Young Folk's History of Mexico - Frederick Ober

The Disastrous Retreat from Mexico

[A. D. 1520.] With thirteen hundred Spanish infantry, two thousand Tlascallans, and near one hundred horse, Cortez, a second time, entered the Aztec capital, on the twenty-fourth of June, 1520.

Montezuma hastened to meet him, congratulating him upon his return with augmented forces; but Cortez, either swelled with pride, or affecting to believe the king guilty of having secretly treated with Narvaez, ignored him entirely. Grieved and angry, Montezuma retired to his quarters. It having been stated to Cortez that the failure in the supply of provisions was owing to the imprisonment of Cuitlahuatzin, he was induced to release him; an act fatal to the Spaniards, as subsequent events will show. It is thought that Cortez had under his command at this time an army, including the Tlascallan allies, of about nine thousand men. Cuitlahuatzin was brother to Montezuma, and general of the Mexican armies, which, upon his release, he at once commenced to assemble. On the very next day the Spaniards were made sensible of their error in releasing this brave prince, as the populace stormed their quarters, and sent in upon them such a tempest of darts and arrows that the pavement of the court and the terraces were completely covered with them. A force sent out to repel them was driven back with loss, and upon a second attempt were drawn into an ambuscade, the Mexicans affecting to retreat, and then turning upon them and inflicting great slaughter. They set fire to the roofs of the palace, opened a breach in one of the walls, and poured into it with such tumultuous fury that they were only driven back by the incessant play of the Spanish artillery. On the morning of the next day, the twenty-sixth of June, the Mexicans renewed the fight with terrible energy. Cortez sallied out with the whole force, but though he destroyed great numbers of the enemy, he was forced to retreat with considerable loss. Montezuma, from a terrace of the palace, saw his brother fighting at the head of the Mexican troops, and this sight filled him with anguish and despair. He saw in the victory of either party the loss to him of his throne, and probably of his life; but, true to his sympathies with the Spaniards, and magnanimously ignoring the great affront put upon him by the Spanish commander, advised Cortez to secure, if possible, his retreat. Cortez, though he had so recently scorned the friendly offices of the deposed emperor, gladly listened to this advice, upon which, however, he was unable to act. He was unable even to make an impression upon the multitude of his foes, though the artillery and musketry mowed them down in heaps. In such vast numbers did they come that they boasted they could afford to lose a hundred lives for every Spaniard killed; indeed, they considered that number a cheap sacrifice for the death of one of their hated foes. Not only in the great square and in the streets did the Spaniards suffer from the missiles of the Mexicans, but a galling fire was turned upon them, in the court of the palace, from the neighboring roof-tops and terraces. In order to protect his soldiers from the annoying fire, Cortez constructed three large machines, called mantas, each one large enough to contain twenty soldiers, and mounted on wheels. With these he hoped to be able to approach the houses and walls under cover, but upon the first trial they proved ineffective, for the huge stones thrown against them crushed the roofs and the soldiers beneath them.

The most disastrous and deadly discharge of arrows and darts now came from an unexpected quarter. Towering above the great square and above the palace, which bounded the western side of this square, rose the vast temple-pyramid. Upon the summit platform of this massive structure, five hundred Mexican nobles fortified themselves, and from it launched a shower of arrows, stones, and darts. This commanding position it was necessary should be taken, and Cortez sent a hundred men against it, who were finally driven back after three vigorous attempts. Then he determined to lead the assault in person, and though suffering from a severe wound in his left hand, he tied his shield to his left arm, and, brandishing his sword, called upon his men to follow. Furious at this attack upon their sanctuary, the Mexicans rallied about their imperilled nobles in vast numbers; four or five thousand rushed immediately into the enclosure and up to the steps of the great pyramid, defending it with lances, slings, and javelins. The fight waged here was the bloodiest that had yet taken place; the carnage was awful; the smooth and polished pavement of the enclosure was slippery with human blood, so that the horses of the cavalry could not keep their footing, and upon the infantry devolved the burden of the battle. Animated by a common resolve to defend their nobles, their priests, and their gods, now in such imminent danger, the Mexicans fought with incredible bravery. Step by step the Spaniards ascended the terraces of the temple, every man covered with blood, and engaged in a hand-to-hand conflict with the defenders.

At last they reached the broad platform of the pyramid, where were gathered the priests and the flower of the Mexican nobility, who, reduced to their last extremity, fought with the desperation of despair. It was of no avail, the mail-clad warriors, in their coats of impenetrable steel, bore everything before them; and though it was three hours before the termination of this dreadful conflict, they finally succeeded in setting fire to the temples of the gods. Though some writers have affirmed that every priest and noble here perished at the point of the sword, it seems more probable that, after setting fire to the adoratories, the Spaniards retreated, pursued unrelentingly by the remnant of the nobility. At least, they were soon driven to their quarters in great confusion, with the loss of fifty killed, and nearly all the survivors covered with wounds. The greater part of this heroic action was carried on upon the summit of the pyramid, more than one hundred feet above the pavement of the square, and many of the combatants were hurled from the terraces, and trampled upon by the fighting crowd below.

They found their quarters partially in possession of the Mexicans, whom with great difficulty they succeeded in driving out. They had beaten clown the walls, and the night was spent in repairing the breaches, burying the dead, and caring for the wounded. Their prospects were dismal in the extreme, for their provisions were nearly exhausted, each soldier having but half an allowance, nearly all of them were wounded; and while their numbers steadily diminished those of the enemy continued to increase.

The next morning the enemy renewed the attack, endeavoring to set fire to the buildings, storming the walls, and showering upon them countless thousands of stones and arrows. They even penetrated into the great court of the palace, engaging the Spaniards hand to hand; in this extremity Cortez sent to Montezuma desiring him to show himself to his subjects and try to induce them to desist from their attacks. The scorned and insulted monarch, plunged into the deepest dejection, at first refused, saying, "I neither desire to hear him, nor to live any longer, since it is on his account I have been reduced to this unhappy fate." But he was at length persuaded to exhibit himself, and, attended by some of the soldiers, he went out upon the terraced roof in sight of his people below.

As soon as they perceived him, the chief and nobles commanded their troops to refrain from the attack. The tumult ceased, and in silence, many of them on bended knees, the multitude awaited what he had to say. His first utterance, requesting them to disperse and return to their homes and allow the Spaniards egress unmolested from the city, showed them that his heart was still with the hated visitors who had him in their power. He was soon interrupted, and four of the principal nobility, advancing, reproached him with his effeminacy, telling him that they had raised his brother to the throne, that they had promised their gods never to desist until the Spaniards were totally destroyed; but that they prayed daily for his safety, and as soon as they had rescued him they should venerate him as before. They had, however, no sooner finished their speech, than one of the Mexicans, thought to have been a nephew of Montezuma, commenced to revile him, lamenting the misfortunes of his family, and in the heat of his anger let fly an arrow at him. This was but a signal to the populace, who had stood undecided what to do, and immediately their stones and arrows rained like hail about the person of his majesty. Sacred no longer from the attacks of those who had once held him in fear and reverence, and without the protection of the shields of the soldiers, who, now too late, sprang forth to interpose them, Montezuma was wounded. A stone struck him on the head, another on the leg, and an arrow pierced his arm, and, bruised and bleeding, he was borne below. There he lingered a few days, refusing all nourishment, assistance and sympathy, until death finally came to his relief. Thus perished the great Montezuma, in the fifty-fourth year of his age, and in the eighteenth of his reign, after having been six months a prisoner.

Weak as he was in the defence of his people, superstitious and cruel as he was in the practice of his religion, we cannot but lament this unfortunate termination of his life. In many noble qualities he far transcended those men by whom he was surrounded at the time of his death, who, though they had made him prisoner, bewailed the departure of a being so generous and so magnanimous. Of his children who survived him, three perished on the terrible night of the retreat, while from two others, a son and a daughter, descended the noble houses of Montezuma. The kings of Spain "granted many privileges to the posterity of Montezuma on account of the unparalleled service rendered by that monarch in voluntarily incorporating a kingdom so great and rich as Mexico with the crown of Castile."

His body was delivered to the nobility, who, with much mourning and lamentation, burned it with the usual ceremonies, and the ashes were buried at Chapultepec. The people now attacked the besieged with greater violence, if possible, than before, threatening them that within the space of two days they should all pay with their lives for the death of their king, for they had chosen a sovereign whom they could not deceive as they had the good Montezuma. Notwithstanding the fact that the Spaniards made frequent sallies from the palace into the city, in one of which they destroyed many houses and barricades, they could not succeed in opening a clear road for their retreat.

The death of Montezuma occurred on the twenty-ninth or thirtieth of June; on the first of July it was determined, by Cortez and his captains in council, to retreat from the city. The preparations for that event were immediately commenced. The road to Tacuba, a town on the mainland, being the shortest, was selected as the route of departure. As the bridges crossing the several canals had been removed by the Mexicans, Cortez ordered a bridge of wood to be made, which, carried by forty men, could be laid across the ditches as necessity might require. Owing to the predictions of an astrologer, contrary to the dictates of military science, it was decided to commence the retreat at night, in as secret a manner as possible, after the Mexicans should have desisted from their daily attack upon the palace. The gold and treasure of Montezuma was brought into the great saloon, and after entrusting the fifth belonging to the King of Spain to the proper officers, Cortez gave permission to his soldiers to load themselves with the remainder, cautioning them, however, that such a burden might prove their death during the retreat, and that it would be much better to abandon it all to the enemy. Unheeding his advice, many of the soldiers loaded themselves heavily with the treasure, and were the first to fall in the pursuit that soon followed.

[A.D. 1520.] A little before midnight, on the first of July, the army of the besieged emerged from the gates of the palace. In advance went the bearers of the temporary bridge, in charge of a detachment of five hundred men; the vanguard, commanded by the indomitable Sandoval, consisted of two hundred infantry and twenty cavalry. Next came the prisoners, the servants, females and baggage, protected by a hundred infantry and several hundred of the allies; the rear-guard, containing a greater portion of the Spanish troops, was in charge of the dashing Alvarado. Cortez and a few chosen officers galloped along the line ready to render assistance where it was most needed, while the great body of the allies was distributed amongst the three divisions of the army. The night was dark and rainy, and hid their operations from the enemy, but it was impossible, of course, to conceal the departure of such a host, of nine thousand men, with artillery, horses, and baggage, from their wary and suspicious foes.

They crossed the great square in silence and in safety; they reached the first canal, where the portable bridge was placed in position; the artillery, some of the cavalry, and the Tlascallans in charge of the king's gold, the vanguard, Cortez, and many of his officers, had crossed the canal, when their ears were saluted by dismal sounds. The alarm was given; the priests watching on the temple gave notice to the people by blowing trumpets and sounding the great drum of serpent-skin that hung above the altar of their war-god. They were instantly attacked by the enemy, who sprang like apparitions from the lake, from the canals, from canoes, and from every street. All was confusion, the rear-guard, dashing forward to escape the multitude of enemies that now fell upon them, crowded upon those in front; cavalry, artillery, baggage, prisoners, infantry, all were driven together in a struggling, disorganized mass. The vanguard was halted by an open canal in front, behind the rear-guard was the wooden bridge, but so wedged and fastened in position by the weight that had passed over it, that it was impossible to remove it. The slaughter that then ensued was horrible; completely at the mercy of the Mexicans, the unfortunate Spaniards and their allies were pierced with lances and arrows, hewn down with swords taken from their own soldiers, and hundreds of them taken prisoners and hurried off to be sacrificed to the Mexican deities. Then was the dead emperor avenged; then did the Mexicans glut their long-repressed desires for blood. Upon the night air rose the shrieks and groans of the wounded and dying, and the appealing cries of the unfortunate victims, who were dragged into the canoes and carried off to be murdered upon the sacrificial stone. The second canal finally became so filled with the dead and dying, horses, baggage, and artillery, that those remaining alive in this terrified throng found a passage over them across the water and hurried along the causeway to the third canal. This soon became filled like the other with dead and wounded prisoners and soldiers, and over this horrible bridge the wretched remnant of the army escaped to solid land. Cortez and his captains, those who were at liberty to do so, clapped spurs to their horses and galloped along the causeway.

In the courts of a small place called Popotla, the remains of which may be seen at this day, the survivors of the vanguard halted to await information of their miserable comrades. Cortez and a few of the cavalry went back as far as the first canal, and there met the captain, Alvarado, wounded and on foot, limping along with his lance in his hand. He had with him but fifteen or twenty soldiers of the rear-guard, and they told Cortez it was vain to wait for more, as all had perished. When Cortez learned this it is said that the tears ran from his eyes, for there were in the rear-guard nearly one hundred and fifty of his bravest soldiers, besides one of the most gallant of his captains, Velasquez de Leon, whom he dearly loved. Alvarado told them that, after the horses had been killed, about eighty of them collected in a body and forced the second canal upon the corpses of the slain; he, himself, if we may believe his own story, saved his life by a tremendous leap; placing his lance at the bottom of a canal he vaulted across the broad space to the other side. This story, whether false or true, has given a name to the place where this event is said to have occurred, as it is known even to-day as the "Leap of Alvarado"—el Salto de Alvarado.

Tree of La Noche Triste.


Finding from the information given by Alvarado that they were not to expect any more of their companions, as the causeway was full of Mexican warriors, these distressed fugitives hastily assembled themselves together for defence against the inhabitants of the surrounding country. Incited by messengers from the Mexican capital, the Indians were now rising upon all sides of them, and it seemed as if no power on earth could save them from total annihilation. There is in this little village where they made their first halt, near the present town of Tacuba, a giant cypress-tree, beneath which, it is said, Cortez sat awhile and wept at the loss of his soldiers. That terrible night of the retreat being known as la Noche Triste—or the sorrowful night—this great cypress, still standing, is called "the tree of the sorrowful night."

Well may Cortez have wept, not only at the loss of his soldiers, but at the almost total ruin which had overtaken his army. More than one-half of the Spanish army had fallen, more than four thousand of their Indian allies, almost all the prisoners, and the men and women who were in the service of the Spaniards. Four of their most noted captains also had been killed, and among the prisoners slain were a brother, a son, and two daughters of Montezuma, a daughter of Prince Maxicatzin, and finally, the noble Cacamatzin, King of Tezcoco, who had been deposed by Cortez and Montezuma. Among the officers left to Cortez were his brave and trusty captains, Sandoval, Alvarado, Olid, Ordaz, Avila, and Lugo, and besides these his interpreter, Aguilar, and his mistress, Marina.

Dejected, wearied, most of them bleeding from terrible wounds, the unfortunate Spaniards made their way into the country. Had the Mexicans then pursued them they would have been entirely destroyed, not a life would have been saved; but for some unaccountable reason they ceased their pursuit at the end of the causeway, returning to care for the wounded and pay funeral honors to the dead.

Nine miles west of the capital of Mexico is a hill, which the Spaniards reached on the day after the defeat, and where they fortified themselves for the night; here they obtained a little repose and a small amount of food from the neighboring Indians. Many years later, a small chapel was erected here in memory of their deliverance. The next day they were so famished that they ate a horse which had been killed that day by the enemy, and the Tlascallans threw themselves upon the earth to eat the roots of the grass, imploring the assistance of their gods. By general consent they directed their way towards Tlascala, many miles distant, a single Indian their only guide. They proceeded but slowly, impeded by the wounded and continually annoyed by the enemy.

Several days had passed, when they reached the plain of Otumba, not far from the great pyramids of the Sun and Moon,—see Chap. II., pp. 35, 36,—and here they beheld a sight that caused them justly to fear that their last days had come. The whole plain was covered with the hosts of the enemy, not less, it is thought, than one hundred thousand in number, who presented a most glorious appearance, with waving plumes and weapons shining in the sun. To the Spaniards it seemed hopeless to attempt even to defend themselves, but they formed their shattered ranks and bravely met the onset of their foes. It would have gone hard with them indeed had not Cortez at a critical moment killed the general of this immense army and seized their royal banner, upon which the superstitious Indians turned and fled. This was justly considered one of their most famous victories; but though they made great slaughter of the enemy they dared not pursue them far, and resumed their march to Tlascala, which they entered on the tenth day after their disastrous defeat. They were received by the Tlascallans with a kindness they had no reason to expect, for of the total number killed during the retreat from Mexico, more than four-fifths were natives of this republic. Though lamenting the deaths of their friends and relations, these devoted people did not do more than mildly blame the Spaniards, chiding them only for not listening to their warnings of Mexican treachery. They gave them their deepest sympathies, took them into their houses, furnished them with nurses and surgeons, who cured their wounds, and, thus protected and cherished by these noble Indians, the Spaniards slowly recovered from the effects of their late disasters.

Passing in review the losses sustained by the Spanish army we find the numbers of the slain variously stated, but they probably amounted, up to the time of their arrival in Tlascala, to not much less than nine hundred men, besides at least five times that number of their unfortunate allies. All the gold, except that saved for the king's portion, had been lost in the ditches of Mexico, and the soldiers found themselves impoverished, as well as wounded, and enfeebled by their long privations. The esteem and compassion of their hospitable friends seemed in nowise to abate after several weeks' residence, and even the prince, Maxicatzin, whose daughter had perished through their neglect, was their most ardent supporter. It was not long before the fidelity of the Tlascallans was put to a severe test by the arrival of an embassy from the King of Mexico, with a large present of cotton, fine feathers and salt, desiring that they would enter into an alliance with him to expel the murderous invaders of their soil. He urged that, although they had been enemies in the past, their unity of language and religious belief should unite them against this common foe, who, as they had seen, had violated every sacred law of honor, sacrificed the lives of their friends to their lust for gold, and had perfidiously murdered the great and generous Montezuma. If they would enter into such an alliance they should forever enjoy free commerce with their neighbors, and their gods would grant them success in every undertaking; but if, on the contrary, they should receive and harbor these bloodthirsty strangers, they should be forever accursed and branded with infamy. The Tlascallan senate disputed long and earnestly, but finally rejected these overtures of the Mexicans, and voluntarily renewed their allegiance as vassals to the King of Spain.