(Orange, Texas)

February 4, 2013

Santa Anna’s Leg

Mike Louviere
The Orange Leader

ORANGE — Texas history has nothing good to say about Santa Anna. At the Alamo he gave no mercy to the six defenders who survived. He had them brutally executed and then had all 189 bodies of the defenders burned like trash.

Over the objections of many, Sam Houston spared his life and had him escorted to Washington D.C. to meet President Andrew Jackson. After the battle at San Jacinto, Santa Anna was taken briefly to Galveston and then to Valesco where he was kept in confinement for several months. The decision was made to take him to Washington to meet with President Jackson, in the hopes that some diplomatic negotiations between the Mexican and American governments could be worked out.

He was taken overland through Texas; the route carried him across the battleground at San Jacinto. Mexican bodies were not buried after the battle. He showed no interest in burying his dead soldiers and left them to rot on the field and in McCormick’s Lake. Margaret “Peggy” McCormick and her sons had taken it on themselves to bury many of the hundreds of dead Mexicans. She owned land that the battle had occurred on and the rotten bodies were being eaten by her livestock and the milk from her cows was being poisoned.

As his carriage crossed the fields, Santa Anna barely glanced around. It was as though he had no interest in the past. He crossed the ferry at Lynchburg and went on to Wallisville. After a few days of travel the party came to Orange County where they crossed Cow Bayou at Winfree’s Crossing. They spent the night on the property owned by Abraham Winfree. Winfree was an early settler of Orange County, having homesteaded in 1831. His homestead was on the Opelousas Trail, an important early Texas travel route. Ironically the Winfree home had been the site in an election in 1836 when Claiborne West was elected to the Congress of the Republic of Texas. In 1837 Winfree had been appointed county commissioner for his precinct. The area is still known as the Winfree Community.

From Winfree’s land, they went toward the Sabine River and crossed at Ballew’s Ferry, north of present day Orange. In Louisiana they went to Fort Jessup and took on a United States military escort to Natchez. By riverboat they went north to Cincinnati. They boarded trains, much to Santa Anna’s delight. He loved riding what he called,”The Cars.”

The outcome of his meetings with Jackson was not really very productive owing to the personality of Santa Anna. He treated it more like a vacation. The dictator was given voyage on the USS Pioneer to his hacienda in Veracruz, Managa de Clavo.

In 1838, Santa Anna was still in power in Mexico, although slightly disgraced by the defeat in Texas. An occasion arose for him to redeem himself when some Mexican soldiers went into a pastry shop owned by a French citizen and took some pastries. The shop owner filed a claim for 6,000 pesos. It was promptly dismissed by the authorities. The owner then went to the French embassy and appealed for help to the French government. The French investigated and then issued a demand for 60,000 pesos from the Mexican government. What became known as the “French Pastry War” began.

The Mexican government gave Santa Anna control of the army and he engaged the invading French army at Veracruz. In the engagement he was hit in the left hand and leg by cannon fire. His ankle was shattered and as a result, amputation of the leg was required. He had the leg buried on the property at his hacienda.

After the war, he arranged a state funeral for his amputated leg. It had been buried for nearly four years when he had it dug up, placed in a crystal vase, taken in a full military dress parade to Mexico City and buried beneath an elaborate monument in Santa Paula cemetery. The funeral involved cannon salvos, speeches, and poems in the general’s honor.

Santa Anna used the loss of his leg to his full advantage. He would parade with the prosthetic leg held above his head and remind the country of his personal sacrifice. The sacrifice of his leg and his redeemed military career allowed him to once again gain the presidency of Mexico. He would become president five times.

In 1842, when defeated for president, his popularity went into a slump and an irreverent crowd mutinied against him. The rowdy populace went into the cemetery and disinterred the leg. They took it out of its vase, kicked it down the street, and played games with it, shouting insults to “the cripple.” One of his officers was able to rescue the bone and took it to safety.

The resilient general/dictator/president found himself in control of the Mexican military in the Mexican-American War. However he had an unfortunate incident that resulted in the loss of his prosthetic leg.

During the Battle of Cerro Gordo in 1847, he unexpectedly took a break for lunch. He was in his tent preparing to dine on a roast chicken when he was overrun by a regiment of Illinois infantry. He managed to hop out and get on a horse and escape, but he had left behind his cork and wooden leg.

The 4th Regiment Illinois Volunteers was the unit that invaded the general’s quarters. They discovered a chest of gold coins intended to be used to pay the troops, the general’s leg, and his roast chicken. The soldiers, Private A. Waldron, First Sergeant Sam Rhodes, and Second Sergeant John M. Gill ate the chicken, turned in the gold and kept the leg.

For a few years the trio exhibited the leg at county fairs and charged a nickel or dime to those wishing to view it. When the unit the men belonged to became the Illinois National Guard and established the Camp Lincoln State Military Museum they donated the leg. The Mexican government has repeatedly asked for the leg to be returned. “The leg is going nowhere, it is an important part of Illinois military history,” said Mark Whitlock, museum curator.

The museum has the leg displayed in a diorama, with a display of soldiers in period uniforms.

In March, 1998, the Fox animated TV series; “King of the Hill” did a surprisingly accurate depiction of the capture of the leg by the chicken-eating troops. It shows how the general was surprised while eating chicken and credits the Illinois Volunteers. The only error was that the leg was depicted as being taken to Texas as a portable historical exhibit.

Santa Anna, of course, had a new leg made. He continued to remind the country of his “great personal sacrifice” to his country. But by 1855, even his supporters had had enough. A group of liberals headed by Benito Juarez overthrew Santa Anna and he fled to Cuba. He lived in exile in Cuba, Colombia, the United States, and St. Thomas. While living in New York City, he brought in the first shipment of chicle. He had intended to use it as a base for the replacement of rubber. That did not work, but eventually chicle became the base for chewing gum. Had he realized that use he may have become a millionaire.

In 1874, he was granted an amnesty and returned to Mexico. He died in 1876 in Mexico City, in obscurity, poverty, and almost blind from cataracts. The once powerful “Napoleon of the West” had become a lonely, ignored old man.