Changing Flags: A Novel of the Battalion of St. Patrick

Written by Ray Herbeck
Review by Beth Kanell

This ambitious first book in a series on the Battalion of St. Patrick brings to light a little-known chapter of American immigrant history: During the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), more than a hundred Irish and other immigrants who’d suffered among the bigoted American military forces changed sides. Despite the shame of becoming deserters, they defected to the Mexican forces, lured by both a common religion and promises of higher wages, land grants, and citizenship.

John Riley is a seasoned professional soldier who’s already left one army behind. So desertion to the “greasers” seems just one more change, one that may finally give him the funds he desperately desires in order to sail back to family in Ireland. Crossing the Texas–Mexico border, with no Spanish vocabulary and no allies, he’s quickly humiliated as the recruitment goodies turn out to be propaganda and fantasy. The only way to ease his pain and frustration is to welcome in more deserters and, under the urging of the Mexican officers on hand, to forge them into a genuine artillery battalion.

Herbeck, a Civil War and Old West consultant, defies the usual expectations for an adventure protagonist: There is little heroic about John Riley. An aggressive Irish drunk, brutal when he feels the need, and unable to respect women or officers, his strongest gift is his ability to lie convincingly. Manipulated by the Mexicans, he hones this art, eventually taking pride in being able to convince other half-starved deserters to become real soldiers. Coarse at times, but also passionate, the book’s a page-turner, full of twists and costs. It ends with unexpected hope, and a hunger for Riley’s ongoing wagers, wandering, and growth in the books ahead.