The Rogue’s March: John Riley and the St. Patrick’s Battalion, by Peter F. Stevens, Brassey’s, $27.50.
This well-written, meticulously researched and convincing book deals with one of the sadder episodes of American history. Peter Stevens has produced far more than a fine history of a Mexican army unit largely composed of Irish-American U.S. Army deserters during the war with Mexico. The book also details the nativism movement in the United States during the 1840s, the brutal disciplinary system at work in the U.S. Army in the same era, and the enormous desertion problem that existed in Generals Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott’s ranks during their campaigns in Mexico.
Stevens makes an excellent case that a major reason that nearly seven hundred recent Irish immigrants deserted U.S. units was the shoddy treatment they received from bigoted officers. He describes the anti-Catholic, anti-foreigner nativism that swept the United States in the 1840s as a response to a surge in Irish immigration. The craze is also attributed to the diligent work of the New York-based Protestant Association and the Protestant Reformation Society, organizations that fanned the flames of suspicion and distrust. The author scores the Irish themselves for arriving in America with an understandably, but nonetheless unfortunate, hostile attitude toward Protestants. The latter stemmed from their belief that the poverty in their native land was a result of London’s rule. The result in some nineteenth-century American cities was a Balkanlike explosive cauldron of religious and ethnic hatreds waiting for the match. The trigger came in the form of the brutal conditions of the U.S. campaign in Mexico and callous, severe, and uneven punishments some U.S. Army officers handed out to their hapless Irish-American soldiers.
Stevens uses a plethora of primary sources to describe the harsh realities of the Mexican War. Finding itself in a full-fledged war, the ill-prepared U.S. Army expanded rapidly. Its new troops underwent only cursory training before being plunged into punishing battles against twice their numbers. The ill-supplied American units were initially undisciplined and unreliable. Of the forty thousand U.S. soldiers in Mexico, 5,331 deserted. This thirteen percent desertion rate is twice that of any other foreign war the United States has ever fought. Murder, robbery, and rape of Mexican citizens by American soldiers was all too common during the first phases of the conflict. The army’s reaction was to subject its soldiers to whippings, brandings, and occasional death sentences for relatively minor infractions. When many of the Irish soldiers came to believe they were being singled out from other American soldiers, they joined the enemy. Stevens, however, carefully describes the other side of the story. Irish-American soldiers earned 36 percent of the Presidential Certificates of Merit, the highest U.S. military award at the time, for their performance of duty during the war.