The Mexico Podcast: History & Present











October 2020
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When the two combined divisions of Olid and Alvarado reached the city of Acolman at the end of May 22 (the first day of the siege against Tenochtitlan), fighting broke out among the Spanish. The town was deserted and there were strong disagreements about which division would get the privilege of spending the night in the nicest houses.

            A soldier galloped back to Texcoco and told Cortes about the situation. Cortes sent a priest to read the bickering soldiers a letter of reproach and to order Alvarado and Olid to stay focused on the mission. Still, the men barely slept that night.

            On day two they marched to another abandoned town and spent the night. The next day they stopped at another abandoned town.

Then they got to Tacuba, also abandoned, and stopped marching. They had raided all the houses the last time they had passed through.

            Aztec soldiers were already at the causeway. The Spanish could not take it without a fight, but it was near dusk and the soldiers stuck to Cortes’ plan. They fought minor skirmishes, but didn't attempt to win the bridge.

            Even if they could have fought their way across, that wasn't part one. First they had to destroy an aqueduct that was Tenochtitlan's major lifeline. The aqueduct was heavily guarded and the fighting was fierce. Diaz says the enemy had better ground, but his people were able to force them to retreat.

            The Spanish smashed the conduits, severing the capital’s access to fresh water. Olid then took his division south to Coyoacan, which was deserted. When Cortes got word that the two ground divisions were in place, he sent division three to take Iztapalapa, 25 miles away. They marched the full distance in one day, driving away groups of attacking Aztecs.

            Cuauhtemoc barely put up a fight to defend the three cities that Cortes now controlled. He assumed – correctly – that he would need most of his men to defend against the warships. He consulted with his priests and then made special sacrifices. Two of the victims were the young Spanish pages captured during Cortes’ mission of encirclement.

            On June 1, Cortes boarded his flagship, La Capitana, and sailed for Iztapalapa to support the ground troops. On a small island in the lake there was a communications post sending smoke signals to Cuauhtemoc. Cortes took 150 soldiers to smash it.

            Twenty five Spaniards were wounded in the skirmish, but their mission was a success. They looked out on the lake and saw canoes racing toward them. They ran to their ship, ready for a fight. Cortes waited until the canoes came within two crossbow shots. He unfurled the sails. They caught a strong draft and sped straight at the Aztecs, smashing the tiny wooden boats and sending large numbers to flail and drown in the water. They fired volley after volley from cannons, splintering and sinking more canoes. The crossbowmen and musketeers did their work, too, and soon parts of the lake were filled with bodies.

            The Aztecs realized that it was useless to shoot arrows and spears at the hulls of the ships, and they retreated. But for six miles the Spanish pursued them.

            The ground divisions saw this and were emboldened. The soldiers under Olid pushed forward across a causeway. They finally drove back the enemy after Cortes arrived in his ship.

            He disembarked with 30 men and smashed two temples. Looking out at the city he saw the lake filled with returning canoes, and he saw the causeway from Xoloc to Tenochtitlan teeming with warriors. He had three cannons unloaded off his ship and aimed at the foot soldiers. During the barrage one of his men accidentally lit all the gunpowder on fire and the resulting explosion was so forceful it sent a number of Spaniards flying into the water. But it also sent the Aztecs running.

            An Aztec account recalls the launching of the brigantines:


            “The Spaniards now decided to attack Tenochtitlan and destroy its people. The cannons were mounted in the ships, the sails were raised and the fleet moved out onto the lake. The flagship led the way, flying a great linen standard with Cortes' coat of arms. The soldiers beat their drums and blew their trumpets. They played their flutes and whistles. When the ships approached the Zoquiapan quarter, the common people were terrified at the sight. They gathered their children into canoes and fled. They left all their possessions behind them and abandoned their little farms without looking back.”


            The Spanish spent the night on Xoloc. They were attacked in the darkness, but the warships were close by and they repelled the Aztecs.

            They spent weeks there, fighting every day to cross the causeway while besieged on all sides by warriors in canoes. They repaired broken sections of the bridge while pushing forward. By night they retreated to Xoloc while the Aztecs smashed the bridge.

            On the Iztapalapa causeway there was a large gap, so the Spanish anchored two ships end to end, creating a makeshift bridge. They discovered that the Aztecs were using the Tepeyac causeway to bring food and water into the city.

            Cortes’ plan was to leave the causeway open so that the Aztecs would abandon the city along that route, allowing his cavalry to run them down. That part of the plan had clearly backfired. He sent Sandoval with 100 infantry, 23 cavalry, 20 crossbowmen, innumerable native allies, and two warships to disrupt the flow of supplies. With that done, he hoped to starve Tenochtitlan into surrendering.

            On June 10, they made a concerted effort to break into the city. They marched up the causeway, flanked by warships on either side. The project took until the afternoon. They got to the gate of the eagle, a massive stone structure that served as yet another layer between the protected Aztec capital and the outside world.

On top of the gate, in the center, was an eagle statue. On the right and left sides were a jaguar and a wolf. After passing the gate they came up against yet another bridgeless span of water. So again they anchored two ships end to end and crossed the gap.

            If you had been a citizen of Tenochtitlan before that day, your city must have felt impenetrable. It was connected to land only by long, mobile bridges. Cortes’ mission might have been impossible if not for the ships.

            As the soldiers marched toward the city center, the Aztecs hid. However, in the main plaza was a huge group of warriors. Two Aztec priests ran to the great temple and sounded the war drums. It was a signal to protect their religious center. Again, I'll quote Portilla:


            “Two of the Spanish soldiers climbed the stairway to the temple platform, cut the preachers down with their swords, and pitched them headlong over the brink.

            The great captains and warriors who had been fighting from their canoes now returned and landed. The Spanish, sensing that an attack was imminent, tightened their ranks and clenched the hilts of their swords. The next moment, all was noise and confusion. The Aztecs charged into the plaza from every direction. The air was black with arrows and gun smoke.”


             The Spanish fired at will, but eventually they had to retreat. They had left a cannon behind. The Aztecs dumped it into the lake. As they retreated, Cortes’ men set fire to buildings so the enemy couldn't attack from rooftops anymore.

            Cortes made it back to camp by nightfall. He got reports from Alvarado and Sandoval, whose divisions were across the lake. Their messengers told him about the fighting. They said the causeway at Tacuba was filled with traps – spike-filled pits. As the men fought to cross they were attacked from all sides. Cavalry was ineffective, so they relied on infantry.

            Word of the Spanish foray into the center of the city rallied their allies, who now sent reinforcements, weapons, and food. Until this point the men had subsisted mostly on tortillas, but now they got shipments of chicken, fish, and cherries. The allies helped repair the causeways and patrol at night, watching for attacks. They built temporary huts for the soldiers.

            On June 15, Cortes ordered another sortie. Again the ships supported the soldiers crossing the bridge. They fired at the defending Aztecs, causing many to flee and allowing Cortes to once again arrive at the Gate of the Eagle.  From there he ordered the allies to repair the bridge as permanently as possible.

            Cuautemoc was dismayed by the enemy's weekly progress. He abandoned his current military headquarters and set up a new base in the north of the city, on top of the tallest temple, where he would oversee everything. Watching parts of his city crumble, he ordered his men to send up smoke signals to rally whatever allies he had left.

            On June 23, despite Cortes’ orders to only camp outside of Tenochtitlan for safety reasons, Captain Alvarado grew impatient and tried to make headway by spending the night inside the city with half his cavalry. And, well, of course they were attacked.

            The Aztecs engaged the invaders on three sides. After a short time they pretended to retreat... and the Spanish bought it, chasing them through the streets. They had drawn Alvarado's men into an ambush. The Spanish had come into the city on the causeway, but one part of it was underwater and the only way to cross was by wading through the shallow breach.

            The Aztecs had filled the gap with warriors in canoes. They knew Alvarado would retreat along that causeway. A few minutes later, that's exactly what happened.

            The Spanish retreated for the causeway, hoping to reach the mainland. But when they saw the water filled with canoes they took another route and ran into more traps. Several of them fell, horse and all, into pits lined with spikes. Several more were taken captive, while still others were bludgeoned to death.

            Many of them survived by swimming across the lake, including Bernal Diaz, who crawled to land and could barely stand up. His arm had a large gash and he was losing blood, but he made it to safety.

            Nearly all the men who survived were seriously wounded, and when they got back to their base they learned that Cortes was not happy.

            In fact, he was so angry that he wanted to personally rebuke Alvarado, but when he arrived in his ship and saw how far they had gotten into the city, he praised and congratulated the officer.

            The expedition had given Cortes an idea, so they now worked on a plan to make a massive push into the marketplace, where the Aztecs were gathering.

            Cuauhtemoc was making plans, too. He realized the warships posed a serious threat to the safety of his city, so his men devised another trap. (Before Cortes had even launched his armada, the Aztecs filled the lake with giant spikes.) Now, as Cortes and his captains discussed a push into the market, Cuauhtemoc ordered an ambush against the ships.

            A large number of camouflaged canoes filled part of the lake. The warship captains thought they were bringing supplies into the city, so two ships sailed toward them. The brigantines came to a shallow canal, and the men were thrown forward.

            They had run aground on the spikes. The men hustled to dig their way out of the trap and as they worked, more canoes emerged from the rushes. All the soldiers engaged the enemy. As always, many Spanish were dragged away for sacrifice. The Aztecs were highly adaptable, using elaborate decoys and feigned retreats against an army that, apparently, fell for it every time.

            The Spanish were growing edgy. Several captains lobbied to assault the city as soon as possible. Their men were soaked every day by the rains, and froze at night. They never removed their armor. Their clothes grew dank and foul-smelling. They ate almost nothing but tortillas, herbs and cherries.

            The daily reconstructions of the bridges, followed by nightly re-demolitions by the Aztecs, was wearing on their mental and physical energy.

            Cortes acquiesced, though he was wary of attempting an operation outside the range of the ships' guns. Nonetheless, he had a strategy: Sandoval's division would enter the city and lead the Aztecs to an ambush where Alvarado's division waited. From there the two divisions would move to the most dangerous and deep breach in one of the causeways and rebuild it, covered by six warships and 3,000 canoes bearing native allies. When that was done, they were to meet Cortes’ division at the marketplace.

            I've been calling them “divisions” this whole time, and that might cause some confusion, especially for military history buffs. I don’t know exactly how many people were in these groups, but they weren't divisions in the exact military sense. There were probably closer to battalions or companies – smaller groups of soldiers.

            Cortes’ division would split into three groups and gain control of three main avenues in the city. Cortes’ group would consist of 100 infantry, eight cavalry, and “a throng of allies.”

            Andres de Tapia would command another group of 80 Spanish and roughly 10,000 natives. Cortes’ treasurer (yeah, treasurer...) would lead the third group, comprised of 70 Spanish and perhaps as many as 20,000 allies. They would be protected at the rear by eight cavalrymen.

            On Sunday, June 30, they launched the assault. Cortes’ group moved slowly, facing near constant assaults. But the treasurer's group progressed quickly. But before reaching the marketplace, they were ambushed.

            They had entered Tenochtitlan and came to a broken section of road. The gap was about eight feet deep and filled with water. They moved quickly, filling it with debris and wood until they could cross one man at a time.

            When most of them had crossed, the Aztecs jumped out from behind houses and started attacking. They knocked a number Spaniards back into the water and jumped in after them. Cortes, not far off, heard the battle and charged in to support his men. Some of them were hauled away alive in canoes.

            Cortes arrived and could only pull bodies from the water, watching the slaughter on the other side of the tiny makeshift bridge. Then, a group of Aztecs seized him and, like before, failed to kill him on the spot, preferring to sacrifice him instead. If the account of Cortes’ second capture is true, the Aztecs learned nothing from their previous attempt.

Once again a Spanish soldier leaped into action and began swinging his sword. He chopped off the arms of several enemy soldiers. More Spanish soldiers joined the fight, saving Cortes, but costing another man his life.

            Cortes’ bodyguard was there and called for a horse to take the Commander away from the battle, obviously understanding Cortes’ value to the Spanish more than Cuauhtemoc did. They got their horse and escaped. Back at camp they assessed their losses, which were monumental. Numerous lives had been lost, as had morale. Something like 50 Spanish died in the fighting as well as untold numbers of allies. But that wasn't all; nearly 70 soldiers had been taken captive and would inevitably be sacrificed.

            During the battle, Alvarado's division had gotten close to the market when they were confronted by a large group of warriors. The Aztecs had tied together the severed heads of five Spaniards, which they threw at Alvarado. He ordered a retreat. The same happened to Sandoval's division.

            From their bases outside the city the Spanish could see the sacrifice ritual playing out at the top of the temple. Their brothers-in-arms had been stripped naked and were being forced up the steps. Bernal Diaz describes it:


“When they got to a small square in front of the oratory, where their accursed idols are kept, we saw them place plumes on the heads of many of them and with things like fans in their hands they forced them to dance before Huitzilopochtli. After they had danced they immediately placed [the Spanish] on their backs... and with stone knives they sawed open their chests and drew out their palpitating hearts and offered them to the idols that were there, and they kicked the bodies down the steps. The Indian butchers who were waiting below cut off the arms and feet, and flayed the skin off the faces. Their entrails and feet they fed to the tigers and lions.”


            After the ceremony Cuauhtemoc sent messengers to villages in the region. The messengers showed the village leaders severed Spanish heads and told them that half of Cortes’ men had been killed. Native allies abandoned the Spanish in large numbers after that. It was now clear that the invaders could indeed be defeated. Cuauhtemoc had another message: Within eight days not a single enemy soldier would be alive.


            The Spanish spent a week resting and healing their wounds, as well as filling in the breeches in the causeways. Every night more of their men were sacrificed to Huitzilopochtli. Neighboring tribes on opposite sides of the war were fighting one another. Representatives from Cuernavaca arrived, telling Cortes they were under attack and needed help. Although Cortes knew he couldn't afford it, he agreed to send soldiers. His men complained, saying they would be stretched too thin, but Cortes sent 80 infantry and ten horsemen. The leader, Andres de Tapia, was given 10 days to quell the uprising.

            A tribe in Tlaxcalan territory faced a similar situation, and Cortes sent 100 soldiers and 18 cavalry. He knew it was a dangerous gamble, but he wanted to say to Cuauhtemoc something like: We're still kicking, we can send spare hundreds of men, we're nowhere near defeat.

            Tapia took his company south to Cuernavaca, where his cavalry had the advantage on the open plains. The attacking tribe fled. Tapia returned to Tenochtitlan victorious and with native allies to support the ongoing siege.

            Sandoval led the mission to Tlaxcala and was similarly successful. He returned with nearly 70,000 allies.

            Cuauhtemoc's proclamation that the Spaniards would be killed in eight days proved false, and soon the warriors that had fled a week earlier returned to Cortes.

            The Spanish got word that a ship had landed at Veracruz bearing gunpowder and soldiers (not to mention horses and crossbows).

            The Aztecs were, by now, in extremely dire circumstances. They were starving to death. They had been stacking dead bodies in buildings to hide their losses and had dressed women up as men to make it appear that they had more warriors than they really did. They had even stopped trying to dismantle parts of the causeways at night.

            An Aztec account states:


            “There was no fresh water to drink, only stagnant water and the brine of the lake. Many people died of dysentery. The only food was lizards, swallows, corncobs, and the salt grasses of the lake. The people ate water lilies and chewed on deer hides and pieces of leather. They roasted and seared whatever they could find and then ate it. They ate the bitterest weeds. They even ate dirt.

            Nothing can compare with the horrors of that siege and the agonies of the starving. We were so weakened by hunger that, little by little, the enemy forced us to retreat. Little by little they forced us to the wall.”


            Despite these conditions, when Cortes sent messengers saying he would stop the siege if Cuauhtemoc surrendered, the emperor remained defiant. He responded that his city would fight to the death.

            Cortes then made the decision to reduce what he called “The most beautiful thing in the world” to rubble. He later wrote:


            “My plan was to raze to the ground all the houses on both sides of the streets along which we advanced so that we should not move a step without leaving everything behind us in ruins.”

Direct download: MHR_007_Fall_of_Tenochtitlan_6.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 2:34pm EDT

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