Historical Tales: 3—Spanish American - Charles Morris

The Famous Retreat of Cortez and the Spaniards

There is no chapter in all history more crowded with interesting and romantic events than the story of the conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards under Cortez. And of all these records of desperate daring and wonderful success, the most extraordinary is the tale of the Noche Triste, the terrible night-retreat of the Spaniards from the Aztec capital. No one can read this story, and that of the remarkable victory of Otumba which followed it, without feeling that Cortez and his men were warriors worthy of the most warlike age. This oft-told story we shall here again relate.

In a preceding tale we described how Cortez set out from Cuba on his great expedition, with a few hundred soldiers and a small number of cannon, muskets, and horses. It may briefly be stated here that he sought to conquer a warlike and powerful nation with this insignificant force, less than a modern regiment. We might relate how he landed in Mexico; won, with the terror of his horses and guns and the valor of his men, victory in every battle; gained allies among the foes of the Aztecs; made his way into their capital; seized and held prisoner their emperor, Montezuma, and for a time seemed to be full master-of the land. We might go on to tell how at length the Mexicans rose in fury, attacked the Spaniards with the courage of desperation, mortally wounded their own emperor, and at length brought the invaders into such terrible straits that they were forced to fight their way out of the city as their last hope of life.

To understand what followed, it must be stated that the city of Mexico lay, not in the open country, but on an island in the centre of a large lake, and that all the roads leading to it passed over narrow causeways of earth across this lake. Each of these causeways was broken at intervals by wide ditches, with bridges crossing them. But the Aztecs had removed these bridges, and thus added immensely to the difficulty of the night-march which the desperate Spaniards were obliged to make.

It was at midnight on the 1st of July, 1520, that Cortez and his men threw open the gates of the palace fortress in which they had long defended themselves against the furious assaults of thousands of daring foes. The night was dark and cloudy, and a drizzling rain was falling. Not an enemy was to be seen, and as they made their way with as little noise as possible along the great street of Tlacopan, all was hushed in silence. Hope rose in their hearts. The tramp of the horses and the rumble of the gulls and baggage-wagons passed unheard, and they reached the head of the causeway without waking a sleeping Aztec warrior.

Here was the first break in the causeway, and they had brought with them a bridge to lay across it. But here also were some Indian sentinels, who fled in haste on seeing them, rousing the sleeping city with their cries. The priests on the summit of the great temple pyramid were also on the watch, and when the shouts of alarm reached their ears from below, they sounded their shells and beat their huge drum, which was only heard in times of peril or calamity. Instantly the city broke from its slumber, and as the leading Spaniards crossed the bridge a distant sound was heard, which rapidly approached. Soon from every street and lane poured enemies, flinging stones and arrows into the crowded ranks of the Spaniards as they came. On the lake was heard a splashing sound, as of many oars, and the war-cry of a host of combatants broke on the air. A brief interval had sufficed to change the silence into a frightful uproar of sound and the restful peace into the fast growing tumult of furious battle.

The Spaniards pushed steadily along the cause-way, fighting only to drive back the assailants who landed from their canoes and rushed in fury upon the marching ranks. The horsemen spurred over them, riding them down; the men on foot cut them down with their swords, or hurled them backward with the butts of their guns; the Indian allies of the Spaniards attacked them fiercely, and the roar of war spread far through the gloom of the night.

Onward marched the Spaniards, horse and foot; onward creaked and rumbled the artillery and the wagons; and the second canal in the causeway was reached while the rear files were not yet across the first. The Spaniards had made a fatal mistake in bringing with them only one bridge. When the last of the retreating force was across this, a vigorous effort was made to raise it and carry it to the canal in front, but in vain. The weight of men, horses, and cannon had wedged it so firmly in the earth and stones that it could not be moved. Every nerve was strained to lift the heavy mass, until, many of the workmen being killed and all wounded by the torrent of Aztec missiles, they were forced to abandon it.

When the dread tidings that the bridge could not be raised spread through the crowded host, a cry of despair arose that almost drowned the sounds of conflict. All means of retreat were cut off. Before them lay a deep and yawning ditch. Behind them pressed an army of assailants. On each side hundreds of canoes dashed on the causeway, yielding foes who rushed in fury upon their crowded ranks. All hope seemed lost. All discipline was at an end. Every one thought only of saving his own life, without regard to the weak or wounded. The leading files, gathered on the brink of the gulf, were pressed forward by the rear. The horsemen in front dashed into the water and swam across, but some of the horses failed to climb the steep and slippery bank, and rolled back with their mail-clad riders headlong into the lake.

After them pell mell came the infantry, some seeking to swim, others forced into the water to sink to a muddy death; many of them slain by the arrows and war-clubs of the Aztecs; others, wounded or stunned, dragged into the canoes and carried away to be sacrificed to the terrible war-god of the pagan foe. Along the whole length of the causeway, from ditch to ditch, the contest raged fearfully. The Aztecs, satisfied that they had now got their detested foes in their power, fought like demons, grappling with the Christians and rolling with them down the sloping way together; seeking to take their enemies alive that they might be kept for the bloody sacrifice.

With the horrid shouts of the combatants, the cries of vengeance and groans of agony, the prayers to the saints and the blessed Virgin, mingled the screams of women, of whom there were several, both Spaniard and Indian, in the Christian ranks. One of these, Maria do Estrada, fought as valiantly as any of the warriors, battling staunchly with broad-sword and target in the thickest of the fray, and proving herself as valiant a soldier as the best.

During this terrible contest, Cortez was not at rest. He was everywhere, ordering, fighting, inspiring, seeking to restore the lost discipline to his ranks. Conscious that all was lost unless the fatal ditch could be crossed, and feeling that life must be considered before wealth, he hurried forward everything, heavy guns, ammunition-wagons, baggage-vans, and hurled them into the water along with the spoil of the Spaniards, bales of costly goods, chests of solid ingots, everything that would serve to fill the fatal gap. With these were mingled bodies of men and horses, drowned in that deadly ditch, the whole forming a terrible pathway across which the survivors stumbled and clambered until they reached the other side.

Cortez, riding forward, found a spot in the ditch that was fordable, and here, with the water up to his saddle-girths, he tried to bring order out of confusion, and called his followers to this path to safety. But his voice was lost in the turmoil, and with a few cavaliers who kept with him, he pressed forward to the van, doubly saddened by seeing his favorite page, Juan de Salazar, struck down in death by his side.

Here he found the valiant Gonzalo de Sandoval, who, with about twenty other cavaliers, had led the van, composed of two hundred Spanish foot-soldiers. They were halted before the third and final breach in the causeway, a ditch as wide and deep as those which had been passed. Fortunately it was not so closely beset by the enemy, who were still engaged with the centre and rear, and the gallant cavaliers plunged without hesitation into the water, followed by the foot, some swimming, some clinging desperately to the manes and tails of the horses, some carried to the bottom by the weight of the fatal gold with which they were heavily laden. On leaving the fortress in which they had so long defended themselves, much of the gold which they had gathered was necessarily abandoned. Cortez told the soldiers to take what they wished of it, but warned them not to overload themselves, saying, "He travels safest in the dark night who travels lightest." Many of those who failed to regard this wise counsel paid for their cupidity with their death.

Those who safely passed this final ditch were at the end of their immediate peril. Soon they were off the causeway and on solid ground, where the roar of the battle came more faintly to their ears. But word came to them that the rear-guard was in imminent danger and would be overwhelmed unless relieved. It seemed an act of desperation to return, but the valiant and warm-hearted cavaliers did not hesitate when this cry for aid was heard. Turning their horses, they galloped back, pushed through the pass, swam the canal again, and rode into the thick of the fight on the opposite section of the causeway.

The night was now passing, and the first gray light of day was visible in the east. By its dim illumination the frightful combat could be seen in all its horrid intensity. Everywhere lay dead bodies of Christian or pagan., the dark masses of the warriors could be seen locked in deadly struggle crowding the blood-stained causeway; while the lake, far and near, was crowded with canoes, filled with armed and ardent Aztec warriors, yelling their triumphant war-cry.

Cortez and his companions found Alvarado, who led the rear, unhorsed and wounded, yet fighting like a hero. His noble steed, which had borne him safely through many a hard fight, had fallen under him. With a handful of followers he was desperately striving to repel the overwhelming tide of the enemy which was pouring on him along the causeway, a dozen of the Indians falling for every Spaniard slain. The artillery had done good work in the early part of the contest, but the fury of the assault had carried the Aztecs up to and over the guns, and only a hand-to-hand conflict remained. The charge of the returning cavaliers created a temporary check, and a feeble rally was made, but the flood of foes soon came on again and drove them resistlessly back.

Cortez and the cavaliers with him were forced to plunge once more into the canal, not all of them this time escaping. Alvarado stood on the brink for a moment, uncertain what to do, death behind him and deadly peril before. He was a man of great strength and agility, and despair now gave him courage. Setting his long lance firmly on the wreck that strewed the bottom, he sprang vigorously forward and cleared the wide gap at a bound, a feat that filled all who saw it with amazement, the natives exclaiming, as they beheld the seemingly impossible leap, "This is truly the Tonatiuh,—the child of the Sun!" This name they had given Alvarado from his fair features and flaxen hair. How great the leap was no one has told us, though the name of "Alvarado's leap" still clings to the spot.

Thus ended the frightful noche triste, or "doleful night." Cortez led the remnant of his men off the causeway, a feeble, wounded, straggling few, faltering from weariness and loss of blood. Fortunately, the Aztecs, attracted by the rich spoil that strewed the ground, did not pursue, or it is doubtful if a man of the Spaniards, in their worn and wounded state, would have survived. How many perished in that night of dread no one knows. A probable estimate is about five hundred Spaniards and four thousand natives, nearly all the rear-guard having fallen. Of forty-six horses, half had been slain. The baggage, the guns, the ammunition, the muskets, and nearly all the treasure were gone. The only arms left the warriors were their swords and a few damaged cross-bows, while their mail was broken, their garments were tattered, their proud crests and banners gone, their bright arms soiled, and only a miserable and shattered fragment of their proud force was left, these dragging themselves along with pain and difficulty.

Aztec Idols


Day after day passed as the Spaniards and their allies, the Tlascalans,—inveterate enemies of the Aztecs,—slowly moved away from that blood-stained avenue of death, now little molested by their foes, and gradually recovering from their fatigue. On the seventh morning they reached the mountain height which overlooks the plain of Otumba, a point less than thirty miles from the capital. This plain they were obliged to traverse on their way to Tlascala, their chosen place of retreat.

As they looked down on the broad level below them they saw with shrinking hearts why they had not been as yet molested. A mighty host filled the whole valley from side to side, their arms and standards glistening in the sun, their numbers so great that the stoutest heart among the Spaniards viewed them with dismay, and Cortez, daring and hopeful as he was, felt that his last hour had now surely come.

But this stout leader was not the man to give way to despair. There was nothing to do but to cut their way through this vast array or perish in the attempt. To retreat would have been to invite sure destruction. Fortunately, they had rested for two nights and a day, and men and horses had regained much of their old strength. Without hesitation, Cortez prepared for the onset, giving his force as broad a front as possible, and guarding its flanks with his little body of horse, now twenty in all. Then, with a few words of encouragement, in which he told them of the victories they had won, and with orders to his men to thrust, not strike, with their swords, and to the horsemen on no account to lose their lances, and to strike at the faces of the foe, he gave the word to advance.

At first the natives recoiled from the stern and fierce onset, rolling back till they left a wide lane for the passage of their foes. But they quickly rallied and poured on the little band in their midst, until it seemed lost in the overwhelming mass. A terrible fray followed, the Christians, as one writer says, standing "like an islet against which the breakers, roaring and surging, spend their fury in vain." The struggle was one of man to man, the Tlascalans and Spaniards alike fighting with obstinate courage, while the little band of horsemen charged deep into the enemy's ranks, riding over them and cutting them down with thrust and blow, their onset giving fresh spirit to the infantry.

But that so small a force could cut their way through that enormous multitude of armed and valiant enemies seemed impossible. As the minutes lengthened into hours many of the Tlascalans and some of the Spaniards were slain, and not a man among them had escaped wounds. Cortez received a cut on the head, and his horse was hurt so badly that he was forced to dismount and exchange it for a strong animal from the baggage-train. The fight went on thus for several hours, the sun growing hotter as it rose in the sky, and the Christians, weak from their late wounds, gradually losing strength and spirit. The enemy pressed on in over fresh numbers, forcing the horse back on the foot, and throwing the latter into some disorder. With every minute now the conflict grew more hopeless, and it seemed as if nothing were left but to sell their lives as dearly as possible.

At this critical juncture a happy chance changed the whole fortune of the day. Cortez, gazing with eagle eye around the field in search of some vision of hope, some promise of safety, saw at no great distance in the midst of the throng a splendidly dressed chief, who was borne in a rich litter and surrounded by a gayly attired body of young warriors. A head-dress of beautiful plumes, set in gold and gems, rose above him, and over this again was a short staff bearing a golden net, the standard of the Aztecs.

The instant Cortez beheld this person and his emblem his eye lighted with triumph. He knew him for the commander of the foe, and the golden not as its rallying standard. Turning to the cavaliers beside him, he pointed eagerly to the chief, exclaiming, "There is our mark! Follow me!" Then, shouting his war-cry, he spurred his steed into the thick of the foe. Sandoval, Alvarado, and others spurred furiously after him, while the enemy fell back before this sudden and fierce assault.

On swept the cavaliers, rending through the solid ranks, strewing their path with the dead and dying, bearing down all who opposed them. A few minutes of this furious onset carried them to the elevated spot on which were the Aztec chief and his body-guard. Thrusting and cutting with tiger-like strength and ferocity, Cortez rent a way through the group of young nobles and struck a furious blow at the Indian commander, piercing hint with his lance and hurling him to the ground. A young cavalier beside him, Juan de Salamanca, sprang from his horse and despatched the fallen chief. Then he tore away the banner and handed it to Cortez.

All this was the work almost of a moment. Its effect was remarkable. The guard, overwhelmed by the sudden onset, fled in a panic, which was quickly communicated to their comrades. The tidings spread rapidly. The banner of the chief had disappeared. He had been slain. The blindness of panic suddenly infected the whole host, which broke and fled in wild terror and confusion. The Spaniards and Tlascalans were not slow in taking advantage of this new aspect of affairs. Forgetting their wounds and fatigue, they dashed in revengeful fury on the flying foe, Butting them down by hundreds as they fled. Not until they had amply repaid their losses on the bloody causeway did they return to gather up the booty which strewed the field. It was great, for, in accordance with Cortez's instructions, they had struck especially at the chiefs, and many of these were richly ornamented with gold and jewels.

Thus ended the famous battle of Otumba, the most remarkable victory, in view of the great disparity of forces, ever won in the New World. Chance gave the Spaniards victory, but it was a chance made useful only by the genius of a great commander. The following day the fugitive army reached the soil of Tlascala and were safe among their friends. History has not a more heroic story to tell than that of their escape from the Aztec capital, nor a more striking one than that of their subsequent return and conquest.