The controversial but highly influential Mexican general Antonio López de Santa Anna dominated Mexico during his lifetime to such an extent that he earned the nickname “Napoleon of the West” and the period of Mexican history during which he lived is sometimes called the “Age of Santa Anna”. However, his military adventures were often risky and unwise in the long term; Mexico lost much of its territory during his time.
One such adventure ended in Santa Anna’s disgraceful defeat by Texan revolutionaries, which forced the general to retire. However, Santa Anna would get the chance to make a comeback during the so-called Pastry War of 1838/1839, when the French sent troops to Mexico after the latter refused to pay compensation for damages to French citizens’ property during the recent unrest in Mexico City, and because Mexico owed a large debt to France.
The French blockaded Mexican ports and sent a force to capture Vera Cruz, which was Santa Anna’s main power base. Santa Anna came out of retirement in order to organize a defense of the city. However, he was wounded by cannon fire in the leg during a skirmish with the French and had to have it amputated. Mexico eventually capitulated to French demands and agreed to pay war reparations.
Four years later (in 1842), the leg was dug up and subsequently buried with full military honors, involving cannon salvos, speeches, prayers, and poems recited in the general’s honor. It was interred in a crystal vase and buried beneath an elaborate monument in the Santa Paula Cemetery. Santa Anna skillfully used the publicity to return to power as president.
Among other things, Santa Anna would sometimes hold his prosthetic leg above his head during parades, reminding everyone of his sacrifice. The prosthetic leg was captured by enemy troops in 1847, during the Mexican-American War – Santa Anna himself evaded capture by hopping to a nearby horse. The leg can still be seen on display in the Illinois State Military Museum.