It is very hard for non-Texans to understand the value of Texas history in the Lone Star State. I write this as someone who grew up in the most non-Texas place in the country (New York City), and came to Texas for the first time for my job interview (layovers at DFW and IAH don’t count). But, Texas history is a big, big deal. And central to that history are the battles fought against Mexico for independence. Central to that war was General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who led the attack on The Alamo, and who ultimately surrendered to the Texians following the Battle of San Jacinto. And, Texas is gearing up for another battle over Santa Anna. This time with Illinois.
Last month, the San Jacinto Battle Monument and Museum launched a petition on the White House website, hoping to get 100,000 signatures to lure an important artifact to Texas. It suggested that the wooden and cork leg used by Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna — the villain of the Alamo and Goliad and a figure deeply embedded in Texas lore — should join other historical items in a Texas museum.
The leg, curiously enough, is in the Illinois State Military Museum in Springfield. And officials there are in no mood to give it up.
“We know Santa Anna is a big deal in Texas history,” said museum curator Bill Lear. “But it’s here. It’s going to stay here. You don’t trade artifacts.”
Given that attitude, San Jacinto museum officials thought a petition might do something to kick it loose.
“We tried to get the White House to diplomatically tiptoe between the interests of the states,” said San Jacinto museum president Larry Spasic.
There is a certain irony that Texas, where the President’s federal authority is not exactly respected, is asking the President, a native son of Illinois, for federal help here.
“I cannot imagine a president from Illinois seriously trying to remove a piece of Illinois history and send it to Texas,” he said this week.
I couldn’t agree more.
How the heck did Illinois get the leg anyway?
While Texas has coveted the piece for years, the state has no real claim to it.
Santa Anna had both his original legs when he led Mexican forces against the rebellious Texians. He eventually lost the war and territory in the 1836 Battle of San Jacinto.
Two years later, back in Veracruz, Mexico, Santa Anna was fighting invading French forces when cannon fire shattered his ankle, forcing the amputation of his leg.
He took the lost leg and had it buried with full military honors. Later, during the U.S. war with Mexico, the Mexican general had to beat a hasty retreat on a donkey during the Battle of Cerro Gordo in 1847, Lear said. A contingent of Illinois infantrymen overtook his position, finding Santa Anna’s carriage with a sack of gold and the prosthesis.
They kept the leg. The veteran who owned it even sold peeks at the leg during the 1850s and 1860s for 10 cents a pop, before his family donated it to the state.
Note the word “Texian.” This is how the people in the Republic of Texas, before it joined the United States, are called.
This reminds me of an episode of the West Wing where North Carolina demanded that Connecticut return a copy of the state’s Bill of Rights, that was stolen by a Union soldier during the Civil War. This is actually the episode where Akhil Amar is mentioned as Josh Lyman’s law school classmates.
- Akhil Amar was mentioned during last night’s “West Wing” episode. Josh Lyman said “One of my law school classmates published an article on the constitutionality of Lincoln’s general order” and another character (a lawyer from North Carolina complaining about the fact that North Carolina’s copy of the Bill of Rights was stolen by a Union soldier in the Civil War) said “Akhil Amar.”
It’s actually a thorny constitutional issue. If Lincoln’s view of the war is correct, and the south never really seceded, than all of the property in the rebel states could be seized under the Union’s executive authority to put down the insurrection. After all, this was the legal basis of the Emancipation Proclamation–the slaves were seized as property of the rebels, and immediately emancipated. Note that none of the slaves in the Union states were emancipated, as these states were not in rebellion.
The director of the Illinois Museum is not giving it up.
“The leg is a big draw for our museum,” Lear said. “It’s a centerpiece.”
He also mentioned that almost a decade ago there were some rumblings of Texas obtaining Santa Anna’s leg and trading it to Mexico in exchange for a flag that flew over the Alamo, now displayed in a Mexico City museum.
There was a wariness in his voice.
“It doesn’t go on loan to anyone because it’s a main exhibit for us,” Lear said.
He is almost daring them come and take it.
“No one had anything in mind for removing it by force,” he said. “And if the leg goes missing, we’ll just keep it between us.”
Not to worry, Illinois. He was just pulling your leg.