An 1838 squabble over French pastries restored the disgraced general’s honor —but ultimately left him without a leg to stand on.
In December 1828, opposing mobs ran through the streets of Mexico City, looting, bullying and raping. At the time, most citizens would have regarded such disorder as business as usual. Since 1821, when Mexicans had won their independence from Spain, they had struggled to establish a true sense of nationhood, but the turbulent years that followed had seen only cycles of revolution and counter-revolution, coup and countercoup. The violence in 1828 was merely more of the same: Conservative President Manuel Gómez Pedraza removed liberal Lorenzo de Zavala as governor of the state of México. General Antonio López de Santa Anna Pérez de Lebrón (the Santa Anna of Alamo and San Jacinto fame) then stood by the beleaguered governor. Santa Anna won over others to the liberal cause, rallied his soldiers and, following four days of fierce fighting in Mexico City, overthrew Pedraza, installing a liberal, Vicente Ramón Guerrero Saldaña, as president. Guerrero rewarded Santa Anna with a division generalship, Mexico’s highest military rank, and a promotion that placed him on the path to supreme power.
During this latest coup, both conservative and liberal mobs ransacked homes and businesses. In the Tacubaya district of the City, hungry rioters looted a shop owned by an expatriate French pastry chef, one Monsieur Remontel, without leaving so much as a centavo. When the indignant chef was unable to secure compensation for the damage from Mexican officials, he appealed to his own government back in France. Chef Remontel initially received no more satisfaction from French bureaucrats than he had from those in Mexico. But nine years later, in 1837, French King Louis-Philippe finally acted upon Remontel’s claim, demanding 600,000 pesos in damage—in part because Mexico had defaulted on millions in French loans, and Louis-Philippe wanted his money back. Then-Mexican President Anastasio Bustamante flouted the French demands, so Louis-Philippe escalated the squabble by dispatching a fleet from France under Rear Adm. Charles Baudin to blockade Mexican ports from Yucatán to the Rio Grande. In late October 1838, Baudin’s flagship, Néréide, sailed into Mexican waters at the head of nearly two dozen ships. His blockade soon reduced Mexico’s oceanic trade to a trickle.
To circumvent the French blockade, Mexican merchant ships made port in Corpus Christi Bay and Brazos Santiago. Admiral Baudin recognized these ports as belonging to the Republic of Texas and made no effort to obstruct ships heading there. Once the cargo landed securely on Texas soil, Mexican teamsters hauled it overland and across the border at Matamoros. To officials of the republic, which had secured its independence with the defeat of that same Santa Anna in 1836, this was simply smuggling, and the Texas Customs Service at Aransas City began to patrol Corpus Christi Bay, intent on seizing all Mexican contraband.
Texas officials were, however, selective about enforcing their laws: That Mexicans were smuggling cargo in Texas waters did not offend them. That they were not getting a cut of the profits did offend them. Mexican blockade-runners found Texas administrators more agreeable if they traded in Aransas City, Goliad or Victoria. Moreover, these authorities had no qualms if Texian smugglers moved the contraband.
Texians, however, were not unique in their avarice. Back in France, profit, prestige and imperial ambition also motivated King Louis-Philippe. He supported France’s overseas expansion and sought to take advantage of Mexico’s weakened state to advance his colonial ambitions. His aspirations, however, ran afoul of the United States, the Monroe Doctrine and the British Royal Navy that enforced it. By asserting that he was merely upholding French honneur and not establishing a colony in the Western Hemisphere, the French king neatly sidestepped the doctrine’s constraints. If his invasion chanced to succeed, he would entrench the French in Mexico. After the fact, the Americans and British would not be able do much about it. His goal was a long shot, but one worth the gamble.
At first it looked as though Louis- Philippe had won his bet. The one-armed Admiral Baudin concentrated his fleet off Veracruz within cannon range of the citadel of San Juan de Ulúa, which Mexicans styled the “Gibraltar of America.” Meeting with Mexican officials, Baudin restated claims for 600,000 pesos, and raised the ante 200,000 to cover the expense of his expedition. If Mexicans failed to meet his country’s demands before November 27, his guns would level their “impregnable” fortress.
November 27 dawned and, true to his word, Baudin opened fire with his ships’ cannons and mortars. On their side, the Mexicans used gunpowder of such wretched quality that their heaviest cannonballs could not reach the French ships and typically plunged into the bay less than halfway to their targets. The French had no such problems: Shot after shot hammered the ancient fort’s defenses, and by sundown the French gunners had battered the citadel, killed 64 of its defenders and wounded another 147. Most of its guns remained intact, however, and its walls unbreached.
At this juncture, the Mexican generals could have continued to resist but decided against it. Awed by French firepower and ashamed of their own puny response, they surrendered San Juan de Ulúa and the city it defended. Thus, in a single day Baudin had captured Mexico’s major port and its entire Atlantic squadron. A 3,000-man occupation force secured the fortress and replaced the tricolor of Mexico with the tricolor of France.
France, indeed all of Europe, lauded Baudin as the “Hero of San Juan de Ulúa.” The Duke of Wellington remarked that the admiral’s exploit was history’s only example of an unassisted naval force reducing a regularly fortified citadel. The 1838 victory was all the sweeter when Baudin considered that he had succeeded where the vaunted Royal Navy had failed in 1814. Furthermore, all agreed that Veracruz’s “Gibraltar of America” had been a tougher nut to crack than Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, which the British had conspicuously failed to reduce. Baudin had been present at Trafalgar in 1805, when Lord Horatio Nelson robbed French mariners of their fleet and their pride. Then, in 1808, a British gunner had robbed him of his arm. Let Perfidious Albion take note: France was back.
Incongruously, in the wake of this appalling humiliation, Mexicans found their pride. Across the nation, they expressed indignation at the loss of their famed fortress and rose in defiance to the French incursion. The impassioned verbiage of one broadside was typical:
CITIZENS OF DURANGO: By great force the French have taken over the fortress of Ulúa: 300 Mexicans have gloriously lost their lives in combat.…DURANGOITES, TO ARMS! The war cry has sounded[;] the invaders with one hand offer you a crushing chain and with the other threaten you with death. Will you surrender? No! You are free.…Unite yourself with your brothers, do not spare means or sacrifice; you are going to fight for nothing less than for your INDEPENDENCE that we will recover with much anguish and streams of blood.… Let us show them that when one tries to threaten the masses of the Mexicans, with a foreign yoke, they are compact in only one opinion, only one vote and united in the shout of INDEPENDENCE or DEATH.
Mexican newspapers took up the drumbeat. Mocking French motives, journalists dubbed the incident La Guerra de los Pasteles (“War of the Pastries”). They may have tendered the title with tongue firmly fixed in cheek, but it stuck.
President Bustamante remained defiant, and Santa Anna—out of popular favor since his bungled 1836 Texas campaign—grasped the chance to foist himself once again on the Mexican people. Uninvited, he rode to Veracruz to offer his services to General Manuel Rincon, the garrison commander. If Rincon were successful, Santa Anna might share the glory; if he stumbled, Santa Anna stood ready to replace him. But ingloriously, a council of war, in which Santa Anna participated, agreed to surrender the town and withdraw the garrison. Authorities in Mexico condemned the decision to abandon Veracruz. On Dec. 1, 1838, the Mexican congress directed Rincon to appear before a court-martial, the army to defend Veracruz and Santa Anna to take command. Mexicans applauded the appointment; citizens in the galleries chanted his name, shouting, “He’s the man we want!” and, “He’s the savior of the country!” They had forgiven him for losing Texas. Santa Anna was back.
The 44-year-old commander placed himself at the head of 5,000 soldados and swore to drive the invaders out of Veracruz. On December 4, Santa Anna notified Admiral Baudin that the Mexican government had disapproved the agreement neutralizing Veracruz. The new Mexican commander also expressed his intent to occupy the city. This announcement placed Baudin in an awkward position: He knew his marines could not hold the city indefinitely against Santa Anna’s superior force, and he was unwilling to employ his naval guns against a city full of civilians. Instead, he ordered two landing parties ashore to occupy the northern and southern bastions of San Juan de Ulúa, spike its guns and dismantle their carriages.
In the predawn darkness of December 5, 1,500 French marines rowed ashore, determined to retake the fortress. They took advantage of a thick fog that concealed their approach, seized the fort’s bastions with little difficulty, blew open the main gate and captured the house occupied by Generals Mariano Arista and Santa Anna. The marines grabbed Arista (a future president of Mexico), while Santa Anna narrowly avoided capture: Clad only in his linen, he fled into the gloom. The French marines had caught Santa Anna with his pants down.
At dawn Admiral Baudin came ashore to ensure the marines had followed his orders. He had every reason to be satisfied. French troops manned the walls; they had already spiked the guns and disabled the carriages. Baudin ordered the marines to pack the fortress with gunpowder and then retreat to the boats. Once clear of the fortress, they lit the fuse, and the citadel erupted like Vesuvius. Stunned, Mexicans watched as the explosion completed the destruction begun by Baudin’s cannons.
The outnumbered French carried out a fighting retreat toward the beach. Gunners covered the withdrawal as the marines scrambled aboard their boats. Sensing an easy victory, Santa Anna, resplendent in his gold-braided uniform and astride a magnificent charger, urged his troops forward. Hard-pressed, the French cannoneers loaded with grapeshot and showered the Mexicans with lethal projectiles.
What followed was perhaps the most momentous shot in Mexican history. Santa Anna’s mount took several rounds and crumpled beneath its rider. When the general tried to rise, his left leg would not answer. A slug had shattered the bone. Rushing to his side, distressed troopers lugged their wounded champion from the field. With that, the skirmish was finished. The French had lost eight men killed and 60 wounded. While the number of Mexican casualties went undocumented, most authorities believed it to be about the same. The following day, Mexican surgeons ineptly amputated Santa Anna’s shattered leg just below the knee. The wound was serious, the procedure botched, and many doubted the general would survive.
Despite the pessimistic prognosis, Santa Anna slowly recovered. As soon as he knew his life was secure, the general considered how to parlay the lost limb to his political advantage. He performed his “death scene” like a ham actor; he also wrote the script:
I request the Government of my country to permit my body to be buried in these dunes; that all my companions in arms may know that this is the line of battle which I have marked out for them, and that from this day forth the unjust enemies of Mexicans may not dare to tread with unclean feet upon our soil.…Let all Mexicans, forgetting my political errors, not deny me the sole title which I desire to leave my children: That of a good Mexican.
His compatriots wept when they read of their general’s sacrifice. He never tired of playing the martyr, thereafter parading his empty pant leg like a badge of honor.
In March 1839, the British government became involved in the Pastry War dispute. English diplomats, worried that the international squabble might interfere with their commerce, mediated a peace treaty. Under its terms, the French received the original demand for 600,000 pesos, but withdrew their claim for 200,000 to cover the cost of the expedition. King Louis-Philippe had salved Gallic pride. It was time to fold his hand and pocket his winnings. Admiral Baudin sailed home to receive the tributes of a grateful nation.
In the eyes of most nations, France had won the war. Admiral Baudin had taken his fleet into Mexican waters, captured Veracruz, reduced the “Gibraltar of America” to a pile of rubble and secured a payment of 600,000 pesos. He had also captured Mexico’s Atlantic squadron— ships recently purchased at enormous cost from Baltimore shipyards. Baudin took as prizes the 24-gun corvette Iguala, three brigs and two schooners. To lose ships that had never hurled a shot in anger was simply another humiliation. Still, Mexicans did not view it that way. Santa Anna and nationalistic newspapers spun a tale of victory, in which Santa Anna and his valiant soldados had stood up to French invaders and driven them off Mexican soil. Most citizens participated in this grand delusion; others saw through the bluster and knew the truth.
Yet, to Antonio López de Santa Anna, the truth never meant as much as political power. In 1841 he became supreme dictator of Mexico. During his three-year reign, he levied “voluntary” contributions on all Mexico City householders, extorted loans from the Roman Catholic church, sold mining concessions to the British and boosted import duties by 20 percent. He could have used that money to promote the welfare of his impoverished countrymen. Instead, he spent it on self-glorification. The day-to-day routine of governing bored him. Whenever the responsibilities of office pressed too heavily, he would retire to his mansion in Manga de Clavo, to his mistresses, his opium and his cherished fighting cocks. In September 1844, with their country on the verge of bankruptcy, Mexicans ejected Santa Anna from office and expelled him from the country “for life.”
They should have been so lucky. Santa Anna was supposed to retire to Venezuela on the half pay of a general of division but instead sailed to Cuba, where he remained for less than two years. In 1846 he returned to command troops during the Mexican War. In 1853 he regained national power. It seemed that whenever the Mexican people became desperate for a champion, Santa Anna stood waiting in the wings, ready to hobble on to the national stage. Then he regaled them with tales of his war against the French: how he had driven the invaders into the sea, how he had given his blood for his country, how he had restored national pride. Still, some who knew that history frequently hinges on seemingly insignificant incidents wished that looters had steered clear of chef Remontel’s pastry shop back in those turbulent days in 1828. Mexicans came to curse the French shot that shattered Santa Anna’s leg; ultimately, they suffered far more from its loss than he did.
For further reading, Stephen L. Hardin recommends: Santa Anna: The Story of an Enigma Who Once Was Mexico, by Wilfrid Hardy Callcott, and Life in Mexico under Santa Anna, 1822–1855, by Ruth R. Olivera and Liliane Crété.
Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.