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September 25th, 2013
Bartee Haile: Amputated limb gave Santa Anna a leg up

This Week in Texas History:
A column
by BARTEE HAILE

Santa

General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna

Back in business after the disgrace at San Jacinto, Santa Anna oversaw the bizarre burial of his own amputated leg on Sept. 27, 1842.

For the third-rate Napoleon, not even a grotesque funeral for a shriveled limb was too crude a gimmick if it helped him stay in power.

Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna at age 42 looked like a hopeless has-been after the humiliation of 1836.  Losing a province to the ragtag Texans was bad enough, but far worse in the eyes of his countrymen was his signing of the treaties that legitimized Lone Star independence.  Mexicans could forgive defeat but never dishonor.

During the stormy months following the Texans’ triumph, Andrew Jackson preached against putting the prisoner Santa Anna to death.  In a stroke of diplomatic genius, Sam Houston dumped the problem in the lap of his meddlesome mentor by shipping the hated captive off to Washington.

At the earliest opportunity, President Jackson sent home the uninvited guest, who went into comfortable seclusion at his plush hacienda.  Confident the chronic chaos which cursed Mexican politics would eventually pave the way for his comeback, Santa Anna merely bided his time.

He did not have long to wait.  In 1838 a French fleet showed up off Veracruz to collect an old debt.  For ten years, Mexican officials had ignored 600,000 pesos in damage claims from French residents for property destroyed in a riot.  The shelling of coastal communities by the warships started “The Pastry War,” so called because one of the petitioners was a pastry cook.

Oblivious to the fact that he had not the slightest shred of authority, Santa Anna rushed out of retirement to take command of the Mexican troops at Veracruz.  He succeeded only in stopping a cannonball with his leg, which was sawed off on the spot, but the grandstand play catapulted the outcast back into the spotlight.

Promises of full payment ended The Pastry War, but the departure of the French navy did not delay the disintegration of the fragile republic.  Torn apart by selfish factions in the capital and separatist movements in the countryside, the doomed regime dissolved into anarchy.

Soured on representative rule, Mexicans turned in desperation to strongman Santa Anna to save them from themselves.  He was happy to oblige for a price.

Santa Anna did not bother with the facade of democracy preferring instead a naked dictatorship.  If he wanted to call all the shots, that was just fine with most Mexicans, who were sick and tired of the incessant strife.

It was like old times for El Presidente and his pals.  With unprecedented extravagance he spent the already destitute nation into the poorhouse.  While distracting the masses with parades and fiestas reminiscent of the Roman empire, he handed out fat contracts to his cronies, who shared the wealth with their corrupt benefactor.

Reaching new heights of megalomania, Santa Anna commissioned a giant statue of his humble self with an arm pointing north toward Texas.  A symbol of his hollow pledge to retake the liberated land from the detested gringos, the tough-talking tyrant shied away from making good the threat.  He was not about to tempt fate a second time by stepping onto a battlefield against an army of Texans.

Santa Anna did realize public opinion had to be appeased and okayed two hit-and run seizures of San Antonio in 1842.  Though militarily meaningless, these escapades restored a measure of national self-respect and prolonged the Mexican fantasy of taking back Texas.

Exhuming the mummified remains of his missing leg, Santa Anna ordered it entombed with full military honors in a marble vault in the Mexico City cathedral.  He hoped to mystically transform the limb into a revered national relic.

Soon after 20,000 hired mourners grieved at the passing of his first wife, Santa Anna scandalized every stratum of society by taking a 15 year old girl for his new bride. Naturally the marriage did not interfere with his philandering, and all Mexico enjoyed a good laugh at the expense of the pompous dictator when one of his lady friends made off with his medals.

By 1845 Santa Anna was back in the doghouse.  The same fickle mobs that had cheered his return to power now hailed his successor, demolished his beautiful statue and tossed his rotten leg in the sewer.

Lucky to escape with his life, Santa Anna wisely sailed into exile rather than put up a fight.  The risky thought of resisting the verdict never crossed his mind for he knew full well that the setback was strictly temporary.

After all, it was merely a matter of time until his critics changed their minds and welcomed him home with open arms.  Like quarrelsome lovers, Mexico and Santa Anna always kissed and made up.

Bartee welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549 or  haile@pdq.net and invites you to visit his new web site at  barteehaile.com.


San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.

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