In 1847, at the Battle of Cerro Gordo during the Mexican War, soldiers from the Fourth Regiment Illinois Volunteers sneaked behind enemy lines and emerged with the Mexican commander’s leg. It wasn’t as grisly as it sounds: the leg was artificial and the general, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, wasn’t wearing it at the time. The leg was brought to Pekin, Illinois, as a war trophy and was displayed to curiosity seekers at ten cents a peek. Sent briefly to the Crystal Palace in London and shown in Washington, D.C., it’s now under glass at the Illinois National Guard headquarters in Springfield, where you can see it. Periodically requests come to return the leg to Mexico or Texas, but such a move is unlikely. “It was bought with the blood of Illinois volunteers,” says retired colonel William “Dutch” Holland, director of the Illinois State Military Museum.
Santa Anna, five-time president of Mexico, is best known for his victorious siege at the Alamo in 1836, where Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie were killed. Two years later, during a skirmish with the French navy in Veracruz, a cannonball injured Santa Anna’s left leg and it was amputated below the knee. The leg in Springfield is one of two identical legs he had custom-made in New York City for $1,300. It’s made of cork, and a square-toed boot is attached to the ankle by ball bearings. There’s a pad for the stump to rest on, and there appear to be bloodstains on it; it’s been said that the surgeon left part of the bone sticking out of the stump, so the prosthesis was uncomfortable to wear. An attached wooden slat holds canvas straps that buckle around the thigh.
On that April day in 1847, the Illinois soldiers found that besides the leg, Santa Anna had left behind $18,000 in gold and his roasted chicken lunch. They turned the gold over to the army paymaster and ate the chicken. The U.S. won the Battle of Cerro Gordo and, five months later, the war itself. Mexican War veterans formally donated the leg to the state in 1882.
Possibly prompted by a request from Mexico, and apparently influenced by America’s entry into World War II, in January 1942 the Illinois House of Representatives passed a resolution calling for the return of the leg to the Mexican government, in the interest of “promoting sentimental and hemispheric solidarity.” But as a resolution is not a law, no action was taken. Texas asked for the leg when preparing for its 1986 sesquicentennial celebration of statehood, and a museum in San Antonio and a Fort Worth radio station both asked to borrow the leg for display. The leg’s custodian, the Illinois Military and Naval Department, refused the requests, saying the leg was too fragile and was being restored. A Houston attorney proposed that Illinois sell or donate the leg so that Texas could trade it to Mexico for the Alamo flag. His suggestion was also rebuffed.
In a 1998 episode of Fox Television’s King of the Hill two characters stole the leg from a museum and returned it to Mexico. At the end of the show, an announcer urged viewers “to join the movement to help return the leg to the Mexican people.” Captain Mark Whitlock, curator of the museum, says the Mexican government has not asked for the leg, and in fact representatives of the Mexican Embassy and the Mexican Consulate in Chicago didn’t know anything about it. Adds Whitlock, “The program was not approved by our department.” At the time a Fox spokesperson told the Springfield Journal-Register the episode was “all in fun.”
“Part of the value of Santa Anna’s leg is due to the fact that one of the richest states in the union is interested in it,” says Whitlock, who notes that the leg has never been appraised. But in 1996 Santa Anna’s sword belt, also captured at Cerro Gordo, sold for $14,300, according to Maine Antique Digest.
As for Santa Anna, he was loved and hated by his people for his autocratic and excessive tendencies and was in and out of exile. His amputated leg also had a restless history. Apparently it was buried once near Mexico City, unearthed, and reburied with pomp in a mahogany casket–or an urn, according to one version–in a crypt or a vault in Mexico City. In 1844, at a time when Santa Anna fell out of favor, a mob disinterred the leg and dragged it through the streets, finally tossing it on a garbage heap. After a few more flirtations with adventure, Santa Anna was allowed to return to Mexico in 1874 and died two years later, blind and a pauper.
The Illinois State Military Museum is at Camp Lincoln, 1301 N. MacArthur Boulevard in Springfield. The leg and a few other artifacts are in the headquarters building nearby; museum staff can direct you there. The leg is the most famous object in the museum’s collection, but it owns other noteworthy items–a flintlock musket used in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, a rare unused Tallassee carbine captured from the South during the Civil War, a wooden target used by Abraham Lincoln, and an extensive collection of Civil War battle flags. It’s open Monday through Friday from 1 to 4:30 PM and Saturday from 10 AM to 2 PM, but the leg can be viewed at other times by calling the museum beforehand at 217-761-3910. Admission is free, though a $2 donation is suggested. –S.L. Wisenberg
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy of Illinois State Military Museum, Springfield.