By Ron Jensen
Published October 21, 2021 in The Burg
Did you know that the artificial leg of Santa Anna, the Mexican general who commanded the siege of the Alamo, is in an Illinois museum?
Kudos if you did.
I first wrote about it in 2014 while working for National Guard magazine in Washington, D.C., and was reminded of it when I recently wrote here about the myths surrounding the Texas battle of 1836.
The prosthetic limb is in Springfield, part of the collection of the Illinois State Military Museum administered by the Illinois National Guard, not far from Abraham Lincoln’s tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery.
How the leg made of cork and covered with leather got there is a tale I enjoy telling.
Eleven years after the battle in San Antonio, Mexico and the United States were at war. Gen. Winfield Scott’s force was marching inland from the Mexican coast.
Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was defending Cerro Gordo with 12,000 soldiers, but Capt. Robert E. Lee suggested to Scott a flanking maneuver that took Santa Anna by surprise April 18, 1847.
Soldiers with the 4th Illinois Regiment overran his position during his lunch of roast chicken. Santa Anna escaped on a donkey, but the Illinois troops captured his carriage, along with the remains of his meal, a stash of gold coins and his artificial leg.
The Illinois soldiers polished off the general’s chicken, gave the gold to Scott’s aide for safekeeping and held onto the leg. One story claims that 2nd Lt. William A. Tinney of Pekin showed the leg to Scott, who said, “It’s yours. Take good care of it.”
Nearly 175 years later, the 48-inch-long appendage with a boot attached remains in good hands.
There have been attempts to wrest it away. When I wrote about this a few years ago, Bill Lear, the museum curator, told me the San Jacinto Battle Monument and Museum in Texas had sought White House help in acquiring the artifact a few months earlier.
Their effort got attention in major newspapers and on CNN, but the leg stayed put.
Lear said Texas really has no leg to stand on in seeking the artifact. When Santa Anna overwhelmed the Alamo, he walked on the legs he had since his birth. The artificial limb has, Lear told me, “never set foot in Texas.”
Santa Anna lost his leg two years after the Alamo battle in a war with France. He had the artificial leg made during a visit to New York. Charles Bartlett, who had been a cabinet maker before becoming known for his artificial limbs, fashioned it for him.
There have been other attempts to wrench the leg from the Illinois Guard. The Mexican government once offered Texas the flag that had flown over the Alamo during the 13-day siege if the Lone Star State could acquire the leg and pass it along, but nothing came of it.
“It’s not going anywhere,” Lear said of the leg.
The museum has many other artifacts that tell the state’s military story. One is a plank marked by seven bullet holes made when President Lincoln tested a new repeating Spencer rifle in August 1863 at the White House. Seven shots and seven hits by the president from the Land of Lincoln.
(The author was raised near Gerlaw and went to school in Alexis. He has worked for The Review Atlas, The Register-Mail and other publications.)