History In The Headlines

The Pastry War, 175 Years Ago

By Christopher Klein
The Pastry War may sound like a bake-off competition, but it was actually a military conflict sparked in part by an unpaid debt to a French pastry chef. On the 175th anniversary of the war between France and Mexico, look back at the three-month skirmish that cost famed Mexican General Santa Anna his leg, a loss that continues to cause friction between the United States and Mexico.
The bombardment of San Juan de Ulua on November 27, 1838

The bombardment of San Juan de Ulua on November 27, 1838

Few wars can claim to have been sparked by a dispute over baked goods, but in the annals of culinary-inspired combat, the so-called “Pastry War” between France and Mexico takes the cake, so to speak. In the years following Mexico’s 1821 independence from Spain, rioting, looting and street fighting between government forces and rebels plagued the country and damaged property, including the ransacking of a bakery near Mexico City owned by a French-born pastry chef named Remontel. Rebuffed by the Mexican government in his attempt at compensation for the damage caused by looting Mexican officers, Remontel took his case directly to his native country and French King Louis-Philippe.

The pastry chef found a welcome ear in Paris. The French government was already angered over unpaid Mexican debts that had been incurred during the Texas Revolution of 1836, and it demanded compensation of 600,000 pesos, including an astronomical 60,000 pesos for Remontel’s pastry shop, which had been valued at less than 1,000 pesos. When the Mexican Congress rejected the ultimatum, the French navy in the spring of 1838 began a blockade of key seaports along the Gulf of Mexico from the Yucatan Peninsula to the Rio Grande. The United States, which had a contentious relationship with Mexico, sent a schooner to assist in the blockade.

The stalemate dragged on until November 27, 1838, when French warships bombarded the island fortress of San Juan de Ulua that guarded the preeminent port city of Veracruz. Mexico declared war on France, and its president ordered the conscription of all men who could bear arms. Within days, French marines raided the city and captured nearly the entire Mexican navy.

Desperate to repel the invaders, Mexico turned to grizzled warrior Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the former president and military general who had only the prior year returned home in disgrace after his humiliating defeat at the 1836 Battle of San Jacinto, which led to the creation of the independent Republic of Texas. Rustled from his forced retirement, the general who had proven so ruthless at the Battle of the Alamo left his Veracruz hacienda and organized a makeshift army that drove the French forces from the city and back to their ships. As Santa Anna galloped after the invaders, however, grapeshot fired from a cannon took out the horse from under him and severely wounded one of his legs. Doctors determined the limb could not be saved and were forced to amputate the leg, which Santa Anna buried at his hacienda.

General Santa Anna's prosthetic leg (Credit: Illinois State Military Museum, Department of Military Affairs, Springfield)

General Santa Anna's prosthetic leg (Credit: Illinois State Military Museum, Department of Military Affairs, Springfield)

Less than four months later, the Pastry War was over. British diplomats brokered a peace agreement in which Mexico agreed to pay France’s demand of 600,000 pesos, including the cost of Remontel’s pastry shop. French forces withdrew from the country on March 9, 1839, although they would return to fight a protracted war with Mexico in the 1860s.

While Santa Anna lost his leg in the war, the man whose political and military career had appeared to be at an end earned redemption in the eyes of his countrymen. The self-proclaimed “Napoleon of the West” was none too shy to remind Mexicans that he had sacrificed a limb for his country. And in 1842, after once again assuming the presidency, the dictatorial Santa Anna exhumed his shriveled leg from Veracruz, paraded it to Mexico City in an ornate coach and buried it beneath a cemetery monument in an elaborate state funeral that included cannon salvos, poetry and lofty orations. Santa Anna’s severed leg did not remain in the ground for long, however. In 1844, public opinion again turned on the president. Rioters tore down statues of Santa Anna and dug up his leg. They tied it to a rope and dragged it through the streets of Mexico City while shouting, “Death to the cripple!”

Forced from power, Santa Anna left Mexico in exile. After the United States declared war against his homeland in 1846, however, the one-legged general was called back to service in the Mexican-American War. Not far from Veracruz, during the Battle of Cerro Gordo in 1847, an Illinois infantry attacked while Santa Anna took a lunch break in the midst of the fighting. The frenzied general quickly escaped on a horse, but he left something important behind in his abandoned carriage—his prosthetic cork and wooden leg. Illinois soldiers captured the leg, which became a trophy piece that toured at country fairs before it fell into the possession of the Illinois State Military Museum. Although the Mexican government has made repeated requests to repatriate Santa Anna’s fake limb, it remains on display in the Illinois State Capitol of Springfield as a unique war relic.

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Categories: French History, Mexico