© 2024 NPR Illinois
The Capital's Community & News Service
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Illinois Refuses Request To Return Famous Mexican General’s Wooden Leg

Late last month a bus carrying about 25 Texan students, mostly Latino, rolled into Springfield. The group was on a mission concerning the legacy of Santa Anna, who led many battles during the Mexican American War. Springfield is home to something that was once very close to the Mexican General, and the students say it belongs back in his home country, all these decades later.

This story starts in 1847, during the battle of Cerro Gordo. In a quest to take control of Mexico City, American Soldiers, including a regiment from Illinois, were successful in driving away Mexican troops holding a defensive position. Over 1,000 soldiers died in the battle.

Santa Anna fled and among the things left behind in his haste was his prosthetic leg. Illinois soldiers turned over an abandoned bag of gold to their superiors -- then ate what was meant to be his chicken dinner, and kept the leg. It now is in the Illinois State Military Museum in Springfield.

(Above is a clip about the leg that appeared in TV show King of the Hill.)

Teresa Van Hoy is a history professor from St. Mary's University in San Antonio. She says the leg belongs in Mexico. She helped her students stage a memorial at the feet of Abraham Lincoln's statue outside the Illinois capitol building. She says she wanted to talk with Illinois residents about a side of Lincoln that's not often discussed. "Abraham Lincoln defended Mexico, Mexicans and Mexican Americans throughout his political career. He did so at enormous risk - he caught enormous criticism in the press, and we still remember - and we're still grateful," says Van Hoy.

Professor Van Hoy and students stage a memorial

While Santa Anna is not generally favorably looked upon by American historians - Van Hoy says he was successful in fighting off impositions for his country multiple times, and history should not be considered in simplistic terms of "bad versus good." Van Hoy says she and her students weren't sure what to expect upon their arrival: "Frankly we were a little worried that there would not be a very warm reception - and I had to say look, you know - people might just hate ya." University of Illinois Springfield professor, Devin Hunter, facilitated a discussion between locals and the group of students from Texas. "I can say the reception here among the history community has honestly been mixed, depending on the institution ... there's all sort of bureaucracies and institutional missions ... so there's a lot of complicating factors."

listen to a conversation with UIS professor Devin Hunter

Van Hoy's students made the trek to Springfield voluntarily, including 18 year old Andre Grajeda. He says he got involved to, "Change the perception of Mexico/Mexican Americans - you know especially with politics today, I think it's important to look at history from both sides of the story." It's certainly been a provocative prompt for dialogue. "You know my family or friends ask how school's going, it's like 'Oh - I'm going to Illinois! ... I'm going to go bring back a prosthetic leg!' You should see the faces I get!" After the memorial demonstration, the Texas group left the capitol grounds to meet with University of Illinois Springfield students, professors, and historians for the off-the-record discussion.

The next day, the Texas group went to the Illinois State Military Museum to finally see the leg, which has been kept in storage as of late. Two men carried it out in a large gray box, revealing the cork, leather and wood prosthetic inside. It led to a lively, though civil discussion.

Listen to a conversation with Lieutenant Colonel Brad Leighton, public affairs director for the Illinois National Guard. He talks about the history of the leg and why the museum will never give it up.

Some students cried as it was explained by the museum's director and curator that this issue has cropped up numerous times - and the answer to requests for its relocation will always be, "No." Curator Bill Lear told the group, "As a museum - it's about education. Yeah, it's Santa Anna's leg. And however you feel about him - if you want to glorify him or if you want to villainize him, whatever ... But the leg isn't so much the story. It's the story of Illinois soldiers and the battle. What this is, is a vehicle for a conversation so that we can educate. You guys have probably learned more about Illinois history because of this leg than you would have if we didn't have it." Lear wrapped up the conversation and the leg was put back in storage.

Credit Rachel Otwell
Professor Van Hoy leads students into the museum

Student Eric Villalpando says the defensive position of the museum was understandable - yet he hopes to continue this fight. "I think we can go back to Texas and talk about it a little more, and maybe get a little more recognition from Mexico - to really dig into it." So far no Mexican official has formally requested the return of Santa Anna's leg. Professor Van Hoy says the battle isn't over yet though - she plans to keep the effort on a grass-roots level for now, and hopes to later poll Illinois residents on what they think should become of the leg and its legacy.

Rachel Otwell of the Illinois Times is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
Related Stories