Putting the History in the Historical Novel: The San Patricio Battalion

This is the third in a series of articles in which I share my methodology for crafting a story, which I hope is both interesting and informative. This week, I turn to the Mexican War, more specifically, to the San Patricio Battalion.

Military recruiting has not changed dramatically since the 1840’s. Recruiters then and recruiters now have their greatest success among the poor. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, but on the eve of war with Mexico, German and Irish immigrants made up roughly forty percent of America’s regular army. In turn, the Mexican officers actively recruited those men to switch sides.

Among the characters in New Garden is main character Jack Grier’s NCO, Sergeant Donovan, an Irish immigrant. American troops are encamped across the Rio Grande from the Mexican town of Matamoros in March, 1846. A chapter captioned “The San Patricio Battalion” (57-58), portrays Donovan’s dilemma and the choice made by him and other immigrant soldiers.

The next morning Donovan obtained permission to attend mass at a Catholic church in Matamoros. He discreetly packed most of his valuables in the event he chose not to return.

Donovan did not object to fighting Seminoles or Apaches, but he was less enamored with making war on fellow Catholics. He had observed the priests mingle among the Mexican troops. He had heard the American officers question their orders to march south of the Nueces River into disputed territory. The Irish made up 24 percent of the American troops. Many of them shared Donovan’s doubts.

Mass and communion settled Donovan’s dilemma. Kneeling in church, absorbing the Latin litany, inhaling the incense, receiving Holy Communion, Donovan felt Catholic once again. After the service two Mexican officers approached him. Other American soldiers were also approached by Mexican officers. The Mexicans offered them incentives to leave the United States Army for the Mexican Army. They offered Donovan the rank of major, as well as four hundred acres of land outside Puebla, in the cooler, higher elevations of Mexico.

****The United States behaved like England, bullying its way into the territory of North America’s other democracy. He had left Ireland because of the English. Leaving the United States felt the same. He threw his lot in with the Mexicans.

Over the next eight days more soldiers swam across the Rio Grande. Taylor grew alarmed and issued orders to fire on any deserter. The sentinels shot several deserters and several others drowned, but over one hundred and thirty men made it across the river. Over the next two years they would serve Mexico in the San Patricio Battalion.

Seventeen months later, the Americans fight the San Patricios at Churubusco. Jack Grier has risen to the rank of sergeant, and now commands the unit previously run by Donovan. Dying in Jack’s arms, Donovan begs Jack to care for his widow, Ileana. Jack’s decision to honor Donovan’s dying wish will have consequences, good and bad, for the rest of Jack’s life.

Time seemed to stand still. Donovan rose behind his improvised barricade and began to fire on Bryan and Chandler. Jack could not move his Paterson revolver fast enough. As Bryan and Chandler fell, Jack emptied his revolver on Donovan. All five shots hit their target.

Hit, but not yet dead, Jack and Gold bent down over Donovan, while the other soldiers tended to their fallen comrades. Donovan held a letter in his left hand, forcing it in Jack’s right.

“Illeana,” he moaned. “Care for her, Jack, please.”

“Who?”

“Ileana, my wife. Puebla. Please, promise.”

Jack tried looking away. “Save your breath, Donovan. We’ll take care of these wounds.”

Struggling to laugh, Donovan coughed up blood. “No, Jack, the wounds are fatal. I don’t want a noose. Ileana. Promise, promise.”

“I promise.”

Two months after Churubusco, thirty of the San Patricios draw their last breath as the American flag is raised at Chapultepec (New Garden, pp. 67-69).

Within minutes thereafter, another American hoisted the United States flag over Chapultepec. This was the hangman’s signal. At Mixcoac, only two miles from Chapultepec and well within sight of the battle, thirty San Patricios stood on makeshift scaffolds constructed on United States Army wagons. They had stood there all morning, their hands and feet bound, ropes around their necks. Once the colors unfurled above Chapultepec, the teamsters ordered the mules foreward. Thirty San Patricios swung in the Mexican sunshine.

In just a few pages, the reader learns about the San Patricios. The historical details, gathered in many hours of research, are told in the context of a story, not sometimes mind-numbing text.

New Garden is available on line from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. Each website includes a “look-in” feature with the first few chapters of the novel. In Greensboro, NC, the novel is available at Scuppernong Books and the Greensboro Historical Museum Bookshop.

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