Boston's 'Irish Volunteers' of the Mexican-American War
On Sunday, Feb. 21, 1847, Bishop John Fitzpatrick of Boston recorded in his journal that Father Nicholas O'Brien, pastor of East Boston and the forts and islands in Boston Harbor, was called out "at the request of some of the officers" to celebrate Mass with the Massachusetts Regiment of Volunteers. The regiment was waiting to depart for Mexico, noting that "a great number of these Volunteers are Catholics; one company, captain included, is entirely."
The Mexican-American War had commenced the previous year. Briefly, its origins can be traced to a border dispute between Mexico and the Republic of Texas, which continued after the latter was annexed to the United States at the end of 1845. Mexico claimed the Nueces River was the border, while the Republic of Texas and now the United States maintained it was the Rio Grande. In April 1846, Gen. Zachary Taylor led U.S. troops across the Nueces River into the disputed territory, prompting Mexican troops to cross the Rio Grande, and the two sides skirmished on April 25, 1846. Both sides maintained their position, claiming the other had encroached upon their territory, and war was declared the following month.
The U.S. government called for 50,000 volunteers, but not all states supported the war, including those in New England, which called it unjust, and a thinly veiled attempt to annex additional territory in the west and, in doing so, expanding the institution of slavery.
The Boston Pilot reported on Jan. 30, 1847, that "the present position of the Massachusetts Legislature in relation to her own Volunteers and the Mexican War, seems to be the all engrossing topic of the moment." The legislature, finding no just cause for war, refused appropriate the $20,000 necessary to support the recruitment and supply of a regiment.
Meanwhile, Caleb Cushing, a Massachusetts lawyer, took it upon himself to recruit volunteers and provide the funds for its support. There was not much enthusiasm among the public, and it was the only regiment raised by a New England state during the war and it had to draw recruits from outside of Massachusetts. Cushing, however, was successful in appealing to the loyalty and patriotism of Irish immigrants towards their new home and found a large number of willing recruits amongst them.
The Boston Pilot offered its support for the "valorous sons of New England and Ireland" who volunteered and, regardless of the justification for war, urged the legislature to approve the money to support them. The paper tried to frame the regiment's purpose in a more favorable light, stating that it was not for "the conquest of territory or people, but for the conquest of peace, (and) for the dissemination, if possible, of liberal and enlightened principles -- on a sacred mission." And, finally, they pointed out that Massachusetts was one of the United States, and had an obligation when "the honor, rights, chivalry, reputation of the land, are at stake."
By early January 1847 seven companies had collected in Boston and been mustered into service. At least one, Company B, was noted for being composed entirely of Irishmen and therefore dubbed the "Irish Volunteers."
On Sunday, Jan. 17, it was reported that the company attended High Mass at the cathedral and were addressed by Bishop Fitzpatrick who encouraged them to "prepare for the day of danger by making their peace with God, to enter upon their new career with a firm determination to avoid all sin, and to follow the precepts of their blessed Master." That same evening, they attended vespers at St. Nicholas Church in East Boston, where Father O'Brien delivered the sermon.
Owner and editor of The Boston Pilot, Patrick Donahoe, in a gesture of support for the volunteers, invited members of the regiment to a gathering on the evening of Tuesday, Feb. 16. There, he presented Captain John Barry of Company B with "an elegant sword and epaulettes." The sword was engraved with the inscription, "Faugh a Ballagh," or "Clear the way," and it was hoped it would "make him and the Irish Volunteers feel that they have the heartfelt wishes and friendship of their Boston friends."
Four days later, it was reported that now eight companies, one more than the previous month, were embarked upon ships and awaiting orders to depart for Mexico. It was during this time that the officers of Company B once more called upon Father O'Brien who celebrated Mass with them aboard ship in Boston Harbor.
Shortly after arrival in Mexico, Cushing was promoted and left the regiment, which was primarily used garrison duty and only reached Mexico City after fighting there had concluded. Despite being involved in little to no combat, the regiment's losses amounted to approximately one-third its total number due to disease and desertion. They returned to Boston in July 1848, five months after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which saw the U.S. acquire the land now comprising all or part of Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, and Utah in exchange for $15 million.
In the meantime, in April 1847, the Massachusetts Legislature continued its stance by passing two resolutions calling the war "unconstitutional" and "a war against freedom, against humanity, against justice, against the union, against the Constitution, and against the Free States." It firmly placed the blame upon President James Polk and called for the withdrawal of all U.S. armed forces.
- Thomas Lester is the archivist of the Archdiocese of Boston.