Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

Cortes Besieges Tenochtitlan

May, 1521

When Cortes had sent off the three divisions of his army who were to blockade the City of Mexico, he followed across the lake as admiral of the fleet which he called "the key of the war." There were twelve vessels—one of the thirteen had been found a bad sailer—each carrying a heavy gun. Their crews numbered three hundred Spaniards, half sailors and half marines. Cortes had picked out for this service men who had been brought up on the seacoast in Spain, although some of them were nobles and did not much relish what they considered menial occupation.

As the fleet approached the southern shore of the lake, it passed under a high precipice held by the Aztecs, who rained down such a shower of stones and arrows on the vessels that Cortes ordered his marines ashore to storm the place. With their admiral at their head, they drove all before them and utterly destroyed the Aztec garrison.

But in the meantime the beacon blazing on top of the hill already told the Mexicans that the Spanish fleet was afloat. As the men regained their vessels, they saw the water before them dark with hundreds of Indian canoes paddling from the City of Mexico across the lake to attack the brigantines.

Just then the wind dropped. To Cortes it meant calamity, for he knew that if he lost his first sea fight, the Indians would lose their awe of his "water-houses."

There was nothing to do, however, but to await calmly the attack of the savages.

The canoes came on until, just out of range, they halted and lay on their oars as if debating what to do next. While they waited, the surface of the lake rippled again and Cortes' heart leaped with joy.

"The wind!" he cried. "The saints are helping us."

He drew his ships out in line of battle. The rising breeze caught the sails and carried the squadron swiftly across the lake to the fleet of Indian canoes. It rammed them, tossed them, overturned them, while the big guns volleyed right and left. The canoes which were unhurt paddled in terror back to the city to escape the fearful white-winged birds of the Spaniards, who made the wind their servant and the thunder and lightning their executioners.

Elated with his victory, Cortes went on his way and arrived at Fort Xoloc, where he knew the dyke from Olid's position at Cojohuacan joined the main causeway of Iztapalapan. The fort, consisting of two stone towers surrounded by stone walls, was garrisoned by Aztecs. The marines easily dislodged them and Cortes, bringing ashore some of the guns, occupied the place. Here he not only held the causeway but was in touch with his fleet and through Olid could be well supplied with provisions.

Thus, before they knew it, the Aztecs were in a state of siege. Cortes' fleet commanded the lake east of the great causeway, and his armies held the entrances to the three causeways. When Guatemozin saw the Spaniards entrenched in the places he should have had the foresight to occupy, he made frantic endeavors to drive them out, making his attacks on land and sea even by night, contrary to Indian practice.

The brigantines successfully protected the eastern side of the dyke, but the western side was unmercifully harassed by the Indian attacks, until the Spaniards made a breach in the causeway and took two of the smaller ships into the basin on the west side in the very face of the savages, who yelled and shot arrows so thickly that they hid the ground where they lay.

And so the siege of Tenochtitlan was fairly on, and Cortes was ready to push it closer. He sent word to Alvarado and Sandoval in their positions that they should, on the day Cortes named, try to enter the capital over their causeways while Cortes advanced along the dyke of Iztapalapan.

The day came. At early dawn Cortes' soldiers gathered to hear mass and then, with their general at their head, they advanced along the dyke of Iztapalapan from Xoloc toward the city. Before they had gone far they came upon a broken bridge and, on the far side of the gap in the causeway, a solid barricade of masonry, which protected the Aztecs drawn up behind it.

The musketeers and crossbow-men tried in vain to drive the Indians back. Finally Cortes gave up that attempt and ordered two ships, one on each side of the causeway, to anchor opposite the Indian barricade and open fire. That drove the enemy from their stand and they fell back to the next breach in the dyke, which they held until the ships again drove them out. The Spanish van swam the gaps in the causeway and pursued the Aztecs as they fled. The rear stayed behind to fill up the breaches with the stones of the barricades.

Finally, when Cortes had pushed the Indians back into the city along the great avenue which led to the central square, he halted for his rear to come up, that they might destroy the houses along the avenue and secure the Spaniards a safe line of retreat. When that was done, Cortes pressed on, and the Indians fell back before him. One more broken bridge and stone barricade the Spaniards cleared with their cannon, swam the shallow water of the canal, and found themselves in the great square of Tenochtitlan.

For a moment they halted, dazed at their recollections. There was the huge temple in the center and, facing it, Axayacatl's palace, which they had entered with pride, lived in in peace and comfort, and from which they had fled in terror. The past seemed almost a dream.

"St. Jago and at them!" Cortes cried, and charged the enemy across the square.

The Aztecs, also remembering the past, and overwhelmed at the return of the white men whom they had once so triumphantly driven out, fell back without resistance into the temple courtyard. From the terraces the chanting Indian priests urged the warriors to courage.

The Spaniards rushed into the temple courtyard and some were bold enough to ascend the steps to the temple area where, in his sanctuary, they found a new image of the war god. They hurled over the side of the temple the priests who would have defended it and tore away the gold and jewels that adorned Huitzilopotchli.

[Illustration] from The Boys' Prescott by Helen Ward Banks


Hundreds of Aztec eyes had watched this new insult to their god, and as the rash Spaniards came down again into the courtyard, there were hundreds of fierce Aztec arms eager for revenge. In a mass they threw themselves on the Spaniards and drove them into the square, where they were caught by new bodies of Indians pouring in from the side streets.

Utterly losing their coolness and courage, the Spaniards left their cannon in the square and fled back towards the causeway. Cortes' efforts to rally them were in vain; they met their advancing allies and communicated their terror to them, till the retreat became nothing but a panic-stricken stampede.

When it seemed as if all was lost, help came. A body of cavalry dashed through a side street and boldly charging the enemy, turned it once more. Cortes made his voice heard finally to reassure his frightened troops who, ashamed of their wild flight, returned to order and drove the Aztecs once more into the temple courtyard.

As it was growing dark, Cortes attempted nothing more. He recovered the cannon from the square and then sounded a retreat, the allies in the van, the infantry in the center and the cavalry in the rear. The army was pursued all the way by howling Aztecs disappointed of their revenge, but late at night the Spaniards reached Xoloc.

Alvarado and Sandoval had made their attempt to enter the city over their causeways, but, having no ships to help them, they had not been able to pass the barricades at the breaches. Cortes now sent half the fleet to his two generals along with one-third of the fifty thousand Tlascalans whom Ixtlilzochitl had led into camp.

Cortes' attack on Tenochtitlan had not only caused terror to the Aztecs, but had also convinced several out-lying tribes that Cortes would prove a better friend than Guatemozin. They all offered him recruits. Cortes did not need more fighting men for his ranks were full, but it was most reassuring to have behind him, instead of enemies, friends whom he could use to keep peace in the outlying country and to send food into camp.

Before the Mexicans could recover from that attack, Cortes made a second, thinking that, as he had filled up all the breaches in the causeway, he should have easy entrance into the city. But he found that each breach had been opened again. However, with the help of cannon and ships, he once more pushed his way across and entered the city. This time he burned the palace of Axayacatl which had so long been the Spaniard's home.

On the following days, time after time, Cortes forced his way into the city, always finding the gaps he filled up one day broken open the next. He even got a little way down the dyke of Tlacopan once, hoping to get into communication with Alvarado. But there were too many broken bridges in his way and he did not get far.

Guatemozin, in the meantime, was not idle. His beacon fires burned and the melancholy drum in the great temple boomed to call to attack, not only his subjects in the city, but those tribes outside who were still his friends. While Guatemozin had friends outside, their canoes managed to run the blockade of the brigantines and bring in provisions by night. But as the out-lying tribes fell away, Tenochtitlan began to suffer. Guatemozin made many fierce attacks on the three Christian camps at the ends of the causeways, but he was always driven back.

Cortes' sent many messages of peace to Guatemozin, hoping against hope that the young Emperor would capitulate and so save his city from destruction. But Guatemozin did not falter. He saw his enemies encompassing him, his vassals falling away, his city destroyed by fire, famine coming near, but he sent no word of yielding to Cortes. To all Cortes' offers of peace there came no answer except scornful silence. Guatemozin had sworn an oath of undying hatred to the Spaniards. Come what might, he would ask no mercy at their hands.