LXV: The Six-Legged General

The formation of the nation of Mexico was long, drawn-out conflict which produced some of the greatest heroes in both American and Mexican history. One of Mexico’s most prominent generals during this time was also its future president, Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón, more often known simply as Santa Anna.

Born in Veracruz in 1794, Santa Anna spent his entire life in the military. He enlisted in 1810 at the young age of 16 and received his first battle wound a year later when he was shot in the hand with an arrow. He recovered quickly and fought in battles throughout Mexico; often cited for his bravery, he moved quickly through the ranks and was a first lieutenant by the age of 19. After his promotion to captain in 1816, Santa Anna led a number of campaigns to suppress Mexico’s native peoples before turning his focus to the liberation of Mexico from the Spanish. By 1821, Mexico’s future emperor and the leader of its main resistance movement, Agustín de Iturbide, had awarded Santa Anna with the rank of general. He acquired a large hacienda, a wife, a governorship, and a gambling addiction. It was all fine and dandy for the young general for quite a few years — until he lost his leg.

In the 1830s, the Texas Revolution was raging. After he served as President of Mexico intermittently from 1833 to 1835, Santa Anna’s army besieged and captured the Alamo in 1836, before being defeated at San Jacinto a month later. Santa Anna was captured and exiled to the United State for a time before returning to Mexico in time for the Pastry War in 1838. At Veracruz, he had his horse shot out from under him and suffered injuries to his ankle the required amputation of his leg from the knee down. A devastated Santa Anna had the leg buried at his hacienda, and when he became President of Mexico for the seventh time in 1843, he had the leg exhumed in order to be buried with full military honors.

The leg was placed in an ornate coach and paraded up to Mexico City, where he staged an elaborate state funeral that included parades, canon salvos, and long orations and poems by guest speakers in honor of the leg before it was buried in an expensive monument. Yet only two years later, the leg was exhumed again, this time somewhat more unceremoniously. Public opinion turned against the president and his leg was dragged through the streets by an angry mob while they shouted, “Death to the cripple!”

Because Santa Anna apparently couldn’t decide whether he liked being a general or a president, he returned to the battlefield in 1847 wearing a prosthetic leg made of cork. He was sitting down eating lunch when the 4th Illinois Infantry road up and surprised him. Instead of capturing or killing the general, a sergeant grabbed Santa Anna’s cork leg an rode off with it. The sergeant displayed the leg at a dime a look until it was donated to the Illinois National Guard in 1922 and went on display in the Illinois State Military Museum, where it remains to this day, despite Mexico and Texas’ requested for repatriation.

Down two legs and a whole lot of ego, Santa Anna had a new leg made and became president a few more times before switching careers for the zillionth time and heading back out onto the field of battle, this time leaving his fancy leg at home and using a simple wooden peg. But wouldn’t you know it, the 4th Illinois Infantry was not done with General Santa Anna. Out of pure spite and bravado, they capture Santa Anna’s new leg too and reportedly used it as a baseball bat before putting it on display at its current home in the residence of former Illinois governor Richard J. Oglesby.

After losing three of his six total legs, Santa Anna was president a few more times (for a grand total of 11 separate terms) before eventually being exiled and dying a pauper in 1876. He was buried in Mexico City with exactly one leg.

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