have to take in the way I give it. I will talk, you will listen. You may not mitigate my story with quibbles or protestations, for I cannot hear them. As you know, I am deaf. From your guns, when your soldiers came here. The one good part of deafness is that I can say all I want without hearing interruptions. All I hear since your guns fourteen years ago is inside my head, like the scream of an eagle and the roar of the ocean. I can feel church bells, but not hear them.
So, Senor Periodista. Here is what I tell people like you, so that you can be comfortable looking at me, and we can smile and be at ease together:
When I was small boy, I was taller than I am now as a man. ¿Aunque parezca extrano? Funny enough? It goesbetter if we are amused. If not, it goes nowhere.
So! A new war is beginning, up in your country! It is a matter of much interest to us, if not all a matter of delight. We are satisfied that you deserve it. No, forgive me. Your President Polk deserves it, but he is already dead anyway. Your new president does not deserve it, I suppose. It is to be seen whether he will earn such desserts. ¡Vale! Providence sees to it that there are enough wars, say two or three in a man's lifetime if he lives through them, that the human race doesn't forget how to murder on a grand scale. Practice is always needed. God forbid that wars should be fought by beginners only, or that weapons should rust, or wounds fully heal, or that women should be denied the rich emotion of lamenting lost sons to compensate for the pain of giving them birth.
Your war now gathering up there promises to be an enormous event, which will solve some long-festering problems, and create new ones. We in Mexico know that is always the case. I have read in your newspapers of your armies forming under generals who learned war right in this Valley of Mexico. Many of them who fought shoulder-to-shoulder against us will now fight face-to-face against each other. How they must be remembering, dreading, anticipating! Senor, I am a scholar of American wars. But we were to talk of me.
You were told that I am one of Los Ninos Heroes of Chapultepec, eh? True. I was one who survived. Thirty-five cadets were captured. Three of us were severely wounded. Five boys died on your bayonets, and one leaped from the castle with our flag to prevent its capture, and died far below.
I meant to die with those. Unhappily, I lived. As I did not expect. As no one expected. It was not God's will for me to die that day. That is a mystery. I was deafened by shell bursts, I was bayoneted, my legs were shot off.
I received el viatico sacramento. After the rites, however, I failed to die. So it would seem that I am prepared to do so if it occurs, and I have no fear, therefore.
Si, Senor Reportero, some say I deserve to be honored among those who gave their young lives, because I earned the last rites. That would be una cuestión formal, a technicality of law.
Likewise it was a technicality of law that determined the fate of our beloved Coronel Don Juan Riley, he of your other story besides mine.
What a remarkable coincidence it is that in seeking those two different stories you came to me! Or did you somehow learn from someone that he is in my story, as I am in his? How could that be? To my knowledge, no one still lives who remembers. No one told you then, eh? No?
Take a drink of your awful whiskey, so I don't have to drink it all by myself. Heheh! You drink like a soldier! I have heard that Yanqui journalists do drink like soldiers. Excuse me while I climb down from this bench and go piss against the wall. Uh! I do not piss noisily from a height. My pene nearly drags the ground. For you to say such a thing would be boastful, with those long legs. Ah.
I am told by persons who have been in the United States that many of your Mexican War veterans, trimmed down as I am, have to beg in the streets to live. That some go out on a little cart into the street crowds every day and plead for alms. And perhaps sleep in crates in the city alleys. In particular, the veterans who are Irishmen. You Yanquis do not love the Irish as we in Mexico love them. Don Juan Riley told us that is why he deserted your army.
Mexico does not abandon me to beg, or to sleep in a crate in an alley. Though a short crate would suffice for me! I should fit comfortably in an artillery caisson. One would suit me well for a coffin, too, if that time ever comes. I would be honored to be buried in a caisson box from Coronel Riley's own cannon battery. I have in fact reserved one for that eventual purpose. You appear to doubt. But no, Senor. It is in a military museum in the city honoring his battalion, the San Patricios. At my request, an uncle of mine made arrangements with the curator, a man who had served under him against the Texans. Tío Rodrigo, my excellent uncle, didn't scoff at my fancy. He said that he, too, would be honored to be interred in a caisson upon which Coronel Riley had ridden to battle in defense of our country. But of course Tío Rodrigo died too tall to fit in such a thing.
Whenever I say the name of Coronel Riley, Senor, I think I see your ears grow. And your eyes brighten. I suspect that you are more interested in him than in me. Of course! Mexico loves the memory of the San Patricios as much, perhaps even more, than that of the Heroic Children. And your nation cannot forgive them.
I am a scholar of the history of your nation, Senor, as well as that of mine. Since that war, half of my country has been yours. I have ancestors who were buried in their homeland of California when it was Mexico. And now, though their graves were never moved, they are buried in the United States. So, how could I not study your nation's history?
I know that your American army for a long time called Senor Riley the most hated man of America. Even though he never was a citizen of your country!
And that your Department of the Army is so ashamed of their deserters in that war, that your army historians now deny that he ever existed. ¡Ay de mi! How confusing for one's reputation, eh, to be the worst traitor ever, but never to have existed? Coronel Riley must be laughing!
I have finished sprinkling this place. Now, Senor, I need to resume my pilgrimage. This has been an interesting visit for me. I think you will have to come along and talk with me on the road if you hope to hear more of my knowledge and wisdom.
You come? Good! It's long way yet. And if your Yanqui whiskey makes me fall down, you can help me up. Heh!
I was speaking of Coronel Riley. In your army he was only un soldado raso, a lowly private. But in General Santa Anna's army he rose to coronel. He might have been an officer in your army, too, had he not been an Irishman and a Catholic. That is not my bias only, Senor Periodista. It was the opinion also of his own commanding officer in your army, who admitted it to journalists. I read it in some of the New York newspapers. And some of the Catholic journals as well. The officer said those words at Senor Riley's court-martial.
I am addicted to your Norteamericano periodicals, Senor, for I try to understand your country.
Yes, I have even read articles written by you, and I have seen illustrations by your hand. They are not bad. Some, in truth, are excellent. Only last year I saw your reportage and drawings of the last days of the insurrectionist, that John Brown. Time and again I marveled at the story. A great and terrible man, eh? You were near enough to see and hear him? He looked quite like God. That is to say, God as you Yanquis imagine God. Or as even Michelangelo imagined God! It thrilled me, his shaming of your slavers! I memorized his words, from your article: I, John Brown, am now certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with Blood! You said that those were his last written words. ¡Magnífico! What a people you Yanquis are, at your best and worst!
And Senor Brown spoke true, I believe. The blood to be spilled in this new war of yours, it will purge your crimes, not only of slavery, but your crime against my country. You cannot like to hear me say it. But you came to hear me. Just as the crime of the conquistadors was purged away by the blood of our revolución against Spain.
¡Perdón! I am a man of strong opinions, Senor, in matters of what is right and what is wrong. But I was speaking of your work, and you did a fine thing when you told the world of the righteous and defiant heart of that insurgent Senor Brown. Your portrait of him is engraved forever in my mind, as are the words he spoke at the end of his life, at the gallows: I am ready at any time. Do not keep me waiting. A man who looked like God could speak that way!
What I would like very much to see is a portrait of Coronel Riley. None was ever done, to my knowledge. No painting, no daguerreotype. If only I had one to refer to for my memory! It has been so many years, and, sí, he was a familiar to me. You did not know that. Maybe you don't believe it. Many wanted to claim familiarity with him, who never knew him. I can tell you. ¡Un hombre guapo! Of stature and vigor, strong as oak. And the eyes of that man! One would trust him at once and put oneself under the protection of his arm.
¡Ay de mi! Alas, even trust well deserved can lead to disaster for the faithful, for we do not know God's designs. Coronel Riley never betrayed our trust, but we who loved him were to suffer, as he did. We cannot presume to know what God intends. Unlike you Yanquis, who believe God meant you to seize the continent. You called it Manifest Destiny. The end of that is yet to be seen.
But God perhaps has other plans than those we presume. It is said, if you would hear God laugh, tell him your plans.
Don Juan Riley, a good Catholic and honorable man, put his body and soul to what he thought was God's purpose. Many followed him to their doom. Likewise, many followed General Santa Anna.
Perhaps it is well, Senor Periodista, that I am on my little stumps now and cannot follow anyone. Following has not done me well. But I don't regret.
You have followed me, and found me, to ask questions. I am on a pilgrimage of atonement. To listen to me answer your questions, you must now follow me on this road of atonement to Our Lady of Guadalupe. You Yanquis have much to atone for, God knows. Can you stay along? It will take a long time. Can a Gringo go so slow?
You are a Catholic, are you not? Look, Senor, what a good Catholic I am:
Permanently on my knees!
padraic quinn's diary
New Orleans t June 15, 1845
since god and my mother saw fit to make me literate, I have made up my mind to keep a diary. This is the beginning of it. Nothing much is happening to write about at this time, but it appears the United States Army will be going to Mexico pretty soon, and I'll be going along with it. I ought to keep a diary.
Here it is about me and the Army. I was with the soldiers in the last year of the Seminole campaigns in Florida. I was an errand boy in camp. Mostly I did servant work for the officers who didn't have their own personal slaves. Officers are pretty helpless, so many of them being gentlemen and too good to shine their own boots or empty their own chamberpots, or go fetch anything they need, so there was always something for me to do to earn my keep.
You see my handwriting is pretty good. Soldiers who can't write asked me to write letters home for them, and I earned some pennies from them. They would tell me what they wanted their families to know about the Indian campaign, and I came to like writing it. It's like storytelling, and I practiced making the stories sound the way the soldiers would have told them if they had the gift of words. Or what my mother called Blarney. It seemed to me that a man soldiering against those Seminole Indians in their great swamp, a man doing that would want to seem like a heroic sort of fellow back home. So I sometimes wrote some flourishes and maybe little exaggerations to make their folks back home admire them.
I never wrote any outright lies, such as, a fellow had been awarded a medal for bravery. But I might suggest in the letter that he deserved one.
Sure and they did deserve medals just for being down there in that mucky, prickly swamp with all the poison snakes and those mosquitoes. And officers who were meaner than alligators! The Seminoles themselves were scary, being cunning and in their own kind of countryside, where white folk don't really belong, not having webbed feet. The Seminoles don't really have webbed feet, either, but a body could believe they do, the way they get around in there.
Excerpted from Saint Patrick's Battalion by James Alexander Thom Excerpted by permission.
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