Say what you want about the horrible occupation of Mexico that followed Cortez’s conquest, and you can even point out that Cortez had help from hundreds of thousands of native allies, but his ability to maintain a victorious campaign against the Aztecs was undeniably impressive. Yes, the armor, guns, and smallpox certainly helped, though Cortez still faced an entrenched enemy twice his size and had to split his army three times and still took one of the most impressive cities in the Americas.
Going into a relatively unknown area against an unknown enemy was difficult. Even Caesar had some troubles in Britain, and Alexander won against Porus in India, but the hard-fought battle led to some mutiny. The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was the most impressive thing many of the Spanish had ever seen, and the sacrifices the most horrifying. The Aztec Obsidian-bladed clubs might shatter against armor but could and did cut horses heads completely off, a frightening sight.
All of this together would usually make an army far more likely to panic and flee. Knowing that capture meant having your heart ripped out should have been enough to make the average soldier break ranks to flee, but Cortez’s men never fled, even when massively outnumbered.
The actual capture of Tenochtitlan was masterful, a slow but methodical march up three long causeways while being attacked on three sides by infantry and skirmishers on canoes day and night, but Cortez’s place on this list comes down to his actions during the months of June and July 1520, a year before Tenochtitlan even fell.
The Spanish had been welcomed into the great city, and to hugely condense things, the emperor was captured, killed by his own people and, after a slaughter by the Spanish, the town revolted with the Spanish still inside. This led to “the sad night” as Cortez led a desperate escape with about 1,000 Spaniards and about 15,000 Native allies against as many as 100,000 Aztec warriors and hostile citizens.
Spaniards were executed, drowned or killed on the spot and almost every man who escaped had some wounds, but they did escape. Getting out of Tenochtitlan was no small feat, the Spanish conquest should have ended that night and given future invaders reason to stay away, but Cortez and his men lived to fight another day.
A week after the sad night the Spanish fought again. Still nursing wounds and recovering from the horrors of the escape, the Spanish found themselves facing an army of 100-200,000 men. The Spanish had 500 wounded men left and only a few hundred allies. They were short on food and had been harassed day and night by following Aztec skirmishers.
Despite the odds, the Spanish met the Aztecs in open battle. Cortez knew the Aztecs enough to recognize the army’s command structure and had his cavalry make precision charges straight at the enemy captains. Though few in number, the technological advantages in armor and horses led to the deaths of multiple Aztec captains. After a charge led by Cortez killed the army commander, the Aztecs routed. Thousands of Aztecs were killed to about 100 Spaniards.
These two engagements showed both the tactical skill and the grasp of leadership Cortez had. He kept his men together and even persuaded a group that had come to arrest him to join his fight. Cortez did more than most conquerors with far less to work with, and against an enemy inspired absolute terror into their victims through fear of what happened if they were captured.
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