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Posted on Jan 18, 2006 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

The Rogue’s March – Book Review

By Richard N Story


Book Review: The Rogue’s March: John Riley and the St. Patrick’s Battalion
Potomac Books, 2005, Paperback.

The Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 is an anomaly in the history of the United States. Except for the campaigns against the Native Americans; the United States has not fought a war against another foreign country for the singular purpose of territorial expansion. Even the Spanish-American War in which the United States acquired foreign territory could be seen as a war of liberation for the Cubans. In the most charitable light the Mexican-American War can be described as protecting the integrity of the territory of the State of Texas and expansion of the United States through the “Manifest Destiny”. Yet there was another uglier side to the war that gets very little play amongst modern historians. The Mexican-American War saw the United States in the grips of both xenophobia and a fear and loathing of the Catholic Church. Both of these factors came together to create one of the world’s most unique military organization: The Saint Patrick’s Battalion of the Mexican Army.


History does not happen in a vacuum. One small incident can create a ripple effect that spreads through time. One small incident occurred in Rome in June 1830. A Swiss Guard noticed an American who had not removed his hat in the presence of the Pope. Angered by this lack of reverence the guard rushed over and jostled the man. The man’s name was Samuel F. B. Morse and his anger over the affront lead him to write a two volume book about the evil crusade against both immigrants and Catholics under the title of Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States. From such humble beginnings the Nativist movement started in the United States. The Nativists thought that only native born Americans and especially those who were Protestant were the only “good” Americans. Immigrants and Catholics were viewed with suspicion and hostility and in some cases Nativists rioted and burned Catholic churches. Nativist philosophy became firmly entrenched in the Corps of Cadets at West Point and subsequently the lower ranked officers in the United States Army.

At the time of the Mexican-American War; several factors collided to create the San Patricios. The first was the famine in Ireland which caused many to flee their homeland for the United States and the dreams of riches. These immigrants from Ireland were joined by large populations of immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia. Secondly there was a stagnant economy in the United States that meant many people, native and immigrant alike, were barely eking out an existence. The stagnant economy lead to greater conflict between the Nativists and the immigrants. Finally with the war coming; both immigrant and native born Americans flocked to the colors induced by the promises of the Recruiting Sergeants.

Many of the immigrants were former soldiers; the Irish with the British Army and the Germans in one of the various kingdoms that was Germany prior to unification. Most welcomed amongst the immigrants were those who had experience with artillery. While the immigrant soldiers were impressed with the American “flying batteries” that would gallop up and unlimber and then place a heavy volume of fire on a target. One such flying battery was commanded by Braxton Bragg who would gain infamy in the Confederate Army for his harsh treatment of soldiers. Braxton Bragg was also a Nativist, but he was not the only one. As the Army of Observation drilled the newcomers to the United States and the Army noticed that those who were foreign or Catholic were receiving harsher and more arbitrary punishment than their native born counterpoints.

There was also an undercurrent of discontent amongst the Catholics in the Army at the thought of fighting another Catholic country on the behalf of a Protestant nation. Several soldiers decided that rather than endure the humiliations imposed on them by the officers, they would desert. Several found their way to the Mexican lines and were treated well. These deserters gave the Mexicans the idea of spreading dissention in the ranks by deliberately appealing to the immigrants and Catholics to come over to the Mexican side with promises of acceptance and rewards of land. Thus began a war over religion as much as one for territory. Ultimately, the Mexicans were able to gather enough deserters to create an artillery battalion that was largely Irish and Catholic.

The San Patricios fought with valor against their former comrades, but like the rest of the Mexican Army they were eventually defeated. The price of defeat was high since as many as 46 San Patricios were hung for their crimes of desertion and aiding the enemy and 15 more were whipped 50 times each and branded on the cheek with a large ‘D’ for desertion. One of the more ‘fortunate’ ones who was branded and whipped was the leader of the San Patricios John Riley. John Riley was whipped and branded only because, at the time he deserted, the United States was not technically at war with Mexico and so he could only receive the lesser punishment. Both Ireland and Mexico consider the San Patricios heroes, but in the United States they are infamous for being deserters. Yet it would be wrong to consider the San Patricios the norm instead of the exception. Most immigrant soldiers fought valiantly with the US Army and this, combined with the conduct of the Nativist officers, impacted future leaders such as: Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee and George B. McClellan; who learned to treat the common soldier with respect and dignity. Unfortunately, Braxton Bragg never learned the lesson and was still a martinet during the Civil War. And the Irish would once again be in the forefront of combat proving their courage with both the Irish Brigade and the Rebel Irish. The book also illustrates problems in the modern United States in dealing with immigrants.

Rogue’s March by Peter F. Stevens is a 2005 reprint of a 1995 volume by Potomac Books (formerly Brassey’s) and appears as part of the Warriors Series. The research is excellent and combines plenty of both primary and secondary sources. The writing is flawless, the illustrations enhance the text and the maps add scope and depth to the battlefields. With a $9.95 list price, the book is readily available to all readers and is highly recommended for any student of military history or to those who want to study the history of immigrant life in the United States and its impact on current society.

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