By Alan Johnstone
Each year tens of thousands of Irish-Americans proudly celebrate their heritage on St. Patrick’s Day, yet few are aware of the fate of the Irish in the St. Patrick’s Battalion (el Batallón de San Patricio) who chose to fight under their green flag for Mexico against the aggression of the United States in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 (see this video).
How many Americans are fully aware of their country’s land-grab and the illegal annexation of what was Mexican territory? Hollywood glorifies the Texas rebellion but fails to shine a light on the later American invasion of Mexico, a war opposed by many Northerners such as Abraham Lincoln even though some Northern merchants did believe it would open up the Pacific Coast ports as gateways to China. As with Texas, the plantation-owning Southern elite coveted the vast stretches of northern Mexico where they could expand their slave economy. The conquest of what is now south-west United States became their objective. It was sparsely settled and still remained mostly populated by Native Americans. The ideological justification for this expansionism was the doctrine of “Manifest Destiny”.
As early as 1825, President John Quincy Adams attempted to purchase the Texas province from Mexico. When Mexico refused, other means were employed. The southern plantation owners encouraged the settling of Texas by Anglo-Americans with the hope that they would outnumber the small Mexican population and create enough difficulties for Mexico so that it would relinquish control to the United States. The main issue of the presidential campaign of 1844 was the annexation of Texas, with the Democratic Party running James Polk in favor. The victory of the Democrats, who represented the southern planters, guaranteed annexation. The Anglo-American Texans, who were legally Mexican citizens, refused to submit to the authority of the Mexican government and maintained slavery. They set up the Independent Republic of Texas in 1836. This led to the Alamo and the subsequent defeat of Santa Anna by the army of Sam Houston. The slavocracy of the South looked forward to immediately annexing Texas to the United States but divisions within the U.S. ruling class delayed annexation until 1845, as the northern capitalists opposed adding Texas as another slave state, fearing the enhanced political weight of a strengthened South.
But plans and desires went far beyond Texas. President Polk was intent on provoking Mexico into a war which would end in the conquest of all of Mexico. The immediate cause of the war was a dispute over the border between Texas and Mexico. The area involved about 150 square miles of territory. Before the dispute could be resolved through negotiations, the president ordered U.S. troops under Zachary Taylor to cross the River Nueces and hold the disputed area. When the Mexican army sought to eject the U.S. army from its territory, the United States used this as its pretext to declare war on Mexico.
The annexation nature of the war was obvious. Ulysses S. Grant, who fought as an officer in the war, would write:
We were sent to provoke a fight, but it was essential that Mexico should commence it… The occupation, separation, and annexation were, from the inception of the movement to its final consummation, a conspiracy to acquire territory out of which slave states might be formed for the American union. Even if annexation itself could be justified, the manner in which the subsequent war was forced on Mexico cannot.
The outcome of the war was almost a foregone conclusion. The Mexican army was badly led and poorly equipped. The U.S. military advanced into Mexican territory and began conducting a campaign of brutality and engaging in numerous acts of wanton violence and destruction against civilians. Commanding General Winfield Scott admitted his U.S. troops had
committed atrocities to make Heaven weep and every American of Christian morals blush for his country. Murder, robbery and rape of mothers and daughters in the presence of tied up males of the families have been common all along the Rio Grande.
So barbaric were the actions of the American army that some 250 Irish deserted and went over to the side of the Mexicans.
American armies attacked the Mexicans in northern and southern California as well as throughout New Mexico and Arizona. The United States defeated Mexican armies and went on to occupy Mexico City. The United States captured almost 50% of Mexico’s territory.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
On February 2, 1848 Mexico agreed to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Mexico accepted the Rio Grande as the Texas border and ceded the Southwest (incorporating the present-day states of Arizona, California, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, and parts of Wyoming and Colorado), an area larger than France and Germany combined, to the U.S. for $15 million. The Democratic administration favored taking all of Mexico, but was opposed in Congress.
This treaty was also important because the Mexican negotiators were more deeply concerned to ensure the protection of the democratic rights of Mexicans remaining in the Southwest and it should not be forgotten that, with the exception of the Native Americans, Mexicans are the only minority whose rights were specifically legally safeguarded by a formal treaty. It contained provisions concerning the treatment of the Mexicans remaining in the Southwest. The U.S. agreed to safeguard the property rights of the Mexicans and guaranteed their civil and religious rights. Their culture as well as their land grants were to be respected. The Mexicans were to receive full U.S. citizenship within one year. Article VIII stated:
Mexicans now established in territories previously belonging to Mexico, and which remain for the future within the limits of the United States, as defined by the present treaty, shall be free to continue where they now reside, or to remove at any time to the Mexican Republic, retaining the property which they possess in the said territories…In the said territories, property of every kind, now belonging to Mexicans not established there, shall be inviolably respected. The present owners, the heirs of these, and all Mexicans who may hereafter acquire said property by contract, shall enjoy with respect to it guarantees equally ample as if the same belonged to citizens of the United States.
Article IX guaranteed to those who became citizens (automatic one year from the date of the treaty, unless an individual specifically chose to remain a Mexican citizen)
enjoyment of all the rights of citizens of the United States, according to the principles of the Constitution [and] the free enjoyment of their liberty and property, and secure in the free exercise of their religion without restriction.
The U.S., however, never lived up to its promises and almost systematically violated the guarantees given to the Mexican people in the Southwest.
Nor were any of the Mexican signers of the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty aware of the fact that nine days before its signing, gold had been discovered in California. Not only had half of the national territory of Mexico been outright stolen at the point of a cannon, but now lands unbelievably rich in gold and silver, had been ceded away.
Following annexation, the United States set out to impose its rule over the newly conquered territory and begin to economically exploit it. The tremendous wealth derived from the mines and lands stolen from Mexico began to play an important part in the financing of capitalist industrial expansion.
Very soon the subjugation of the Mexican people began. It was not possible to accomplish this all at once throughout the entire Southwest region so the consolidation of the region happened in stages. California quickly became a state in 1851, while New Mexico and Arizona remained colonies and were not admitted into the Union until 1912, a full 64 years after they were stolen from Mexico. The ensuing Civil War then hampered efforts to promote development in the Southwest.
The new Anglo rulers unleashed a campaign of terror and thousands of Mexican farmers and laborers were shot or lynched. Between 1850 and 1930, more Mexicans were lynched in this area than Blacks in the South during the same period. In Los Angeles, in the one year of 1854 alone, an estimated 360 Mexicans were murdered .
Big ranchers set up groups like the Texas and Arizona Rangers to “legally” terrorize and subdue the conquered population, expropriating the Tejano (Mexican-Texan) landowners. The Texas Rangers and other vigilante groups simply shot hundreds of Mexicans and took over their property. Not a single white American, however, was ever convicted of killing a Mexican in Texas in the 50 years immediately following annexation.
The ranchers and merchants hoped that this terrorism, which now is described as ethnic cleansing, would drive those of Mexican origin across the border to Mexico. Anglo-American migration into the Southwest quickly changed the character of the area and the overall population of Texas and California became predominantly white (although the southern parts of both states along the border remained mainly Mexican inhabited). The new settlers reneged on the treaty obligations and began deprived the Mexicans of political rights and power. By 1880 in California no Mexican served in public office where previously they held legislative, judicial and executive positions throughout the state. Originally designated to be a bilingual state (Spanish and English), by as early as 1855. the California state government required all schools to teach exclusively in English and then the 1878 State constitution completely eliminated Spanish as an official language. Special taxes and restrictions were levied on the Mexicans in California as well, such as the “Foreign Miners’ Tax,” to drive non-white miners out of the gold fields. The Mexicans from Sonora were expert miners who introduced such innovative mining techniques as panning and the dry-wash separation of gold. There were also laws prohibiting or restricting traditional fiestas. Similar curtailments spread throughout the Southwest. From 1850 to 1900, the Anglo settlers, expropriated almost the entire propertied class of Californios. Those who did not lose their lands were reduced to small holdings.
Mexican-Americans were transformed into foreign “aliens”. The persecution of the Mexican people went hand-in-hand with the theft of their lands. In many cases, the objective of the murder and violence against them was to take over their property, regardless of the promises of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This great land grab was second only to the massive theft of Native American land. All in all, it is estimated they lost 20 million acres of land in Texas alone. In California and New Mexico the original inhabitants lost much of their land through legal manoeuvres, squatting, claim-jumping and exorbitant taxes. In 1851 California passed a “Land Act” which required that Mexicans go through a complex process to prove title to their land. This was very difficult in many cases since the lands often were owned in common or accurate records were never kept. In New Mexico, 80% of them lost their property, most of these small farmers and herders. An infamous conspiracy of merchants, lawyers, bankers and politicians known as the Santa Fe Ring controlled the territory’s courts and government and awarded themselves millions of acres through swindles. The Surveyor of General Claims Office of the New Mexico Territory could take up to fifty years to process a claim, meanwhile, the lands were being squatted upon by the Anglo newcomers who often sold the land to land speculators for huge profits.
The federal government in 1891 eventually established a Court of Private Land Claims to settle land “disputes” in Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. In its 13 years of existence the court heard cases involving 35.5 million acres. The court upheld the original claims of less than two million acres. All the rest were denied and the claimants lost their land. The court, in actuality, legalized the land grab. And the federal authorities itself were not above getting involved in this property theft, especially in New Mexico. Between 1850 and 1900 the federal government accumulated 14.5 million acres of land, the majority of this from individual or communal Mexicans’ lands. The courts, being an instrument of class rule, were used to legitimize the theft of the Mexican people of their land. For sure, it was often the ownership of changing from Mexican feudal grandee to an American capitalist. The huge haciendas of landlord class of Mexico gave way to the vast ranches of Bonanza fame. The economy of the Southwest, geared to small-scale trade and production to satisfy local needs, where much of the land was held in common by communities represented an obstacle to the greedy commerce of the encroaching capitalists who sought to maximize the productive forces. Peasant plots and sheep pastures were converted into grazing land for the new capitalist cattle barons, with Mexicans forced to sell their labor power to their new patróns. The pauperizing the peoples of the Southwest enabled the new owners to freely exploit the land and labor of the region.
Organised resistance on the part of the Mexican people developed to try to halt Anglo incursions. The most famous were seen as Robin Hood figures. Courageous banditos waged a guerilla struggle against the American whites; men such as Tiburcio Vasquez and Joaquin Murietta. In Texas, there was Juan Cortina, who became a folk-hero; and in New Mexico was the “Las Gorras Blancas” (“The White Caps”), direct-actionists who cut the fences and burned the barns of ranchers enclosing the Las Vegas Land Grant commons. They destroyed railroad tracks and burned bridges seen as the foundation of commercial development. “Las Gorras Blancas” sought to develop a class-based consciousness among local people through the everyday tactics of resistance to the economic and social order confronting common property land grant communities.
In a manifesto, Las Gorras Blancas explained their actions as efforts
to protect the rights of the people in general; and especially those of the helpless classes… We want the Las Vegas Grant settled to the benefit of all concerned and this we hold is the entire community within the grant… will fight any scheme that tends to monopolize the supply of water courses to the detriment of residents.
Las Gorras Blancas received popular support from small grazers who had watched the common lands slowly disappear behind barbed-wire fences defending the dubious property claims of wealthy newcomers. Las Gorras Blancas became El Partido del Pueblo, the Peoples Party, and entered the State legislature but found reformism to be a dead-end.
As for the fate of the St Patrick Battalion volunteers, at their court-martial none of the men were legally represented nor were transcripts made of the proceedings. Contrary to the Articles of War, which stipulated that the penalty for desertion or defecting to the enemy in a time of war was death by firing squad, only members of the Saint Patrick’s Battalion were executed by hanging as common criminals.
The executions took place at three separate locations on three separate dates; 16 were executed on 10 September 1847 at San Ángel, four were executed the following day at the village of Mixcoac on 11 September, and 30 were hanged at Chapultepec on 13 September. One soldier was hanged even though he had had both legs amputated the previous day. When the army surgeon informed the colonel that the absent soldier had lost both his legs in battle, Colonel Harney retorted: “Bring the damned son of a bitch out! My order was to hang 30 and by God I’ll do it!” The prisoners spared the gallows were flogged and branded on their cheeks with the letter D to signify deserter.
The San Patricios continue to be honored as heroes in Mexico. Their role in the Mexican-American war has long been acknowledged. They have been remembered as a symbol of international solidarity by the Zapatistas. But as to be expected, in the USA, the memory of the battalion was very different and the American army long denied even the existence of the Saint Patrick’s Battalion until 1915 when it finally conceded it existed.
“Manifest Destiny” and the Spanish-American War
The Spanish-American war is often explained by the hysteria drummed by the popular press of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, fanning the fire and inflaming the passion of public opinion until every lie was believed as the truth that the American government were acting from no selfish motives, other than altruism
While in the Mexican-American war, it was the Southern Democrats who spoke of the historic necessity of the United States to dominate whatever lands or peoples it so desired as an integral part of the country’s foreign policy. At its convention of 1896, it was the Republican Party which announced itself to be the party of “Manifest Destiny” to bring civilization to the inferior peoples. The victory in the election was interpreted as carte blanche to go implement an aggressive foreign policy. American business interests had been casting its greedy gaze for many years at the islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific with a dream of a global American empire.
Like all the European powers Spanish rule was ruthless and cruel; based upon the exploitation of its resources and people. Revolutionary stirrings in its colonies had long been in existence,
Cuba broke out into open revolt in 1895. The Spanish authorities responded brutally setting up de facto concentration camps, herding the families of the rebels and all those suspected of disloyalty into them.
American businesses owned a wide range of investments in Cuba. Those vested interests were in favor of taking control of Cuba’s chaotic conditions and ejecting Spain from Cuba was seen as the first step. The Republican Party platform of 1897 had already declared that Spain was unable “to protect the property and lives of resident American citizens.” The “Manifest Destiny” Republicans launched their interventionist campaign with the newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer reporting lurid tales of atrocities, clamoring for war to fight on behalf of a defenseless people – the same “humanitarian” war lie we hear so often today. Astute industrialists recognized that war with Spain would increase the business and earnings of American commerce. It would increase the output of every American factory, it would stimulate a stagnant economy.
In January 1898, the battleship Maine went to Havana on a “goodwill” visit. But on February 15, 1898 the battleship mysteriously exploded at anchor. An investigation could not determine the actual cause of the explosion which took the lives of 258 crew and it may have happened in a number of different ways. Today there is still no really definitive explanation of its cause.
Regardless, the navy concluded that the Maine had been blown up by a mine. The pro-war faction embarked upon a great war-mongering campaign led by Teddy Roosevelt as President McKinley and the Spanish Government tried to resolve the issues peacefully.
In their zeal to avoid a conflict with America the Spanish accepted all the American proposals but America’s plutocrat and oligarchs were not to be cheated out of their war. On April 19, the United States declared war.
The ostensible purpose for entering the war was to free Cuba. Yet, when it came to the peace terms, America demanded it included the acquisition of Puerto Rico, the islands now known as the Marianas, Guam and the Philippines. The Peace of Paris, December 10, 1898, liquidated the colonial empire of Spain for $20,000,000 compensation. Cuba was not even represented at the conference table. And upon its evacuation by Spain it was to be occupied by the United States. The Cuban people thought the war was for Cuba’s independence but those who had fought and suffered to win their freedom were betrayed.
Many Americans today are well aware of the US military base at Guantánamo Bay and it was from this period of history America acquired the 28,000 acres with its buildings, airfields, docks and a notorious prison camp purposefully placed outside the reach of any legal system. The US pays Cuba $3,386 dollars and 25 cents annually for this occupied territory The presence of American troops in Guantánamo are against the wishes of the Cuban people and it remains Cuba’s occupied territory.
Under the influence of war-fever, the annexation of Hawaii was also quickly accomplished. McKinley declared that “We need Hawaii just as much and a good deal more than we did California. It is manifest destiny” and the compliant press raised exaggerated stories of the threat to the islands from the Japanese and the Germans.
Secretly, Theodore Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, had already deployed Admiral Dewey’s Pacific fleet to the Far East to attack the Spanish in the Philippines, two months before the outbreak of the war. The Spanish navy was routed and American troops later arrived and occupied the Philippines with the aid of Filipino rebels.
The people of the Philippines sincerely believed that the Americans were there to deliver them from the tyrannical yoke of Spain so that they may be a free and independent nation. The Filipino politicians were already setting up a Republic. But the Americans falsely described the situation as being one of “disorder” and required the American military to take command. When the Filipinos finally realized what had happened to them, they turned their guns on the American occupying force who proceeded to teach them all about America’s style of establishing democracy. In the three year war against the Filipinos 60,000 US troops infected with racism committed numerous atrocities and strict censorship silenced the tales of massacres and torture. Estimates of the death-toll vary but it was in the hundreds of thousands. A puppet Philippine government was established in 1907 by a restricted election in which only property holders — about 100,000 — could vote. An American Governor-General ruled with veto power.
The US was not in business of freeing people. Its objective was merely to exchange Spanish domination with Washington’s. America had commenced the Spanish war to emancipate “little” Cuba and concluded it with the bloody subjugation of the Philippines.
When one risks life and limb, a rational person needs a good reason for the possible sacrifice. To make somebody even more wealthier is not a very good motivation.
The Irish Catholics of the St Patrick Battalion understood first-hand foreign oppression and religious repression. They witnessed the deceit of the the United States in launching its invasion of Mexico. They believed they possessed a worthy cause greater than themselves as individuals to fight and die for.
But others require something much more to go to war and face death. Countries will try to instill a national identity, loyalty and patriotism. When that may not be enough, an appeal to God may be called for, with government declaring they hold a divine mission to conduct a “Holy Crusade” and this is what Americans meant by their doctrine of “manifest destiny”, or what is more commonly called American “exceptionalism” these days. It offers a cloak of respectability for what can only be described as inhuman, brutal behavior. It is imperialism by another name and the aim remains the same — economic, military and political domination of the world.
There are two Americas. One is the America of the capitalist clique who threaten the world’s security. This is the America the people of the world has learned to detest and fear.
Then there is the other America — the America of working people with a revered record of sympathy for people of other lands in their struggles against kings and despots.
This is the America that has held out the hand of comradely friendship to the oppressed people in the world and at one time offered security and sanctuary to the persecuted. This is the America that must take the power from the exploiters and parasites. The American working class can open up the way to a new world. They have the power in America. All that is necessary is for them to understand it — and to use it. We believe they will do so. We believe the real America — the America of the working people — will help save the world by saving itself. This is America’s true “manifest destiny”.
In Europe, the Fraternal Democrats, a radical wing of the Chartist movement, issued a condemnation of the American war against Mexico, endorsing the view that “the war was unjust to Mexico, disgraceful to the United States and a war for the extension of slavery.”
Following their policy of supporting the development of nascent capitalism, Marx and Engels took the opposite opinion and condoned the American aggression of the Mexican invasion. Engels writes:
We have witnessed the conquest of Mexico and have rejoiced in it [and] that splendid California has been taken away from the lazy Mexican [and] for the first time really open the Pacific Ocean to civilization.
The illustration shows US General Winfield Scott entering Mexico City on September 14, 1847