On Aug. 13, 1521, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés received the surrender of Cuauhtémoc, ruler of the Aztec people. The astonishing handover occurred amid the ruins of Tenochtitlan, the shattered capital of a mighty empire whose influence had stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific and extended from central Mexico south into parts of what would become Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. After an 80-day siege Cortés had come to a terrible resolution: He ordered the city razed. House by house, street by street, building by building, his men pulled down Tenochtitlan’s walls and smashed them into rubble. Envoys from every tribe in the former empire later came to gaze on the wrecked remains of the city that had held them in subjection and fear for so long.
But how had Cortés accomplished his conquest? Less than three years had passed since he set foot on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, yet he had destroyed the greatest power in Mesoamerica with a relative handful of men. His initial force comprised 11 ships, 110 sailors, 553 soldiers—including 32 crossbowmen and 13 bearing harquebuses (early firearms)—10 heavy guns, four falconets and 16 horses. The force size ebbed and flowed, but he never commanded more than the 1,300 Spaniards he had with him at the start of the final assault.
On its face such a victory would suggest Cortés was a commander of tremendous ability. Yet scholars of the period have long underrated his generalship, instead attributing his success to three distinct factors. First was the relative superiority of Spanish military technology. Second is the notion smallpox had so severely reduced the Aztecs that they were unable mount an effective resistance. And third is the belief Cortés’ Mesoamerican allies were largely to credit for his triumph.
That the Spaniards enjoyed distinct technological, tactical and cultural advantages over their Mesoamerican foes doesn’t mean Cortés’ victories came easy
The conquistadors’ military technology was unquestionably superior to that of every tribe they encountered. The warriors’ weapons and armor were made of wood, stone and hide, while those of the Spaniards were wrought of iron and steel. Atlatls, slings and simple bows—their missiles tipped with obsidian, flint or fish bone—could not match the power or range of the crossbow. Clubs and macuahuitls—fearsome wooden swords embedded with flakes of obsidian—were far outclassed by long pikes and swords of Toledo steel, which easily pierced warriors’ crude armor of cotton, fabric and feathers. And, finally, the Spaniards’ gunpowder weapons—small cannon and early shoulder-fired weapons like the harquebus—wreaked havoc among the Mesoamericans, who possessed no similar technology.
The Spaniards also benefitted from their use of the horse, which was unknown to Mesoamericans. Though the conquistadors had few mounts at their disposal, tribal foot soldiers simply could not match the speed, mobility or shock effect of the Spanish cavalry, nor were their weapons suited to repelling horsemen.
When pitted against European military science and practice, the Mesoamerican way of war also suffered from undeniable weaknesses. While the tribes put great emphasis on order in battle—they organized their forces into companies, each under its own chieftain and banner, and understood the value of orderly advances and withdrawals—their tactics were relatively unsophisticated. They employed such maneuvers as feigned retreats, ambushes and ambuscades but failed to grasp the importance of concentrating forces against a single point of the enemy line or of supporting and relieving forward assault units. Such deficiencies allowed the conquistadors to triumph even when outnumbered by as much as 100-to-1.
Deeply ingrained aspects of their culture also hampered the Aztecs. Social status was partly dependent on skill in battle, which was measured not by the number of enemies killed, but by the number captured for sacrifice to the gods. Thus warriors did not fight with the intention of killing their enemies outright, but of wounding or stunning them so they could be bound and passed back through the ranks. More than one Spaniard, downed and struggling, owed his life to this practice, which enabled his fellows to rescue him. Further, the Mesoamerican forces were unprepared for lengthy campaigns, as their dependence on levies of agricultural workers placed limits on their ability to mobilize and sustain sufficient forces. They could not wage war effectively during the planting and harvest seasons, nor did they undertake campaigns in the May–September rainy season. Night actions were also unusual. The conquistadors, on the other hand, were trained to kill their enemies on the field of battle and were ready to fight year-round, day or night, in whatever conditions until they achieved victory.
That the Spaniards enjoyed distinct technological, tactical and cultural advantages over their Mesoamerican foes does not mean Cortés’ victories came easy. He engaged hundreds of thousands of determined enemies on their home ground with only fitful opportunities for reinforcement and resupply. Two telltale facts indicate that his success against New World opponents was as much the result of solid leadership as of technological superiority. First, despite his sparse resources, Cortés was as successful against Europeans who possessed the same technology as he was against Mesoamerican forces. Second, Cortés showed he could prevail against the Aztecs even when fighting at a distinct disadvantage.
In April 1520, as the position of the conquistadors in Tenochtitlan became increasingly precarious, then Aztec ruler Montezuma II—whom the Spaniards had held hostage since the previous November—was informed Cortés’ ships had arrived at Cempoala on the Gulf Coast bearing the Spaniard’s countrymen, and he encouraged the conquistador to depart without delay. While Cortés’ troops were elated at what they assumed was impending deliverance, the commander himself rightly suspected the new arrivals were not allies. They had been sent by Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, governor of Cuba, whose orders Cortés had disobeyed in 1519 to launch his expedition, and their purpose was to punish rather than reinforce.
Reports from the coast indicated the fleet comprised 18 ships bearing some 900 soldiers—including 80 cavalrymen, 80 harquebusiers and 150 crossbowmen—all well provisioned and supported by heavy guns. The captain-general of the armada was Pánfilo de Narváez, a confidant of Velázquez, who made no secret of his intention to seize Cortés and imprison him for his rebellion against the governor’s authority.
Cortés could not afford to hesitate and thus allow Narváez time to gather strength and allies. Yet to march out of Tenochtitlan to engage the new arrivals also presented significant risks. If Cortés took his entire force, he would have to abandon the Aztec capital. Montezuma II would reassume the throne, and resistance would no doubt congeal and stiffen, making re-entry a matter of blood and battle, in contrast to the tentative welcome he had initially received. But to leave behind a garrison would further reduce the size of the already outnumbered force he would lead against Narváez. With the swift decision of the bold, a factor indeterminable by numerical calculation, the Spanish commander chose the latter course.
Cortés marched out with only 70 lightly armed soldiers, leaving his second-in-command, Pedro de Alvarado, to hold Tenochtitlan with two-thirds of the Spanish force, including all of the artillery, the bulk of the cavalry and most of the harquebusiers. Having done all he could to gain an edge over Narváez by feeding his couriers misinformation and undermining the loyalty of his officers with forwarded bribes of gold, Cortés marched with all speed. He crossed the mountains to Cholula, where he mustered 120 reinforcements, then marched through Tlaxcala and down to the coast at Veracruz, picking up another 60 men. Though still outnumbered more than 3-to-1, Cortés brought all his craft, daring and energy to bear and, in a rapid assault amid heavy rain on the night of May 27, overwhelmed his foes. Narváez himself was captured, while most of his men, enticed by stories of Aztec riches, readily threw in their lot with Cortés. Soon after his surprise defeat of Narváez, the bold conquistador proved himself equally capable of defeating Mesoamerican forces that held a numerical advantage.
The bold conquistador proved himself equally capable of defeating Mesoamerican forces that held a numerical advantage
On his return to Tenochtitlan, Cortés discovered Alvarado had indulged in an unprovoked massacre of the Aztecs, stirring the previously docile populace to murderous fury. The Spaniards quickly found themselves trapped and besieged in the capital, and hard fighting in the streets failed to subdue the enemy. Not even Montezuma could soothe his people, who met their emperor’s appeal for peace with a shower of stones that mortally wounded him. With the Spanish force growing short of food and water, and losing more men by the day, Cortés decided to withdraw from the city on the night of June 30–July 1. After a brutal running fight along a causeway leading to shore, the column was reduced to a tattered remnant, leaving Cortés with no more than one-fifth of the force he had originally led into Tenochtitlan. The overnight battle—the worst military disaster the conquistadors had suffered in the New World—would go down in Spanish history as La Noche Triste (“The Night of Sorrows”).
The debacle left Cortés with few materiel advantages. Only half of his horses survived, and the column had lost all of its powder, ammunition and artillery and most of its crossbows and harquebuses during the retreat. Yet the Spanish commander managed to hold together his flagging force. Skirting north to avoid a cluster of hostile villages, he headed toward Tlaxcala, home city of his Mesoamerican allies.
Over the days that followed Aztec skirmishers shadowed Cortés’ retreating column, and as the Spaniards neared the Tlaxcalan frontier, the skirmishers joined forces with warriors from Tenochtitlan and assembled on the plain of Otumba, between the conquistadors and their refuge. The trap thus set, on July 7 the numerically superior Aztecs and beleaguered Spaniards met in a battle that should easily have gone in the Mesoamericans’ favor. Again, however, Cortés turned the tables by skillfully using his remaining cavalry to break up the enemy formations. Then, in a daring stroke, he personally led a determined cavalry charge that targeted the enemy commander, killing him and capturing his colors. Seeing their leader slain, the Aztecs gradually fell back, ultimately enabling the conquistadors to push their way through. Though exhausted, starving and ill, they were soon among allies and safe from assault.
One long-standing school of thought on the Spanish conquest attributes Cortés’ success to epidemiological whim—namely that European-introduced smallpox had so ravaged the Aztecs that they were incapable of mounting a coherent defense. In fact, Cortés had defeated many enemies and advanced to the heart of the empire well before the disease made its effects felt. Smallpox arrived in Cempoala in 1520, carried by an African slave accompanying the Narváez expedition. By then Cortés had already defeated an army at Pontonchan; won battles against the fierce, well-organized armies of Tlaxcala; entered the Aztec capital at Tenochtitlan and taken its ruler hostage.
Smallpox had ravaged the populations of Hispaniola and Cuba and indeed had equally disastrous effects on the mainland, killing an estimated 20 to 40 percent of the population of central Mexico. But as horrific as the pandemic was, it is by no means clear that smallpox mortality was a decisive factor in the fall of Tenochtitlan or the final Spanish victory. The disease likely reached Tenochtitlan when Cortés returned from the coast in June 1520, and by September it had killed perhaps half of the city’s 200,000 residents, including Montezuma’s successor, Cuitláhuac. By the time Cortés returned in the spring of 1521 for the final assault, however, the city had been largely free of the disease for six months. The conquistadors mention smallpox but not as a decisive factor in the struggle. Certainly they saw no perceptible drop in ferocity or numbers among the resistance.
On the subject of numbers, some scholars have suggested the conquest was largely the work of the Spaniards’ numerous Mesoamerican allies. Soon after arriving in the New World, Cortés had learned from the coastal Totonac people that the Aztec empire was not a monolithic dominion, that there existed fractures of discontent the conquistadors might exploit. For nearly a century Mesoamericans had labored under the yoke of Aztec servitude, their overlords having imposed grievous taxes and tributary demands, including a bloody harvest of sacrificial victims. Even cities within the Valley of Mexico, the heart of the empire, were simmering cauldrons of potential revolt. They awaited only opportunity, and the arrival of the Spaniards provided it. Tens of thousands of Totonacs, Tlaxcalans and others aided the conquest by supplying the Spaniards with food and serving as warriors, porters and laborers. Certainly their services sped the pace of the conquest. But one cannot credit them with its ultimate success. After all, had the restive tribes had the will and ability to overthrow the Aztecs on their own, they would have done so long before Cortés arrived and would likely have destroyed the Spaniards in turn.
To truly assess the Spanish victory over the Aztecs, one must also consider the internal issues Cortés faced—logistical challenges, the interference of hostile superiors, factional divides within his command and mutiny.
Cortés established coastal Veracruz as his base of operations in Mexico and primary communications link to the Spanish empire. But the tiny settlement and its fort could not provide him with additional troops, horses, firearms or ammunition. As Cortés’ lean command suffered casualties and consumed its slender resources, it required reinforcement and resupply, but the Spanish commander’s strained relations with the governor of Cuba ensured such vital support was not forthcoming. Fortunately for himself and the men of his command, Cortés seems to have possessed a special genius for conjuring success out of the very adversities that afflicted him.
After defeating the Narváez expedition, Cortés integrated his would-be avenger’s force with his own, gaining men, arms and equipment. When the Spaniards lay exhausted in Tlaxcala after La Noche Triste, still more resources presented themselves. Velázquez, thinking Narváez must have things well in hand, with Cortés either in chains or dead, had dispatched two ships to Veracruz with reinforcements and further instructions; both were seized on arrival, their crews soon persuaded to join Cortés. Around the same time two more Spanish vessels appeared off the coast, sent by the governor of Jamaica to supply an expedition on the Pánuco River. What the ships’ captains didn’t know is that the party had suffered badly and its members had already joined forces with Cortés. On landing, their men too were persuaded to join the conquest. Thus Cortés acquired 150 more men, 20 horses and stores of arms and ammunition. Finally, a Spanish merchant vessel loaded with military stores put in at Veracruz, its captain having heard he might find a ready market for his goods. He was not mistaken. Cortés bought both ship and cargo, then induced its adventurous crew to join his expedition. Such reinforcement was more than enough to restore the audacity of the daring conquistador, and he began to lay plans for the siege and recovery of Tenochtitlan.
While the ever-resourceful Cortés had turned these occasions to his advantage, several episodes pointed to an underlying difficulty that had cast its shadow over the expedition from the moment of its abrupt departure from Cuba—Velázquez’s seemingly unquenchable hostility and determination to interfere. Having taken leave of the governor on less than cordial terms, Cortés was perhaps tempting fate by including of a number of the functionary’s friends and partisans in the expedition. He was aware of their divided loyalties, if not overtly concerned. Some had expressed their personal loyalty to Cortés, while others saw him as their best opportunity for enrichment. But from the outset of the campaign still other members of the Velázquez faction had voiced open opposition, insisting they be permitted to return to Cuba, where they would undoubtedly report to the governor. Cortés had cemented his authority among the rebels through a judicious mixture of force and persuasion.
But the problem arose again with the addition of Narváez’s forces to the mix. While headquartered in Texcoco as his men made siege preparations along the lakeshore surrounding Tenochtitlan, Cortés uncovered an assassination plot hatched by Antonio de Villafaña, a personal friend of Velázquez. The plan was to stab the conquistador to death while he dined with his captains. Though Cortés had the names of a number of co-conspirators, he put only the ringleader on trial. Sentenced to death, Villafaña was promptly hanged from a window for all to see. Greatly relieved at having cheated death, the surviving conspirators went out of their way to demonstrate loyalty. Thus Cortés quelled the mutiny.
Whatever advantages the Spaniards enjoyed, victory would have been impossible without his extraordinary leadership
But hostility toward the conquistador and his “unlawful” expedition also brewed back home in the court of Spanish King and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. In Cortés’ absence his adversaries tried every means to undermine him, threatening his status as an agent of the crown and seeking to deny him the just fruits of his labors. The commander was forced to spend precious time, energy and resources fighting his diplomatic battle from afar. Even after successfully completing the conquest, Cortés received no quarter from his enemies, who accused him of both defrauding the crown of its rightful revenues and fomenting rebellion. On Dec. 2, 1547, the 62-year-old former conquistador died a wealthy but embittered man in Spain. At his request his remains were returned to Mexico.
Setting aside long-held preconceptions about the ease of the conquest of Mexico—which do disservice to both the Spanish commander and those he conquered—scholars of the period should rightfully add Cortés to the ranks of the great captains of war. For whatever advantages the Spaniards enjoyed, victory would have been impossible without his extraordinary leadership. As master of the conquest, Cortés demonstrated fixity of purpose, skilled diplomacy, talent for solving logistical problems, far-sighted planning, heroic battlefield command, tactical flexibility, iron determination and, above all, astounding audacity. MH
Justin D. Lyons is an assistant professor in the Department of History and Political Science at Ohio’s Ashland University. For further reading he recommends Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control, by Ross Hassig; The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519–1521, by Charles M. Robinson III; and Conquest: Cortés, Montezuma, and the Fall of Old Mexico, by Hugh Thomas.