La Noche Triste: Cortés & Spanish Escape Aztec Capital, Fighting All the Way

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La Noche Triste: Cortés & Spanish Escape Aztec Capital, Fighting All the Way

"La Noche Triste" (the night of sorrows), oil on canvas, artist unknown, ca. 1550-1600
Currently in the collection of the Library of Congress, Washington DC
[Image courtesy of]
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: July 1, 1520

Today's jaunt into the past involves an incident from the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire of Mexico. It could very well have ended badly for the Spanish…


Since arriving on the Mexican coast in 1519, Hernando Cortés and his men journeyed to Tenochtitlán, the capital city of the Aztec Empire. Cortés used diplomacy to persuade the Aztec emperor Montezuma into allowing them to safely enter the Tenochtitlán. Montezuma was convinced that Cortés was the reincarnation of the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl, who was depicted in native mythology as being a white-skinned man.

The Spanish and their Tlaxcalan Indian allies entered Tenochtitlán in early November of 1519. After seeing the fabulous wealth of the Aztecs – including gold, silver, gemstones, and the like – Cortés became more determined to extract these riches from the natives and send them back to Spain. The Aztec ruler gave them as guest quarters a palace that once belonged to Axayácatl, the father of Montezuma, who had ruled the empire from 1469 to 1481. During their residence in this palace, the Spaniards discovered a fabulous treasure cache, which only inflamed their "gold fever." During their first six months in the capital, the Spaniards asked for a received many items of gold and silver, effectively extorting the items from the Aztecs. At one point, Cortés convinced Montezuma to stay with the conquistadores as his "guest." Obviously, the emperor was the virtual prisoner of the Spaniards. Montezuma's influence over his people began to slowly erode during the time of his captivity.

In May of 1520, Cortés received word of a second Spanish expedition recently making landfall at Veracruz. This new squadron of conquistadores had been sent by the governor of Cuba – a political enemy of Cortés – to arrest him. Taking an incredible risk, Cortés divided his command and marched back to the coast to confront this new threat. [Readers interested in that particular story can read my Burn Pit post from May of last year: battle_of_cempoala.] Shortly after defeating his enemies and recruiting them to his cause, Cortés received a desparate message from his lieutenant Pedro de Alvarado, whom he had left in charge in Tenochtitlán

Capital district of the Aztec Empire, c. 1519
Capital district of the Aztec Empire, c. 1519

During Cortés's absence, the situation in Tenochtitlán began to deteriorate. Montezuma, who up to that point had been a convivial "host" to the invaders, began to be tense and petulant. He was constantly sending courtiers on errands, from which they did not return. There is also evidence that he had been contacted by Narvaez, the leader of the second expedition. Most distressing, the Aztecs stopped bringing food to the Spaniards, an act that usually presaged military action. Although the Spanish began buying food in the city's markets, Alvarado was still apprehensive.

Prior to leading the city, Cortés had given his permission for the Aztecs to hold their annual Festival of Toxcatl. For three weeks in May – during the height of the dry season – prayer and other ceremonies were held at Tenochtitlán's Great Temple. The rites asked the favor of the god Tezcatlipoca (the "Smoking Mirror") to allow the rains to come to fill the dry streams and parched fields with water. Despite the fact that it also involved human sacrifice, Cortés gave his consent for the festival to proceed before he left the city.

In the absence of Cortés, Montezuma and several high priest approached Alvarado to confirm the festival could still proceed. Alvarado consented, but added the stipulation that there was to be no human sacrifice. Although the Aztecs promised to this proviso, they almost certainly had no intention of honoring it. The Toxcatl festival was predicated on human sacrifice. During the three weeks of the many ceremonies were held, including dancing, singing, and musical performances. The culmination of the festival was the sacrifice of a young man who had been specially training during the previous year to physically represent Tezcatlipoca. Asking the Aztecs not to make this sacrifice is akin to asking the Spaniards not to take communion.

Tezcatlipoca (the
Tezcatlipoca (the "Smoking Mirror") in his Jaguar aspect
Image from the codex Rios, currently held in the Vatican Library, Rome

Massacre at the Toxcatl Festival

Prior to the beginning of the festival, Alvarado encountered some Aztecs who looked to be potential sacrifice victims. Alvarado took them back to the Spanish compound and began questioning them. When they did not respond, he ordered them tortured. Soon one of the men broke his silence, saying he had heard that at the end of the festival, the entire citizenry of Tenochtitlán would attack the Spaniards and their allies and wipe them out.

As the Festival of Toxcatl began, Captain Alvarado circulated throughout the city to observe the various rites. He also received reports that mysterious stakes had been set up around the city; rumors stated they would be used to kill the Spaniards and their Tlaxcalan allies. Ceremonies which included frenzied dancing, music, and singing soon convinced the Spanish captain that his small command was in danger. After three days, Alvarado had seen enough.

The highlight of the fourth night of the festival was the Serpent Dance, a highly ritualized ceremony involving hundreds of priests, nobles, and other performers, as well as several thousand observers. It took place in a walled patio near the city's Great Temple. At the heighth of the ceremony, the three great gates leading into the patio and courtyard where it was being held were filled with Spanish soldiers and Tlaxcalans. Then the gates were slammed shut. Musket shots rang out from the walls surrounding the location, and the infantrymen began to attack dancers, musicians, and spectators alike.

With their armor and steel weapons, the Spaniards began systematically killing any Aztec inside the patio. A few Aztecs tried to fight back, but they were slaughtered like cattle. Once any Indians in the courtyard were killed, the Spanish and Tlaxcalans began search nearby building for more Aztecs. When they were satisfied with their bloody work, the Spanish began sifting throught the blood pools, bodies, and body parts taking any gold, silver, jewels or valuable-looking objects for themselves.

Despite the carnage, a few Aztecs managed to escape the slaughter and spread the alarm throughout Tenochtitlán. As Alvarado and his men – who sustained six or seven dead during the attack – marched back to the Axayácatl palace, the Aztecs swarmed from their homes and attacked the hated Spaniards and Tlaxcalans. Only their advanced weaponry and armor allowed them to fight their way back to their quarters. They were now virtual prisoners in a city of hundreds of thousands, eager to cut out their hearts and sacrifice them to their deities.

Aztecs besiege Spanish and their allies in Tenochtitlán, May-June 1520; From the <em>History of Tlaxcala</em>, compiled before 1585; Currently in the collections of the University of Glasgow, Scotland [Image courtesy of]
Aztecs besiege Spanish and their allies in Tenochtitlán, May-June 1520
From the History of Tlaxcala, compiled before 1585
Currently in the collections of the University of Glasgow, Scotland
[Image courtesy of]

Cortés Returns

Shortly after conclusion of the battle of Cempoala, Cortés received messages about the Toxcatl massacre. Swiftly preparations were made for the Spanish return to Tenochtitlán. By the time he returned to the Aztec capital, Cortés's forces force had swelled to about twelve hundred Spaniards, as well a large number of Tlaxcalan allies – perhaps two thousand. Upon arriving in the Valley of Mexico, the army marched in a wide arc around the northern end of the lake complex. They arrived at the town of Tlacopan on June 23. Three major causeways connected Tenochtitlán with the mainland, and the shortest one near Tlacopan was also the closest to the Axayácatl palace.

The next day Cortés and his forces entered the Aztec capital. They immediately knew something was amiss, as the city was nearly empty, there were no canoes on the Mexican lakes, and Tenochtitlán's main market was closed. Upon arriving at their quarters, Cortés found his men in a sorry condition. They were emaciated and dehydrated from having received no food or water for nearly a month. Cortés closely questioned Captain Alvarado for some time, eventually calling his unauthorized attack on the peaceful festival "madness. The only punishment the captain-general meted out was Alvarado's demotion from second-in-command of the expedition.

To ease the privation in the Spanish compound, Cortés persuaded Montezuma to send a member of his court to persuade the Aztec nobility to resume food shipments. The Aztec ruler chose his brother, Cuitláhuac, for the job. Unfortunately, Cuitláhuac was no friend of the invaders, having advised Montezuma from the very beginning not to trust the Spaniards. Locating the few remaining members of Montezuma's council, Cuitláhuac convinced them to unseat his brother as emperor. The councilmen then elected Cuitláhuac as the new emperor.

Over the next six days, the Spaniards and their allies were under an escalting siege from tens of thousands of Aztec warriors. Sling stones, darts, and javelins rained down on the compound, while fire arrows started conflagrations throughout the palace. Several Spanish attempts to sortie from their quarters were beaten back. The Aztecs had lost their fear of the Spanish technology – and their horses – and were now seething with a hatred that wanted every Spaniard dead.

Death of Motezuma, artist unknown; Illustration from American Beginnings in Europe (1912) by Wilbur F. Gordy [Image courtesy of]
Death of Motezuma, artist unknown
Illustration from American Beginnings in Europe (1912) by Wilbur F. Gordy
[Image courtesy of]

Running out of options, on June 29, Cortés appealed to the deposed emperor to speak to his former subjects to calm them. Montezuma refused outright, saying that since he was no longer emperor, the Aztecs would likely not listen to him. Angered, Cortés ordered several of his soldiers to carry Montezuma to the roof of the palace, and ordered him to address the burgeoning crowd. Once on the roof, Montezuma tried to speak but was struck by several stones and mortally wounded. He died later that night.

The demise of Montezuma nearly broke the spirit of the Spanish, as they realized that the Aztecs now desired the death of every on in the Axayácatl palace. The day after the former emperor's death, Cortés was approached by one of his soldiers, a man named Botello, who was an astrologer and had traveled widely in Europe. He had been casting lots and reading the stars for the past several days, and had received a dire forecast: if the Spanish did not leave Tenochtitlán that night, they would all die. With Botello's ominous prediction ringing in his ears, the Spanish captain-general made a bold decision: his army must leave the Aztec capital tonight.

"La Noche Triste"

Cortés quickly made plans for his force to escape Tenochtitlán. First, much of the gold and silver looted from the Aztecs was melted down and forged into ingots for easier portage. This process yield eight tons of gold, silver, and gemstones. Two-fifths of this fabulous treasure were set aside for the king and for Cortés. The captain-general then invited his men to take what they wished of the treasure. Many of the Spaniards took only a token amount, while others – notably the newest men – stuffed their wallets, boxes, and bags nearly to bursting.

In order to trap the invaders in the island-city, the Aztecs raised the bridges on the three main causeways into Tenochtitlán. Therefore, Cortés ordered his carpenters to construct a portable wooden bridge, with parts scavenged from the walls and ceilings of their quarters. The makeshift span was heavy and unwieldy, requiring 40 Tlaxcalans to handle, and would be near the front of the Spanish host.

Cortés then arranged his forces; he placed 200 foot soldiers in the front of the bridge and its bearers, supported by two dozen cavalrymen under the command of Gonzalo Sandoval, the new second-in-command. An additional 40 picked infantrymen were assigned to defend the bridge with their lives Behind this vanguard the Spanish commander placed the expedition's two priests and La Malinche, his interpreter (and mistress). Directly behind them Cortés led the bulk of his forces, the baggage, the wounded, the Spaniards Aztec women, and the artillery. This group was followed by the Tlaxcalans who were escorting importants prisoners and dignataries, which included one of Montezuma's sons and his two daughters (these last two carried in covered palanquins). Bringing up the rear were 60 horsemen and most of the newest Spanish recruits commanded by the disgraced and demoted Pedro de Alvarado.

Just after midnight on July 1, the Spanish and their allies quietly left their quarters and began to march toward the nearest causeway. It was a very dark, foggy, and rainy night – the rains which the Aztecs had been praying for at Toxcatl festival finally came. Many of the city's residents were in their homes, seeking shelter from the storms, so the city was quieter than normal.

Through the silent city they hurried, starting at every sound. But only the tramp of the horses, the rumble of the cannon carriages, and the driving rain and wind broke the stillness of the night. With a sigh of relief and a prayer of thanksgiving, the vanguard out from the cramping street on to the open causeway, which was broken by three canals. At the first gaping chasm they waited for the bridge. Suddenly a loud shrill sound pealed forth. An Aztec sentry spotted the Spanish column, and shouted an alarm. Within minutes the streets of Tenochtitlán were filled with Aztecs warriors.

The bridge was hastily laid down, but even as the vanguard marched across they heard the sound of battle from the city came to their ears. Just as Cortés, with his company and the baggage, reached the bridge, out of the dark water on either side sprang a fleet of canoes filled with white-clothed warriors throwing darts, stones, and javelins. So furious was the storm of missiles that the panic- stricken infantry pressed wildly on the cavalrymen, who were thus driven across the bridge. The horsemen crossed the bridge, and the infantry struggled after them with the baggage.

Aztec representation of Spanish-Tlaxcalan column on causeway; Note Aztecs in canoes attacking from lake; artist unknown [Image courtesy of]
Aztec representation of Spanish-Tlaxcalan column on causeway
Note Aztecs in canoes attacking from lake; artist unknown
[Image courtesy of]

All sense of discipline was lost, and each man fought and prayed for himself, straining forward over friend and foe. Eventually Cortés was swept onward. Those who could struggled madly after the general's flying horse, but the sick and wounded, the women and the prisoners, were all slain. Montezuma's daughters miraculously survived. La Malinche was also rescued and borne to the vanguard by some Tlaxcalans.

Meanwhile the rearguard under Alvarado was still in the city where Guatemozin, one of Montezuma's sons, led the Aztecs. The fighting was desperate, and the Spanish artillery had been deployed and was causing great havoc among the attackers. Finally, the gunners were slain, and the fiery monsters captured by the exultant foe. All this time the Spaniards and Tlaxcalans had been defending the bridge to allow everyone to get across. At last Alvarado galloped up with but a remnant of his men. Carving their way across, they shouted that they alone survived of all the rearguard.

It was time to raise the bridge and carry it forward to the next canal. But it had been wedged so firmly into the soft banks by the weight of men, horses, and gun carriages, that no amount of effort could move it. The bridge's last defenders abandoned it and ran to join their comrades.

By this time the vanguard had reached the second canal, where they waited impatiently for the coming of the bridge. The lake's water was now covered with the canoes of the Aztecs, who sprang onto the causeway to grapple with their foes. Goaded by the fierce attack, the Spanish infantry forced the horsemen to the brink of the yawning gulf. Sandoval called to his cavaliers to follow, dashed into the water and swam his horse across (the lake at this point was not very deep). The infantry were left a leaderless mass on the other side. In despair many of the men threw themselves into the canal, but few reached the bank. Weighed down by armor – and their Aztec treasure – they sank beneath the dark waters, or were dragged on board the canoes to become  victims for the Aztec gods.

Spaniards traverse the second canal in causeway during La Noche Triste; Artist unknown, image courtesy of
Spaniards traverse the second canal in causeway during La Noche Triste
Artist unknown, image courtesy of

Cortés saw a scene of hopeless confusion; not even his presence could restore order now. Swimming his horse across, he strove with his fearless horsemen to hold the canal until the coming of the bridge. And now the bad news reached the captain-general: the bridge could not be moved. All chance of escape seemed to vanish, and the men grew wild with panic, with the enemy on three sides, and the bridgeless canal in front.

The despairing Spanish soldiers blindly pushed forward, those in front flung into the gulf by the mad rush behind. Cortés turned his horse at last and galloped after the vanguard. The canal was soon filled with baggage and the bodies of men and horses, and over this ghastly bridge clambered those who came last. The captain-general galloped on, found the vanguard halted before the third canal. The horsemen called to the foot soldiers to follow, made the plunge and swam across, and though many drowned, most of the company reached the bank in safety. Riding to the end of the causeway, Cortés led his miserable band of men onto the mainland.

However, a rumour came that some of the rearguard still survived, but that they would all be lost unless rescued. Careless of danger, Cortés, Sandoval, his surviving captains, and other brave cavaliers turned their horses back along the causeway. "Santiago! Santiago! To the rescue !" they cried. [Santiago is Saint James, the patron saint of Spain.] Pedro de Alvarado, on foot and wounded, defended himself at the last canal against a host of assailants. His horse had been killed under him, and all his followers had fallen except for seven Spaniards and a few Tlaxcalans .Several times the Aztecs could have slain him, but they had sworn to carry him off for sacrifice. [He was easy to spot, as he is described as having flaming red hair.]

Alvarado broke through his foes, stood for an instant alone on the brink of the canal. He threw away his shield and sword, planted his lance on the wreckage at the bottom of the water, leapt into the air like a pole vaulter, cleared the wide gulf, and stood safely among his comrades, while Spaniard and Aztec alike gazed in wonder at his mighty feat. Mounting behind Cortés, the hero rode with his rescuers safely to the mainland. The Aztecs did not long pursue the wretched remnant of the once-dreaded invaders, perhaps weary with slaughter or eager for the spoils scattered along the causeway or eager to sacrifice captured enemies to their gods.


Over four hundred Spaniards – perhaps as many as a thousand – and at least four thousand Tlaxcalans fell that terrible night. The artillery and baggage were lost, most of the horses had been killed, and most of their firearms were lost. The majority of the soldiers of Narvaez, overloaded with treasure, had perished; Botello the astrologer, as he himself had predicted, was among the slain. Aztec losses are unknown.

Cortés sat down in the gloomy dawn to count his losses. As the captain-general searched in vain for his many another trusted comrades and lieutenants, he sat under a tree and wept tears of bitter regret. The terrible night of slaughter and flight would be called La Noche Triste (the night of sorrows).

Footnote #1: The Spanish and Tlaxcalans marched back to Tlaxcala where they healed up and made their plans to reconquer Tenochtitlán. After suffering a smallpox plague and siege by the Spanish and their allies, the Aztecs surrender their capital on August 13, 1521.

Footnote #2: Reportedly, the remains of the Arbol de la Noche Triste has been preserved over the years. The dried trunk of the same ahuehuete tree – also called Montezuma cypress – where Cortés was reportedly seen weeping is inside a small garden within the Colonia Popotla neighborhood of Mexico City.

Remains of Arbol de la Noche Triste (the tree of the Night of Sorrow) today [Image courtesy of]
Remains of Arbol de la Noche Triste (the tree of the Night of Sorrow) today
[Image courtesy of]

Footnote #3: To this very day the place were Pedro de Alvarado saved himself is called "Alvarado's Leap."

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