To the Color (Battalion of St. Patrick, 2)

Written by Ray Herbeck
Review by Susan Lowell

The history of Irish mercenaries is long, colorful, and often tragic, and it stretches from the Viking era to—possibly—our own. Ray Herbeck, Jr.’s new novel possesses all those qualities, and is especially riveting and heartrending because in many respects it is true. Here, as in the prequel, Changing Flags, he dramatizes the actual life of John Riley, an Irishman who fought on the Mexican side in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). Along with other Irish soldiers and Catholic recruits, he formed the heroic Battalion of St. Patrick, which distinguished itself during the war. (Their hybrid Irish-Mexican flag is the “color” of the title.) Unfortunately, many of these recruits, like Riley, were deserters from the U.S. Army, which executed them in a brutal mass hanging after Mexico lost the war. But Riley, typically, managed to escape death… on a technicality.

This horrific event caps off many bloody battle scenes that somewhat resemble those of Bernard Cornwell. Herbeck’s historical research is meticulous, even incorporating contemporary slurs, slang, and the actual words of figures such as Lincoln, John Quincy Adams, and Gen. Winfield Scott. Herbeck’s scriptwriting experience shows in his dramatic scenes and dialogue.

Riley was apparently an engaging rogue, a career soldier who deserted his family and the British Army before briefly joining the American one. He remained faithful to his Irish battalion and the Mexican Army, however, and the brave Battalion of St. Patrick is still remembered and honored in both Mexico and Ireland.

Herbeck’s writing is occasionally clumsy, and his Spanish is shaky, but his enthusiasm and a cast of sympathetic characters carry the reader and Riley along to a (fictional) happy ending.