The Battle of Chapultepec Hill
1847: The US Marine Corps Hymn begins with the words, “From the Halls of Montezuma..,” Those words commemorate the Corps’ participation in a battle in one of our country’s earliest imperialistic wars. The Corps suffered 90% casualties in the struggle for Mexico’s capitol city.
In that battle the US troops overran a badly undermanned Mexican garrison in the so-called “castle” on Chapultepec Hill that guarded the entrance into Mexico City. A large portion of the defenders were made up of the students at the military academy (equivalent to an US high school) located at the site, some of whom were only 13 years old. The defenders, about 400 in all including about 100 teenage students from the academy, faced over 4000 battle hardened American soldiers. As the Mexican troops retreated when the assault rolled over them, six of these young men from the academy bravely but foolishly stayed behind to defend the Mexican flag. They were slaughtered by the American troops. Obviously, playing capture the flag was more important than the lives of a few teenage greasers.
Among the participants in this same battle was John Riley the leader of the Batallón San Patricio, a group of Irish immigrants forced into service by the U.S. Government during the Mexican-American War. Being Catholics, they were treated terribly by their Protestant superiors. They got fed up and decided to desert and join their fellow Catholics on the Mexican side. By all accounts, they fought valiantly throughout the war, but during the battle for Mexico City the Batallón San Patricio’s positions were overrun. As Chapultepec Castle fell, every last one of John Riley’s men was hung in front of him. The US commander waited to execute the Irishmen until the moment that the Mexican flag that the kids were shot for defending was lowered so that they could watch as they died. It has been reported that the U.S. generals didn’t kill John Riley along with his troops. They supposedly branded both of his cheeks with D’s for desertion, lashed him for a full day in front of his dangling men, and then handed him back to Mexico.*
Remember, only 14 years later many of the same American officers involved at Chapultepec, who so mercilessly executed the Irish Catholic deserters and the Mexican adolescents, themselves rebelled against the United States. And, following a war that saw the greatest percentage of the American population killed in any war in the nation’s history, not one of these men were executed for treason or spent significant time in prison. Many are now listed as among our nations greatest heroes.
Ulysses S. Grant, a legitimate hero at the Battle of Chapultepec,** as well as in the subsequent war to suppress a rebellion against the United States instigated by the slave-owning aristocracy and who later was elected President of the United States, stated in his memoirs that in his opinion the Mexican-American War was “one of the most unjust wars ever waged on a weaker nation by a stronger one.”
On March 5, 1947, a few months before the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Chapultepec, another U.S. President, Harry S. Truman, traveling in Mexico at the time, placed a wreath at the monument to the six students and stood for a few moments of silent reverence. Asked by American reporters why he had gone to the monument, Truman said, “Brave men don’t belong to any one country. I respect bravery wherever I see it.”
* Note: one of the major purposes of the war with Mexico was to acquire additional territory in which to expand slavery in order to balance the votes in the US Senate of the more abolitionist inclined tier of newly created northern states carved out of the Louisiana Purchase. Mexico, by the way, at that time prohibited slavery which was one of the main reasons that a few years before the white Protestant Texans who had recently immigrated there sought independence from Mexico.
Finally as long as I started on the slavery issue, the argument often posed by many southern apologists that if we had only waited a few years the “peculiar” institution of slavery would disappear simply as a result of economic pressure on that inefficient system (the invisible hand again), begs the question of why then was it the South that seceded and attacked first when the rest of the nation, except for the somewhat disturbed John Brown, had done little more than make speeches about the immorality of slavery, hide a few escaped slaves and and elect a guy who, although he did not like slavery, admitted that he was not going to be able to do much more about it other than support prohibition of its extension into new territories, such as those taken from Mexico a decade or so before?
** Grant climbed up the bell tower, single-handedly captured a howitzer located there and then used it to fire on the Mexican troops below. Yes, in America even Rambo can become an US President, although not a very good one.
- Mexican-American War (heathermunas.wordpress.com)
- A Reminder of a Conflict That Faded Into History (nytimes.com)