Lincoln and the leg

San Antonio students travel to Springfield to honor Lincoln and to open discussion around Santa Anna’s prosthetic leg

Megan Swett, Assistant Editor for News

While most Americans remember Abraham Lincoln as the man who freed the slaves and saved the Union, another side to the 16th president of the United States exists for many.

A group of students from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio arrived in Springfield on Oct. 28. Among other things, they gathered in front of the capitol building and set up a Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, altar at the base of Lincoln’s statue.

“We want to introduce the people of Illinois to our Abraham Lincoln,” Professor Teresa Van Hoy said as she addressed the crowd of students, press, and the documentary film crew that followed the group’s journey.

As Van Hoy explained, Mexico and Mexican-Americans know a different Lincoln than the people who just know him from his presidency.

Van Hoy said, “Our Lincoln was the most outspoken voice in opposition to the Mexican War … he regarded the war as possibly an invasion … [and] Mexicans heard that voice.”

While Lincoln never withheld financial support from the Illinois troops that fought in the war, he openly spoke against the war and President James K. Polk, even demanding to know what exact spot on American soil that American blood was spilled on to justify the war in an address to Congress known as the “Spot Resolutions.”

Lincoln also stood against Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, or Napoleon III, as he attempted to establish a French empire in Mexico with Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian as the emperor.

“Lincoln stood against [Napoleon III] … even though Napoleon threatened to join the Confederacy if [Lincoln] did not recognize Maximilian’s government,” Von Hoy said.

Lincoln wasn’t the only reason Van Hoy and her students traveled to Illinois, however. Another driving factor was the potential repatriation of Santa Anna’s prosthetic leg back to Mexico.

Antonio López de Santa Anna was the president and eventual dictator of Mexico at the time of the Mexican-American War. Santa Anna lost his left leg in a three-month battle with the French that began in late 1838.

He went on to bury his amputated leg with full military honors.

“He was really prideful,” said José Antonio de la Fuente Gonzalez, a student of Van Hoy’s and a resident of the border city Brownsville, Texas. “The Mexican people dug up his leg once he gave up [52 percent of Mexico] and started waving it around.”

Santa Anna’s prosthetic leg was captured by the 4th Illinois Infantry and is currently on display at the Illinois State Military Museum on MacArthur Boulevard.

While Van Hoy and her students hope to get the leg back from the state of Illinois, they understand if the Illinois people choose to keep it.

“But,” Van Hoy said, “…we don’t accept it as a top-down [declaration]. We accept it as a bottom-up expression of the people’s will, because the leg is being held in the name of the people of Illinois.

“And if the people of Illinois say ‘Look, this leg defines us. This leg is who we are,’ we honor that,” she continued. “But we’re hoping that the people of Illinois will not feel defined by a leg lost by a man trying to defend his nation from foreign invaders.”

Van Hoy hopes to encourage Illinois residents to look into their own histories and find other things to be defined by. In the earlier part of Friday, she and her students visited the state archives located in the Margaret Cross Norton building off of Spring Street and studied the personal diaries of Illinois regiment volunteers to develop a better understanding of the volunteers’ personalities and motivations.

“I want to start a crowdsourcing history project,” Van Hoy explained. “I want everybody in Illinois to say ‘Hey, I found something in my great-grandfather’s papers …’ and the people of Illinois begin to tell their history.”

UIS freshmen Anahi Barraza and Briana Rodriguez with the Organization of Latin American Students (OLAS) and Together We Are One group, respectively, attended the Dia de los Muertos tribute to Lincoln and heard Van Hoy’s aspiration.

Rodriguez has been working to build a bridge between OLAS and Together We Are One to spread the word to students.

“I feel like people deserve to know about this,” she said. “Maybe not everybody is going to be on our side, but at least [we’ll] spread more awareness …”

Barraza said, “Considering OLAS is for Organization of Latin American Students, it’s an important issue to us because it relates to us. And what [Rodriguez] is trying to do and what I’m trying to help her with is to gain this exposure and gain more attention from UIS students that are part of this OLAS group.”

Van Hoy and her students will continue their efforts to repatriate Santa Anna’s leg back to Mexico for exactly one year from last Friday, Oct. 28. If, in that time, the Illinois people decide to keep the leg, Van Hoy and her students are ready to accept that decision.