Tag Archives: Mexican War

In James K. Polk news…

Polk’s current resting place on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol. By Brent Moore from Antioch, TN (President James K. Polk tomb, Nashville) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s not often that Young Hickory has a big news week, but a couple of developments have quite a few people talking about James K. Polk lately.

First up: his corpse might be taking up new quarters.  It wouldn’t be the first time it’s happened.  Like a lot of other historical figures, Polk’s mortal coil has had quite the active career.

He died of cholera at Polk Place, his Nashville home near the site of the present Tennessee State Capitol, just three months after leaving office.  Despite his request to be laid to rest there, he was initially buried in a cemetery on the outskirts of the city as demanded by law for cholera victims.  Shortly thereafter his remains went back to Polk Place for interment, where they stayed for more than forty years.  But in 1893, the bodies of Polk and his wife got relocated to the Capitol grounds and laid to rest beneath a monument designed by the same architect responsible for the Capitol building itself.  It wasn’t where the former president wanted to spend the afterlife, but it was close—just a short distance from Polk Place, which got demolished in 1900.

There the matter (and Polk) rested until a current proposal that state lawmakers are considering, which would entail moving the remains again, this time to the President James K. Polk Home and Museum in Columbia, TN.  Polk’s father built the Columbia house in 1816, and the future president lived there until his marriage in 1824.  The site’s curator says the move would accord with Polk’s desire to be buried at home, since the Columbia museum is his only residence still standing (other than the White House).  Joey Hensley, a state senator who supports the reinterment, has also argued that the current tomb is too easy to overlook.

The relocation is one step closer to happening, since the state senate has given its approval.  But both houses of the General Assembly, the state historical commission, and the courts have to agree before anybody starts digging, and the state historian thinks it’s a bad idea.

Personally, I think the sensible thing to do is leave the grave where it is.  In his will, Polk didn’t request burial “at home,” but specifically at Polk Place.  Since Polk Place itself is gone, fulfilling that request to the letter isn’t possible, but the State Capitol is just a short walk from where the house stood.  It seems as appropriate a spot as any, especially since it’s a place of honor at the seat of the state government.  That’s just my take.

The other Polk news item is the publication of another volume of his papers by the fine folks at UT’s James K. Polk Project.  This new volume includes valuable material on the end of the Mexican War and the consequent U.S. territorial gains, one of the most important developments of Polk’s presidency.

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Illinois calls “finders, keepers” on Santa Anna’s leg

I guess this story is sort of Halloween-appropriate, since it involves a severed body part.  It’s a fake body part, but still.

A history professor from Texas believes there’s an appropriate place for Mexican general and president Santa Anna’s artificial leg and it isn’t the Illinois State Military Museum in Springfield.

Teresa Van Hoy thinks it should be returned to Mexico, where he headed the Mexican government 11 times.

The state says it is staying right here.

“To us it’s non-negotiable,” said Lt. Col. Brad Leighton, public affairs director for the Illinois Department of Military Affairs. “They say they want to start a conversation. That conversation has been made before. We’re not interested in a conversation. The answer is no. The leg is where it belongs and it’s staying here.”

Van Hoy is a history professor at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, which also is home to the Alamo, the mission famous for its 13-day stand against Santa Anna’s army in 1836.

She was in Springfield Friday with about two dozen students who constructed a “Day of the Dead” memorial at the statue of Abraham Lincoln on the state Capitol grounds. The memorial is intended to recognize Lincoln’s “career-long solidarity with Mexico, Mexicans and Mexican Americans,” the university said in an announcement of the trip.

They were accompanied by a crew producing a film called “Santa Anna in the Land of Lincoln,” which is part of a project of the class.

“(Lincoln) was the most outspoken critic of the Mexican War,” Van Hoy said. “It seems to us logical that it does not honor Abraham Lincoln to hold on display a leg captured in that war less than a mile from his tomb.”

The leg is housed at the military museum at 1301 N. MacArthur Blvd. It is currently not on public display as part of the museum’s practice of putting some artifacts in storage periodically.

It is in the Illinois museum because soldiers from Illinois captured the leg during the battle of Cerro Gordo in 1847 during the Mexican-American War, also known simply as the Mexican War.

I just want to note that if I’d known the State Military Museum had Santa Anna’s wooden leg when I was in Springfield, I would’ve skipped the ALPLM and gone there instead.

Santa Anna was eating in his carriage and had removed his artificial leg when the Illinois soldiers surprised him. Santa Anna escaped, but he left the leg behind. The captured leg, which was made in New York out of cork, is probably the most famous artifact in the military museum.

Van Hoy said the history goes beyond just Santa Anna’s leg.

“There is a really rich history here and unfortunately, so far in my view, it has been reduced to a freak show exhibit which doesn’t do full honor to the people of Illinois or the veterans of Illinois,” she said.

Leighton said the leg is a tribute to the 68 Illinois soldiers who died during the battle of Cerro Gordo and the 98 who died during the war.

“We paid for that leg with Illinois blood,” Leighton said. “It honors our soldiers; it honors their service, and it was put in our public trust by our troops to keep in perpetuity. And that’s where it’s going to stay.”…

Van Hoy said she wants people to understand that “hating Santa Anna is toxic.”

“It’s toxic for Mexican-Americans, it’s toxic for the United States where we’re fetishizing a body part,” she said. “It’s toxic for Mexico where their treasures are just held as a freak show exhibit. We can do better than this.”

I think it’s interesting that neither Van Hoy nor Leighton base their arguments on whether or not the leg serves any educational or interpretive function.  Leighton wants to keep it because it “honors our soldiers,” while Van Hoy wants to send it back because it’s “toxic” for Americans and people of Mexican descent.

From a curatorial standpoint, I don’t think there’s anything inherently immoral or “toxic” about putting the leg on display.  Museums are full of items that were captured as war trophies—weapons, flags, bits of uniforms—and remain on exhibit because of their historical significance.  If Van Hoy wants to make a case that Santa Anna’s leg isn’t a proper subject for an exhibition, she has her work cut out for her.

If I was a curator, I wouldn’t pass up the chance to exhibit such a compelling object.  With proper contextualization, you could use it to teach visitors something about why Illinois troops would claim such an object as a trophy, how nineteenth-century Americans understood Mexico and the war, and so on.

At the same time, however, I’m not totally on board with Lt. Col. Leighton’s argument for keeping the leg in the museum, either.  Rather than invoking the object’s interpretive or educational utility, he argues that it was bought with “Illinois blood” and that it honors the service of Illinoisans.  Both of those statements may be true, but they fail to take into account some of the nuances surrounding the repatriation of historical artifacts.

Of course, I’m well aware that I’m bringing my own inclinations and biases to bear on this question.  As a museum guy, I see the object in terms of its historical and educational significance.  As a soldier, Leighton sees it as a validation of the military sacrifices of his comrades, past and present.  And as someone concerned with the history of Mexican-U.S. relations, Van Hoy sees it as a symbol of the long, troubled relationship between the two nations.

In other words, people engage the past from many different perspectives, and not all of them are detached and academic.

Anyway, if you want to see the leg for yourself, you’ll have to wait a couple of years.  The museum has temporarily taken it off exhibit for a little TLC.  Sounds like they’re taking better care of it than Santa Anna did.

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