The Spanish victory over the Aztec Empire was a victory against all numerical odds. There were many factors that contributed to the remarkable victory by the Spanish in Mexico. Disease, resemblance to native prophecies, Spanish alliance with enemies of the Aztecs, and Spanish technological superiority were all factors that led to the downfall of the Aztec Empire. The greatest military advantage possessed by the Spanish, however, was the horse. Natives in the New World had no knowledge of these animals, to say anything of their use as a weapon of war. The use of the horse in combat by the Spanish gave them a weapon that provided not only tactical and strategic advantages, but also a psychological advantage against the natives. The Spanish were outnumbered in each engagement that was fought with the natives. The Spanish infantry, though technologically superior to the native Mexicans, were hard pressed on many occasions. The employment of Spanish cavalry usually turned the tide of those battles, and allowed the Spanish to defeat the numerically superior native armies.
The horse was not native to the New World. The Spanish introduced the horse to the New World first in the islands of the Caribbean and then in Cuba. The horses that were held on those islands formed the pool from which Cortés and his men used in Mexico.1 The transportation of horses from Europe to the New World was not without difficulty. Ships were generally small and packed with goods. Supplies were short for both men and livestock. Livestock was generally kept on the upper decks of the ships. The lack of supplies and long transit times meant that many of the horses bound for the New World died and were dumped over the side of the ships in the Atlantic.2 These logistical factors meant that horses in the New World were scarce, extremely valuable, and to be protected at all costs. Despite the logistical difficulties regarding the horse, the Spanish cavalry was well-honed for use in the New World.
The many years of fighting on the Iberian Peninsula between the Spanish and the Moors had left Spain with a good breed of horse and high quality horsemen. The men were combat seasoned and were ready for new adventures after successfully driving the Moors out of Spain.3 Explorations in the New World offered a perfect opportunity for those veterans. The Cortés expedition to Mexico left Cuba in the winter of 1519. Upon leaving Cuba, Cortés had embarked sixteen horses belonging to various men of the expedition. The horses were of varying quality, but most were capable of conducting warfare.4
Cortés and his men landed near the Rio de Grijalva, in the Tabasco region of Mexico in March of 1519.5 The natives of Tabasco opposed the Spanish attempt to come ashore, and armed conflict broke out between them. After the Spanish fought their way into the village and spent the night, Cortés ordered a detachment of men to make a reconnaissance further inland. The Spanish detachment soon ran into a large force of natives. Initially, the Spanish were able to hold the natives at bay simply using infantry. The natives, however, were regrouping for a large assault on the Spanish. Upon learning of the impending assault, Cortés ordered the deployment of the horses. Cortés’s order resulted in the first major combat use of the horse in Mexico.6
Cortés selected his most skilled riders and healthiest horses to form the Spanish cavalry. Thirteen horsemen were selected to take part in the impending battle. Among these were some of the more noted men of the Conquest, including Pedro de Alvarado and Cristóval de Olíd. Cortés placed himself as leader of the cavalry, and ordered bells attached to the horses’ breastplate armor. His orders to the cavalry according to Bernal Diaz were “not to stop and spear those who were down, but to aim their lances at the faces of the enemy.”7 The tactics set forth by Cortés in the initial armed engagement between the natives of Mexico and the Spanish set the precedent for cavalry use throughout the Conquest.
The battle against the natives of Tabasco started as an infantry engagement. The Spanish swordsmen, crossbowmen, and musketeers were attacked by a vastly numerically superior native force. The Spanish infantry were pushed to the brink of their endurance until the cavalry entered the battle. Cortés brought the horsemen behind the lines of the natives. The natives were so intently focused on the Spanish foot soldiers that they were unaware of the approach of the horsemen. The Spanish cavalry slammed into the native lines and wreaked havoc. The Spanish infantry, their morale boosted by the charge of the horsemen, charged forward as well. The result of the two pronged Spanish attack was a complete rout of the numerically superior native force.8 Cortés employed similar tactics throughout the Conquest with great success.
The next major military engagement involving the horse came after the Spanish had established a base at Vera Cruz and had began the march inland to Tenochtitlan. On the march inland, the Spanish encountered the Tlaxcalans. The Tlaxcalans were enemies of the Aztecs, yet they did not take kindly to the initial arrival of the Spanish. The Tlaxcalans attacked when the Spanish entered their territory. The Tlaxcalans fielded massive armies, and as usual, the Spanish were greatly outnumbered. Cortés deployed the cavalry against the Tlaxcalans stating that “in these charges we did them some damage killing between fifty and sixty of them, without receiving any casualties ourselves.”9 Despite the success of the Spanish cavalry, the Tlaxcalans were able to draw blood as well.
The Spanish and Tlaxcalans fought for several days. The Tlaxcalan assaults were beaten back each time, but the Spanish suffered casualties. The Tlaxcalans managed to kill at least one of the Spanish horses and severely wound its rider.10 The Tlaxcalans attacked time after time pressing the Spanish infantry but as Bernal Diaz stated the cavalry offered support: “The horsemen were so skillful and bore themselves so valiantly that, after God who protected us, they were our bulwark.”11 Clearly the Spanish horsemen not only provided a tactical advantage to Cortés and his men, but also a morale boost. The Tlaxcalans suffered great losses and grew tired of fighting the Spanish and asked for peace. Cortés accepted and the Tlaxcalans became important allies to the Spanish during the remainder of the campaign Aztec.
The next major military engagement was at Cholula. After allying with the Tlaxcalans, the Spanish continued the march towards Tenochtitlan. The path taken brought the Spanish to Cholula. Unlike the Tlaxcalans, the Cholulans were friendly to the Aztecs. The Cholulans and Aztecs conspired to ambush the Spanish in the city of Cholula. Cortés learned of the plot through various informants. The Cholulans had prepared their city as a great trap, with spiked pits, blocked and barricaded streets, and stores of stones on the rooftops.12 With knowledge of the Cholulan plans, Cortés and his men and their Tlaxcalan allies struck first. The Cholulans were caught off guard and decimated.13 Though the Spanish were again victorious, the preparations made by the Cholulans showed that the natives were beginning to adapt their tactics against the Spanish. The use of the spiked pits in the streets, for example, created a very dangerous trap for horses. Urban combat was a situation where the effectiveness of the horse was diminished for the Spanish.
The Spanish continued the trend of conflict followed by alliance at Cholula. After the events at Cholula the Spanish continued to Tenochtitlan. After spending some time in Tenochtitlan and imprisoning the Aztec ruler, Moctezuma, Cortés learned of a new threat. A Spanish force was sent by Diego Velázquez, the governor of Cuba, to Mexico to arrest Cortez and his men.14 Cortés left Pedro de Alvarado and a small detachment of Spanish soldiers in Tenochtitlan, while taking the rest of his force to the coast to deal with the men sent by Valesquez.15 Cortés managed to convince most of the Velázquez group to join with him. By shrewd persuasion, Cortés greatly increased his force in Mexico. Bernal Diaz noted that after a muster of the new force Cortés counted “over ninety-six horses and eighty crossbowmen, and as many musketeers…”16 The reinforcements proved valuable, as the situation had deteriorated back at Tenochtitlan. Open warfare soon erupted between the Spanish and Aztec.
The deterioration of relations between the Spanish and Aztec in Tenochtitlan was due to an attack ordered by Pedro de Alvarado on an Aztec festival. Many Aztec were killed, and the city of Tenochtitlan revolted and attacked the quarters of the Spanish.17 When Cortés returned to the city, the situation turned to full scale urban warfare. It was in these urban combat situations where the horsemen were not effective. Diaz wrote that “although the horsemen charged the squadrons to break through them, so many arrows, darts and stones were hurled at them, that they, well protected by armour though they were, could not prevail against the enemy…”18 The death of Moctezuma and the continued Aztec assaults left the Spanish with no choice but to flee from Tenochtitlan.
The Spanish retreat from Tenochtitlan was no less than a rout. The narrow causeways into the city presented the only way out, and the Aztec were fully deployed to oppose the retreat. Many of the Spanish and their Tlaxcalan allies perished in the gaps between destroyed bridges in the causeways. Those that did escape to the mainland did so only by fierce fighting and luck. Cortés wrote that “Many Spaniards and horses had been killed, all the gold, jewels, clothing and other things we were carrying were lost, and in addition all the guns.”19 Though they did so at great loss, the Spanish managed to escape the urban confines of Tenochtitlan.
The next large scale military engagement was perhaps the finest hour of the cavalry during the Conquest. The Spanish were retreating towards Tlaxcala and were constantly hounded by the Aztec. The Spanish reached the town of Otumba, and there the Aztec were prepared to make a final, crushing attack on the Spanish.20 The Aztec vastly outnumbered the weary and wounded Spanish. The Aztec attacked and surrounded the tired Spanish infantry. Brutal hand to hand combat ensued. As had happened many times before in Mexico, the Spanish infantry was pressed almost to its breaking point by the attacks of the natives. And as had happened many times before, the Spanish cavalry rode out to save the day.
The battlefield of Otumba was a relatively flat plain, which allowed the cavalry to move freely. Cortés issued orders for the horsemen to attack with their lances aimed at the faces of the natives. He also deployed the cavalry in groups of five each, with orders to charge to and fro through native lines. It was a tactic designed to break up the native formations, and relieve pressure on the Spanish infantry Cortés himself led a detachment of horsemen with the sole purpose of targeting the native chieftains. Cortés and his horsemen broke through the lines and killed or wounded many of the native war leaders. Cortés’s tactic had two main effects. First, the loss of leadership disorganized and demoralized the native warriors. Secondly, the sight of the cavalry breaking through enemy lines boosted the morale of the Spanish infantry. With the tide of the battle turned, the Spanish forced the Aztec warriors into a disorganized retreat.21
The battle at Otumba was perhaps the most striking example of what the horse meant militarily to the Spanish. The Spanish were decimated following the escape from Tenochtitlan. In the confines of urban combat the horse was of little use. A few days later at Otumba the Aztecs faced a Spanish force that was wounded, short on supplies, and vastly outnumbered. Yet, as evident by the results of the battle, the natives could not cope with attack by cavalry in open terrain. The native loss at Otumba meant that the Spanish were able to escape to Tlaxcala to regroup for a renewed assault on Tenochtitlan.
The Spanish gathered their strength again while in the friendly lands of the Tlaxcalans. The period between the battle of Otumba and the final assault on Tenochtitlan saw much skirmishing between the Spanish and the Aztec. The Spanish and their native allies conquered or allied with the cities surrounding Tenochtitlan. The skirmishes resulting from that campaign saw use of Spanish cavalry in the role of infantry support. Infantry would engage the native warriors, then the cavalry would charge in and break the native lines. The strategy employed by Cortés whittled down the Aztec sphere of influence until Tenochtitlan stood alone to resist the Spanish. The final siege of Tenochtitlan was a naval and urban combat affair. The confines of the city and house to house fighting left little room for the Spanish horsemen to be fully effective.22 Even though the horse played only small roles in the final fall of the city, it without a doubt helped the Spanish secure overall victory.
The records of battle clearly showed the effect that the horse had in combat operations during Cortés’s campaign in Mexico. But why was the horse so effective against the natives? To be fair to the natives of Mexico, it must be noted that no animal such as the horse existed in the Americas prior to the arrival of Europeans. The natives had no concept of the mounted warrior. The native ignorance of the horse and mounted warrior meant that the Spanish had a psychological weapon in addition to a tactical one.
The psychological effect of the horse on the natives began even before the Spanish arrived in Mexico. The Aztec had a series of omens prior to the arrival of the Spanish. The Aztec considered these omens as portents of bad events or even impending doom. The seventh omen involved Moctezuma looking into a mirror carried in the crown of strange bird. What he saw were people moving across a field of battle while riding beasts that resembled deer. The eighth omen, again seen in the mirror, was similar. In it, Moctezuma saw beings in the street with two heads but one body.23 The omens were precisely how the Aztec interpreted the horse upon their early encounters with the Spanish.
Moctezuma sent messengers to the coast to gather information about the Spanish. These messengers reported back about Spanish food and clothing. They also reported on the cannon, armor, and weapons of the Spanish. And they reported on the animals brought by the Spanish. Moctezuma’s messengers told him that “Their deer carry them on their backs wherever they wish to go. These deer, our lord, are as tall as the roof of a house.”24 Moctezuma took the information provided by his messengers along with the earlier omens as signs that the Spanish were perhaps gods.25 Cortés shrewdly manipulated the natives to make the impact even greater.
Cortés used the horse as a psychological weapon beginning with the encounter with the natives of Tabasco. After securing victory in the battle at Tabasco, Cortés noted that he felt the natives were very frightened of the horse and cannon. Cortés arranged to play on that fear during a meeting with the chieftans of Tabasco. He ordered a stallion to scent one of the mares that was in heat and then have the two horses separated. The mare was led away in the direction the chieftans were to approach from. The stallion was tied up and restrained where the meeting was to take place. The stallion did exactly what Cortés intended. It caught the scent of the mare and began to neigh and paw the ground. The group of chieftans thought the horse was angry with them. They were greatly frightened by the actions of the horse. Cortés played on their fear and ordered the horse to be removed. He then told the chieftans that he had spoken with the horse and told it not to be angry with them. The chieftans of Tabasco were amazed and terrified by the ploy, and they were peaceful towards the Spanish afterwards.26
Cortés continued to issue orders that played on the native Mexicans awe and fear of the horse after the Spanish landed at what would become Vera Cruz. At the encounter near the coast with Moctezuma’s messengers, Cortés had the horses on full display. He ordered the horses to be galloped along the beach in columns two abreast. He also ordered them to have bells fastened to the horses breastplates. Cortés was so concerned with the impression to be made on Moctezuma’s representatives that he made certain the horses were not galloped among the dry sand dunes, where the horses would have difficult footing. Cortés parade made a strong impression on Moctezuma’s men, and they reported what they had seen back to the Aztec ruler.27
The villages the Spanish visited as they moved inland also believed that they were gods. The Spanish entered the village of Cempoala, which was a tribute village to the Aztec. While the Spanish were in the village, some of Moctezuma’s tax collectors arrived. Cortés ordered the tax collectors to be taken prisoner. The Cempoalans were so astounded by the actions of the Spanish that they deemed them to be Teules. Teule was the Nahua name for gods or demons.28 The Spanish were keenly aware of the psychological impact their arms had on the natives of Mexico.
1. John J. Johnson, “The Introduction of the Horse into the Western Hemisphere,” The Hispanic American Historical Review 23, no. 4 (November 1943): 587, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2507859 (accessed April 1, 2010).
2. Ibid., 597-98.
3. Ibid., 588-89.
4. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, The Discovery And Conquest of Mexico: 1517-1521, ed. Genaro García, trans. A.P. Maudslay (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1956), 38-9.
5. Ibid., 47.
6. Ibid., 48-56.
7. Ibid., 57.
8. Ibid., 59.
9. Hernando Cortés, Five Letters: 1519-1526, ed. Sir E. Denison Ross and Eileen Power, trans. Bayard Morris (London, George Routledge and Sons, 1928), 42.
10. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, The Discovery And Conquest of Mexico: 1517-1521, 127.
11. Ibid., 130-31.
12. Hernando Cortés, Five Letters: 1519-1526, 56.
13. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, The Discovery And Conquest of Mexico: 1517-1521, 179.
14. Ibid., 256-57.
15. Ibid., 265-66.
16. Ibid., 296.
17. Ibid., 297-98.
18. Ibid., 306.
19. Hernando Cortés, Five Letters: 1519-1526, 119.
20. Hugh Thomas, Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), 424-25.
21. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, The Discovery And Conquest of Mexico: 1517-1521, 318-21.
22. Stuart B. Schwartz, Victors and Vanquished: Spanish and Nahua Views of the Conquest of Mexico, (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000), 182-84.
23. Migue Léon Portilla, The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico, trans. Lysander Kemp, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1962), 4-6.
24. Ibid., 30.
25. Ibid., 33.
26. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, The Discovery And Conquest of Mexico: 1517-1521, 61-3.