Uncle Albert: “What’s the name of his other leg?” —Mary Poppins (1964)
In A Nutshell
General Antonio López de Santa Anna played a pivotal role in Mexico’s early years. But his role was to lose more than he gained for his country. He lost half of Mexico’s territory during two of his 11 short presidencies. Extolled for winning an important battle early in his career, he lost nearly every battle afterward. Worse, his right leg became one of the few casualties in a ridiculous conflict known as the Pastry War. And when he got a prosthetic replacement, he lost that in yet another war.
The Whole Bushel
Santa Anna was born in 1794 to a middle-class Spanish family living in Jalapa, Vera Cruz in what was then the massive colony of New Spain. As a teen, Santa Anna won a commission in the Spanish army and rose quickly through the ranks, a colonel by the time he was 26.
In 1821, Santa Anna fought against the rebels in their effort to win independence from Spain. But in the middle of the campaign, Santa Anna sensed the Spaniards were about to lose and switched sides to fight beside the rebels. It was a good gamble.
The years following independence were turbulent, and Spain took the opportunity to try retake Mexico in 1829. Santa Anna quickly put together an army and repelled the Spaniards at Tampico, becoming a national hero.
Santa Anna rode his fame into the presidency in 1833 as the first elected (if unopposed) president of Mexico. But he soon declared himself dictator. As Mexico teetered on civil war, disgruntled Americans and Mexicans in Texas, dissatisfied with the chaos, took the opportunity to sever ties from Mexico.
Santa Anna responded in 1836 by leading an army into Texas. While Santa Anna successfully annihilated a rebel force at the Alamo, the rebels delayed Santa Anna for two weeks and inflicted casualties three times those they bore. Then Sam Houston attacked Santa Anna at San Jacinto River, capturing him and destroying much of his army. Santa Anna was forced to recognize the Republic of Texas.
Santa Anna returned to Mexico in disgrace and retired to his hacienda. He would have remained there, a minor historical footnote if it were not for a French chef named Remontel who had his Mexico City pastry shop ransacked by drunken Mexican soldiers in 1828. Remontel demanded 60,000 pesos for reparations and, after he was ignored by the Mexican government, took his case to the French court. The court was already inundated by complaints from French banks who complained that Mexico had defaulted on their loans. The European press used Remontel’s claim as a symbol for the war that followed, dubbing it the Pastry War.
When France demanded that Mexico pay 600,000 pesos for loan reparations, the cash-strapped Mexico City refused. In 1838, France captured Mexico’s entire fleet and blockaded its single major port, Vera Cruz. Mexico’s economy quickly ground to a halt. Desperate, they turned to Santa Anna.
The general gathered about 3,000 soldiers and attacked the 30,000 French troops at Vera Cruz. Predictably, Santa Anna was beaten, but as he was withdrawing, a cannonball hit his leg. It was subsequently amputated. He made much of his sacrifice for the cause, parading his severed leg through the Mexico City streets and burying it with full military honors. Finally, Mexico agreed to repay France, and the blockade was lifted. The French suffered a total of eight casualties in the Pastry War, while the Mexicans suffered 200.
Santa Anna quickly squandered what little fame he garnered from the Pastry War and found himself in exile when war broke out between the US and Mexico in 1846. The general returned home once more to save his country. In the Battle of Cerro Gordo in 1847, Santa Anna was surprised when American forces attacked him. He was forced to escape on the back of a donkey, leaving his prosthetic leg behind. Illinois soldiers found it and took it back to America.
When Mexico surrendered, they were forced to sign a treaty that ceded nearly half its territory to the US in exchange for $15 million.
But Santa Anna wasn’t done with losing Mexican property. Once again dictator in 1854, he sold the US a huge chunk of border territory for $10 million in order to pay off national debts. Mexican citizens were so furious that they deposed him, tried him for treason, and confiscated his property. He would spend the next 20 years in exile until he was given amnesty in 1874. He died two years later.
As for his prosthetic leg, an Illinois veteran sold it to the state; it still resides in a military museum. Mexico has attempted several times to bring Santa Anna’s leg home, but thus far the museum has refused. The curator claims the leg is one of its most popular exhibits.