The Irish in Mexico

From A History of the Irish Settlers in North America by Thomas D'Arcy McGee

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Chapter XXII.

The Irish in Mexico—San Patricio County—MacGee's Incursion—Annexation of Texas—War with Mexico—Taylor's Campaigns—Major General Butler—Colonel O'Brien—Colonel MacKee—Major Gorman

WHILE Irish soldiers were so actively engaged in the South American revolutions, men of the same origin were about to introduce the mixed northern race into the possessions of Mexico, and to take the first steps in that onward aggressive march, which has placed the flag of "The Union" on the headlands of the Pacific.

Under its first presidents, the republic of Mexico, anxious to encourage emigration, had given a large tract of country between the rivers Neuces and Rio Grande to an Irish colony. In 1820, a considerable Irish population had settled there, and their grant was known as "The County of San Patricio." This county became afterwards a party in asserting and maintaining Texian independence of Mexico.[1]

In 1812, when the early attempts at revolutionizing the Spanish colonies bordering the Gulf, were made; when Fray Hidalgo, the last Mexican chief of his generation, had been publicly executed, "a young man, named McGee, who had been a lieutenant in the United States service, after resigning for the purpose," raised the standard of independence on the Sabine and Trinity rivers. With about four hundred United States recruits, chiefly riflemen, and an equal force of Spanish under one Bernardo, he crossed the Sabine. He "took Nacodoches, then marched to and took La Bahia, where, with his four hundred, he withstood a siege of three months, the American riflemen making such havoc among the Spanish soldiers, in their occasional sorties, that their commander was compelled to raise the siege and retire to San Antonio. McGee, in the mean time, died, not more than twenty-two years of age."[2] For his time, he had something to show!

The American and friendly Texian force continued in arms for over twelve months, in the heart of the country; they took San Antonio, defeated General Elisondo, at the head of 1600 men, and were in turn defeated by the recreancy of Manchaco, one of their native allies, and an overwhelming force, under Arredondo.

The proximity of Texas to the United States of course attracted to it the adventurous spirits of the Mississippi Valley. This attraction did not cease with Mexican independence, established, in 1821, through the patriotism of Iturbide, and the moderating influence of O'Donoju, the last captain-general of Mexico.

While Mexico was forming her new boundaries, the United States had frequently proposed, through her ministers, to obtain the Rio Bravo del Norte as the boundary between the two republics. Mr. Poinsett, in 1825, and Mr. Butler, in 1827, proposed to purchase up to this definitive frontier, in vain.

Under the presidency of Santa Anna, in 1832, Texas declared against the then administration, and for the Federal constitution of 1824. An armed force was sent to seize the local authorities and disarm the inhabitants. The settlers, a majority of whom were from the Valley of the Mississippi, resisted; conflicts ensued; and finally Texas raised its separate flag, and, in 1836, by the victory of San Jacinto, established its separate sovereignty.[3] In 1837, its independence was acknowledged by the United States, France, and England; and, even in that year, General Jackson, in his message, suggested the probability of its future admission into the Union. The Mexican and American ministers respectively demanded their passports, and left the capitals to which they were accredited; and so the seeds of quarrel were deposited in two willing soils.

In 1840, a commission to settle the disputes of the two republics was agreed on; but, in 1842, it terminated, leaving untouched the Mexican claim of sovereignty over Texas. In 1843, Mr. Tyler being President, the annexation of Texas was much discussed, and finally looked on as an administration measure. Mr. Webster and Mr. Upshur, successively secretaries of state, prepared the way for it; and, notwithstanding the protest of Mexico, Mr. Calhoun, their successor, in April, 1844, signed the treaty of annexation, with the Texian commissioners, at Washington.

Mexico, never having acknowledged the separate sovereignty of Texas, could not see her pass bodily over to the republic of the north, without resistance. She had repeatedly protested, in the most impressive accents of diplomacy; and when the act of annexation was known to be under consideration at Washington, she avowed that she would look on its completion "as a declaration of war."[4] Both countries, pending the treaty, were increasing their military forces, and it was evident, a collision, or a total retrogression in policy, would take place. On the 3d of March, 1845, Congress confirmed Mr. Calhoun's negotiation, and Texas became a state of the Union; on the 10th, the Mexican minister obtained his passports; in July, Texas formally accepted her admission with the conditions; on the 25th of July, eight companies of United States troops moved towards the Texian (now become the United States) boundary, while soon after, General Taylor made his head quarters at Corpus Christi. In March of 1846, after wasting the winter in Slidell's negotiation, Taylor was ordered to take up his march to the Rio Grande, with about 3,000 men of all arms; and Arista, by his government, to cross the Rio Bravo, with thrice the number, and drive the Americans back. In April, the first blood was shed, Colonel Cross being assassinated, and Lieutenant Porter's party, in quest of him, cut to pieces; and now the war, in reality, begins.

In this, "the third great war" of the Union, Texas, as being immediately involved, and the southern states, were likely to play the earliest part; but the quarrel was a national one, and we shall soon find that nearly every state in the Union supplied its contingent to the roll of the dead, and the list of the successful. We shall find, too, many striking instances of the usefulness of the Irish race in an era of action such as this was.

Scott, Taylor, Worth, Wool, and Perry, are purely American reputations; but though they are the" most brilliant of the war, there are others, also, worthy of honorable remembrance.

In the early battles, (Taylor's,) we find the Rangers under Gillespie, Hays, Conner and McCulloch, playing an ubiquitous part. As scouting and foraging parties, as covering movements of artillery and infantry, in regular engagements and in street fighting, mounted or dismounted, there is no battle without them. The names of the several officers indicate their paternity.

When General Taylor's force was sufficiently augmented, by arrivals of volunteers, and some additional regulars, to take the offensive, (after the victories of the 8th and 9th of May, 1846,) we begin to find the officers of other corps distinguishing themselves. The capture of Matamoras and Monterey, and the battle of Buena Vista, have associated the names of Butler and O'Brien, of the regular army, and Gorman,[5] (Indiana,) and McKee, (Kentucky,) with some of the most memorable passages at arms, in the annals of America.

William O. Butler, of Kentucky, the grandson of an Irish emigrant, was trained in the Florida war, in the camp of Jackson. As major general, he served with Taylor, superseded Scott, and, on the conclusion of peace, conducted the American forces back to their country. In 1848, he was the candidate of the Democratic party, for Vice-President, with Lewis Cass for President.

O'Brien, whom death has removed in the midst of peace, is mentioned by Taylor, for his efficient direction of his battery at Buena Vista. He was brevetted major for his conduct upon that field. He was born in Philadephia, of Irish parents, and educated at West Point. Besides his military services, he is entitled to remembrance, for his compilation, "O'Brien's Military Law of the United States," the standard work of its class, and one likely to remain so. He was a practically pious man, and none the worse soldier for that. He died of cholera, in Texas, on the 30th of March, 1850, being but little beyond thirty years of age.

Colonel McKee, of the Kentucky Volunteers, did not survive the deadly conflict of Buena Vista. Descended of one of the early pioneers of that state, he gallantly upheld its character for daring courage. With his fellow-statesman, Clay, he fell before the hour of the victory, but not until he had done his share to secure it to his own side.

We must now trace quickly over the campaigns of Scott, and see what men, of marked distinction, were there, of Irish origin or birth.

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[1] It was represented in the "Texian Consultation" of 1835, by Messrs. McMullen and Powell. It continued a Texian county until it was depoputated, in the late Americo-Mexican war, being the theatre of some of its severest battles. That part of the original tract now included in the state of Texas is called "Neuces County."—Debate on the Texian Boundary in Congress, August 8th, 1850.

[2] "Mexican Letters," by Judge Brenckenridge, (written in 1846-7.)

[3] General Houston, the hero of the Texian revolution, has personally mentioned to me his Irish descent, paternally, and Scotch, maternally. His life will be the most American of books, whenever it is worthily written.

[4] Executive doc.: No. 2. House of Representatives—twenty-ninth Congress.

[5] At present, we believe, a member of Congress from Indiana.