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Illinois museum stands its ground over Gen. Santa Anna's leg

Museum in Illinois' capital houses Gen. Santa Anna's wooden leg, collected by Illinois soldiers

Illinois museum officials say their Lone Star State counterparts have no leg to stand on as they seek a prosthesis from Springfield.

The curator of the Illinois State Military Museum plans to keep Mexican Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna's wooden leg despite a failed petition that sought to temporarily display the artifact in suburban Houston.

For Texans, it seems to be a bit of a sore point that the artificial limb resides in a glass case 875 miles northeast of the Alamo.

But folks here say the leg, a battlefield trophy captured by soldiers from Illinois in 1847 in the Mexican-American War, is a piece of local military history that's a big draw at the downstate museum.

"It's not going anywhere," said curator Bill Lear. "It's going to stay.

"This is a centerpiece of the museum and a very important artifact to tell the story of Illinois soldiers and the sacrifice that they have made in service of this country."

After overpowering their Mexican foes in the Battle of Cerro Gordo, Lear said, Illinois soldiers found a carriage left on the battlefield. Inside they discovered gold and an artificial leg that belonged to Santa Anna.

The men carried the limb back to Illinois, Lear said, and one of the soldiers displayed it for years in his home in Pekin, outside Peoria.

In recent decades it has been at the state military museum, which is run by the Illinois National Guard and tells the story of armed service in Illinois from 18th century militias to modern conflicts.

The leg hasn't been lent out in decades, if ever, Lear said.

As eager as Texas is to display Santa Anna's leg, Lear said it's not clear that the prosthesis has even been in the Lone Star State. Santa Anna had both his legs while leading Mexican forces at the Alamo, more than a decade before Cerro Gordo.

Nonetheless, the San Jacinto Museum of History in La Porte, Texas, urged patrons to "show your Texas pride and sign" an online White House petition to temporarily display the leg at the site.

"We feel the trophy belongs at the site of Santa Anna's surrender to the forces under Gen. Sam Houston at San Jacinto," said the museum's website. The petition failed to get enough signatures to receive a White House response.

Santa Anna, who had a long political and military career in Mexico, is the subject of intense historical scorn in Texas, said James Garza, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln historian who specializes in 19th century Mexico.

"He's sort of the villain of Texas history," said Garza, who is from Texas. "He's the anti-Alamo. And in Texas, there's a lot of adulation of the battle of the Alamo."

Lear, the Springfield curator, said he recognized Santa Anna's ties to Texas, but he believes the artificial limb is an important reminder of Illinois' contributions to the Mexican-American War.

"We've lost soldiers in the Mexican war as well," Lear said, "and Illinois soldiers were the ones who came across this and captured it."

Lear said a loan to the Texas museum isn't an option — both because of the wooden leg's showcase status in Illinois' collection and concerns about its security. He said his museum's collection depends on contributions from Illinois veterans and their families.

"We don't give artifacts away," Lear said. "Museums are in the public trust. Our soldiers, when they come back from war, they'll give us things. If we just turn around and give those away the first time someone gets upset about it, we might as well just close our doors."

Tribune reporter Maura Zurick in Springfield contributed to this report.

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