“But I declare, that I do not know how to describe it, for neither cannon, nor muskets, nor crossbows availed, nor hand-to-hand fighting, nor killing thirty or forty of them every time we charged, for they still fought on in as close ranks and with more energy than in the beginning.”
-- Bernal Diaz del Castillo The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico
What the writer is describing was the initial foray of the Spaniards to break out of the fortress at Tenochtitlan, June 24, 1520. They fought on, all day, every single day for another three weeks. They fought through most of the nights too.
The odds were stacked hard against the Spaniards. Outnumbered on a magnitude that defyed calculation. Hemmed in by the tall buildings and narrow streets, which negated the Spanish tactics that had made them absolute dominators of every field they engaged. Only the carefully timed and managed volleys from the harquebusiers and crossbowmen, cannon fire from the walls of the citadel and the swords and lances of the mounted knights allowed the intrepid Diegode Ordaz to lead his men back behind the walls to report to Cortez that they were unable to achieve a break in the Aztec lines.
Cortez had gone back into the city against the best advice of his lieutenants, his native allies. The reasons he gives in his journals are twofold. The first was that the emporor of the Aztecs, Monteczuma and his vast, unimaginable stores of gold were in the city, and Cortez's most trusted subordinate, Pedro de Alvarado was there along with nearly one hundred of his finest horsemen.
Cortez had been on the coast, where he had put down an attempt by the governor of Cuba, Panfilo de Narvaez, to curtail his conquests. He was better armed than he had ever been in the entire campaign. More than a thousand Spanish troops. He had formed alliances with Totonacs, the Tlaxcalaan, Otomis and Cholula nations who were eager to trade Spanish domination for the murderous domination of the Aztecs.
Until this night there had been no force assembled by the natives capable of withstanding the Spanish. The “iron cornfield” squares of the “tercio” infantry, mounted lancers, muskets, cannon, crossbows, ferocious mastiffs wearing spiked collars and chainmail, toledo swords, all of these had proven to be unstoppable. Until this night.
Now they were trapped. Their cannonades which would bring down scores of Aztecs with each volley were not breaking the ranks. No matter how many of the foe were spitted on the lances of the mounted, they still kept on coming. From the rooftops rained a steady hail of rocks, tiles, anything loose at hand that was heavy and jagged, thown by women and children. Cortez sat in his study and pondered the death of his dreams. He had envisioned a new Venice. A center of learning and commerce from which he would rule as the good right hand of his king.
The trouble had really begun to brew when, in the absence of Cortez, de Alvarado had massacred thousands of the Aztec nobility and begun a campaign of unrestricted murder and violence against the civilian population. Alvarado claimed that the nobility had resumed their practice of human sacrifice and cannabalism and that he had acted under the banner of God. A more likely explanation is that he had become greedy at the sight of the gold and jewels worn by the nobility as they did their every day business in the city. It might even have partly been the exaltations of a mounted warrior as he rides through a crowd of his enemies, hacking to the right and left. The Spanish under de Alavarado killed over 8,000 in a single day. Years later Aztec survivors reported to the Franscican scribe M. Leon-Portilla that
They attacked all the celebrants, stabbing them, spearing them from behind, and these fell instantly to the ground with their entrails hanging out. Others, they beheaded: they cut off their heads, or split their heads to pieces. They struck others in the shoulders, and their arms were torn from their bodies. They wounded some in the thigh and some in the calf. They slashed others in the abdomen and their guts spilled all over the ground. Many attempted to run away but began to slip on the stones of the street which were wet and slick with blood. Many had their legs become entangled in the entrails of the fallen.
It had been a month since that night. The water had been cut off for the Spanish. What little they had remaining was brackish and full of algae. His engineers had constructed mantalets
, crude wooden tanks from the looted beams of the palace. The nightly missle attacks from the neighboring rooftops had made remaining in the center of this hostile town no longer an attractive proposition.
Cortez tried one last parley with the inhabitants of the city. He brought the shackled and chained emperor to the roof of the palace. Monteczuma was stoned by the citizens he used to rule. Whether he was mortally wounded by his own citizens, or murdered in a rage of disappointment by the Spanish really didn't matter to Monteczuma anymore. He was dead.
Cortez convened a council of his officers and men. They said that they saw but two options. They could flee empty handed or stay and die with the gold. Cortez chose neither option. He would attempt a night retreat in force under the cover of the fog and the darkness. They had constructed a moveable bridge unit to cross the canals. Golden bars were loaded upon horses, the men were allowed to enter the storerooms and take whatever they wished to carry with them. A survivor of that night, Francisco Lopez de Gomara, wrote
Among our men, those who were most encumbered with clothing, gold, and jewels were the first to die, and those who were saved were those who carried the least and forged fearlessly ahead. So those who died, died rich, and their gold killed them.
There was no moon visible through the clouds that night. There was a gentle, steady warm rain falling. The Spanish almost made it. They had crossed over three of the canals that bisected the causeway leading to the shore of the lake to Tlacopan where their native allies were waiting. As they were crossing their fourth canal a woman who was fetching water saw them and sounded the alarm “Mexica! Come quickly, our enemies are leaving!” Within minutes the canal's water was full of war canoes. The streets and the causeway were packed with angry men. Now,
When the Spanish reached the Canal of the Toltecs, the Tlatecayohuican, they hurled themselves headlong into the water, as if they were jumping from a cliff. They all came to the brink and plunged over it. The canal was soon choked with the bodies of men and horses; they filled the gap in the causeway with their own drowned bodies. Those who followed crossed to the other side by walking on the corpses.
The vangaurd of the unit reached the far shore of the lake. Once there, Cortez rallied five of his best and most audacious horsemen, Avila, Gonzalo, Morla, Olid, and the stalwart Sandoval to plunge back into the city to carve out a pathway for the rest of his men. At least once during this action Cortez was nearly captured and bound. Once he was pulled from the clutches of the Aztecs by the suicidal courage of his colonels Olea and Quinones.
Pedro de Alvarado had been fighting the rear guard action. He might have been arrogant, he might have been cruel and greedy, but he was one fighting son of a bitch. Refusing to move himself until he was assured of the safety and escape of his squadron he found himself stranded on the far side of the canal. He seized a lance from the grip of a fallen knight. Plunging it into the bodies of the drowned and wounded in the canal he vaulted across.
More than half of the Spaniards died that night. There was never an accounting of the losses of their native allies. Cortez rallied what was left of his little band and led them into the night, putting as much distance as he could between himself and the Aztecs. Once he felt they were in relative safety he dismounted. He took a few steps and collapsed sobbing. La Noche Triste was over.
Substitute the Aztec citadel for the Green Zone. Change the name of the city from Tenochtitlan to Bagdhad. Think about the eight miles of highway, the most dangerous road in the world right now between the American fort and the airport. Think about nearly eight hundred miles of a single highway to get to the relative safety of Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. Remember that the last time the Prime Minister of Iraq appeared before his citizens he was pelted with stones. As much as I want this war to be over, I don't think that a graceful exit is something in the realm of possiblity. I don't believe that history really does repeat itself. I agree with Mark Twain who said “it rhymes.” This is not a poem I want to recite.