Polk & Taylor
President James K. Polk, ordered General Zachary Taylor to take a position south of the Nueces River in Texas with a force of 4,000 men, by January 1846 the general had built a fort in disputed territory on the northern banks of the Rio Grande.
On April 26, 1846, a Mexican cavalry troop crossed the Rio Grande upstream of Taylor’s army, a patrol sent by Taylor to intercept them was attacked, and in the skirmish, 11 Americans were killed and 5 wounded.
When Polk received word of the attack, he delivered his war message, declaring that since the Mexicans had “shed American blood on American soil,” a state of war existed between the United States and Mexico.
Before the declaration of war, a group of Irish headed by John Riley deserted from the American forces and joined the Mexicans, they were apprehended by General Taylor, then tried by military court martial and hanged.
Most American historians contend that the punishments were neither particularly brutal nor unusual given the fact that there was no prescribed code.In September 1847, the Americans put the Irish soldiers captured at the Battle of Churubusco on trial, forty eight were sentenced to death by hanging, those who had deserted before the declaration of war were sentenced to whipping at the stake, branding, and hard labor.
However, clear documentation exists that the codified Articles of War (1821) and William De Hart’s Observations on Military Law, and the Constitution and the Practice of Courts-Martial (1847) governed courts-martial at that time and clearly stipulated the exact punishments these soldiers should have received.
The Articles of War stipulated that the penalty for desertion and/or defecting to the enemy during a time of war was death by firing squad. Hanging was reserved only for spies (without uniform) and for “atrocities against civilians.” Nevertheless, 48 of the San Patricios were hanged, 18 in San Angel and 30 in a place called Mixcoac.
Desertion before a declaration of war was punishable by one of the following punishments: branding on the hip in indelible ink, 50 lashes, or incarceration at hard labor. However, the San Patricios received more than 50 lashes, “until their backs had the appearance of raw beef, the blood oozing from every stripe,” according to one American witness.
In addition, the punishment was administered by Mexican muleteers who were threatened with the same lash if they did not “lay it on with a will.” These same Irishmen were also branded with “D” for deserter on the cheek by a red-hot branding iron, and they were sentenced to imprisonment and hard labor.
The sentence of the court, according to the Articles of War, should always be carried out promptly. “To prolong the punishment beyond the usual time would be highly improper, and subject the officer who authorized or caused such to be done to charges.” In the case of the last of group of 30 San Patricios to be hanged, this Article of War was cavalierly ignored.
Pursuit of the Mexicans by the U.S. Dragoons: under the intrepid Col. Harney, at the Battle of Churubusco Aug. 20th 1847
The Hangings by Colonel Harney
General Winfield Scott had chosen an officer who had been twice disciplined for insubordination as his executioner of the last group of 30 San Patricios. Colonel William Harney had been soldiering for almost 30 years and was notorious for his brutality. During the Indian Wars he was charged with raping Indian girls at night and then hanging them the next morning after he had taken his pleasure.
In St. Louis, Missouri, he was indicted by a civilian court for the brutal beating of a female slave that resulted in her death. The choice of Harney as executioner of the San Patricios seemed calculated by the American high command to inflict brutal reprisals on the Irish Catholic soldiers. Harney would not disappoint them.
Observing that only 29 of the 30 prisoners were present, Harney asked about the missing man. The army surgeon informed the colonel that the absent San Patricio had lost both his legs in battle. Harney, in a rage, replied: “Bring the damned son of a bitch out! My order was to hang 30 and by God I’ll do it!”At dawn on September 13, 1847, some days after the first group of 18 had been executed, Harney ordered the remaining San Patricios to be brought to a hill in Mixcoac a few kilometers from Chapultepec Castle where the final battle of the war was to be fought.
After the guards dragged Francis O’Conner out and propped him up on his bloody stumps, nooses were placed around the necks of each of the men, and they were stood on wagons. Harney then pointed to Chapultepec Castle in the distance and told the prisoners that they would not be hanged until the American flag was raised over the castle signifying that the Yankees had won the battle.
The prisoners yelled out in incredulity and protest. Some made jokes and sarcastic remarks trying to goad the unstable colonel into giving an impulsive order. One prisoner asked Harney to take his pipe out of his pocket so that he might have one last smoke.
Then, with a glint in his eye, he asked if the colonel would not mind lighting it with his “elegant hair.”
The redheaded Harney did not appreciate the joke. He drew his sword and struck the bound prisoner in the mouth with the hilt, breaking several of the man’s teeth.
The prisoner was not intimidated, however. Spitting out blood and broken teeth, the irrepressible Irishman quipped: “Bad luck to ye! Ye have spoilt my smoking entirely! I shan’t be able to have a pipe in my mouth as long as I live.”
James Walker 1819 – 1889, The Storming Of Chapultepec, September 12, 1847
Meanwhile the Battle of Chapultepec raged on. Finally, at 9:30 a.m. the Americans scaled the walls of the castle, tore down the Mexican flag, and raised the Stars and Stripes. With that, Harney drew his sword and, “with as much sangfroid as a military martinet could put on,” gave the order for execution.
Harney’s violation of the Articles of War requiring prompt execution did not result in charges being brought against him. Rather, his behavior was rewarded. A month later Harney was promoted to brigadier general and accompanied the commander in chief in a triumphal march in Mexico City.The San Patricios, after four and a half hours of standing bound and noosed in the 90-degree sun, were finally “launched into eternity.”
The punishments ordered for the San Patricios and the way they were carried out conveyed more than the mere judgment of the court. They were clear examples of religious and racist reprisals. In spite of the fact that more than 5,000 U.S. soldiers deserted during the Mexican War, only the San Patricios were so punished, and only the San Patricios were hanged.