The News-Gazette (Champaign, Illinois)
March 30, 1998

Santa Anna's leg took a long walk

 
                          By PAUL WOOD
                          © 1998 THE NEWS-GAZETTE

                             CERRO GORDO Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna could be lucky in war, notably at the Alamo,
                          but he had a problem with food.
                             He lost his leg in the so-called French Pastry War, fought between France and Mexico in 1838. Then in
                          1847, facing the United States at the Battle of Cerro Gordo in Mexico, he stopped paying attention to the
                          war long enough to linger over a roast chicken.
                             His lunch was interrupted by an uninvited regiment of Illinoisans, who ate the general's chicken and carried
                          off his cork leg. Santa Anna hobbled away to fight another day.
                             It was a huge victory for the 4th Regiment Illinois Volunteers, who also discovered a hoard of gold used
                          to pay Mexican soldiers. It was an even bigger victory for Capt. Robert E. Lee, whose fame led eventually
                          to his command of Confederate forces 15 years later in the Civil War.
                             Some of the soldiers returned to Piatt County, where the town of Griswold was renamed Cerro Gordo in
                          commemoration of the battle. The Volunteers regiment would eventually become the Illinois National
                          Guard, and its trophy of war, Santa Anna's cork leg, now resides in the Guard's museum, Camp Lincoln in
                          Springfield.
                             Over the years, the Mexican government has asked for Santa Anna's leg back. Not that it would do the
                          general any good, though it might show a little sensitivity. Artificial legs aren't as funny as they were in the
                          1850s, when veterans charged a nickel or a dime for curiosity-seekers to handle the leg in hotel bars.
                             Santa Anna's prosthesis had 30 minutes of fame earlier this month when the Fox animated television series
                          "King of The Hill" did a show on the topic a surprisingly accurate one.
                             It tells how the general was surprised while eating chicken and credits the Illinois Volunteers. The show's
                          one error had the leg traveling to Texas as a portable historical exhibit.
                             Mark Whitlock of Camp Lincoln's Illinois State Military Museum says the leg is going nowhere, ever. "It's
                          an important part of Illinois history," he said.
                             Cerro Gordo's place in history is marked by an inscription on the shin of the leg:
                             "General Santa Anna's cork leg, captured at the Battle of Cerro Gordo, Mexico, by Private A. Waldron,
                          First Sergeant Sam Rhoades, Second Sergeant John M. Gill April 18, 1847, all of the Fourth Regiment,
                          Illinois Volunteers of the Mexican War."
                             There are still Rhoadeses and Gills in Piatt County, but no one contacted by The News-Gazette could
                          remember a family history involving the war against Mexico, chicken dinners and a cork leg.
                             Helping to untangle the Cerro Gordian knot is Sheila Coffman, who now lives near LaPlace.
                             She's heard stories of the victory and how a central Illinois town got a Spanish name. It means "Fat
                          Hill,"CQ she pointed out.
                             The name is also fitting because of the town's elevated status as one of the high points between St. Louis
                          and Danville, she said.
                             She doesn't know the name of the volunteers, but she said a town father, George (Gordy) Peck, fought in
                          the war.
                             "You should look for a Peck," she said. "There's Pecks by the bushels around here." If that is not a
                          famous line in Cerro Gordo, it ought to be.
                             One prominent Peck (by marriage) is retired fourth-grade teacher Dorma Wood.
                             She's related to many a leader. One part of her family traces its ancestry to Charlemagne, who was king
                          of France before it was called France. She also claims Abraham Lincoln as a relative.
                             "I'm a first cousin four times removed," she said.
                             She knows the Peck history from her late husband's side. Gordy (sometimes spelled Gordie) Peck was a
                          forbear of her husband and owned the stagecoach station.
                             At 91, she is closer to Cerro Gordo history than most. She remembers that six men from the future town
                          of Cerro Gordo, Ill., fought in the battle of Cerro Gordo, Mexico.
                             "One man lost his left forearm," she said.
                             One of the returning veterans was Gordy Peck. A local history book, "The Good Life In Piatt County,"
                          also lists Laban Chambers, John Post, A. Froman and Bazel Wells as Cerro Gordo veterans.
                             Though their names are not inscribed on Santa Anna's shin, the battle was important enough for them to
                          want to immortalize it as the town name.
                             The battle was payback for the Alamo.
                             Lee and Gen. Winfield Scott were triumphant over Santa Anna, who had lost some of his speed and
                          quickness along with his leg in the French Pastry War. (That brief and forgotten scuffle was started when
                          Mexican soldiers plundered a French pastry chef's restaurant. True story.
                             And the battle is apparently still warmly remembered in Texas, the site of the fictional town in "King of
                          The Hill." A Fox spokesman said the writer of the episode had learned of Santa Anna's sorrows as a boy,
                          and it stuck with him.
                             Santa Anna, and later the Mexican government, tried repeatedly to get the leg back.