Sunday, May 18, 2014

“The Great Battle we fought with the Tlascallans”

Bernal Diaz in The Conquest of New Spain describes the second major battle Cortes and his small force engaged in:

“It was the following morning, on the 5th of September, 1519, that we equipped ourselves for battle. Our horse were first arranged in order, then the foot soldiers, and even our wounded were forced to go along with us, if only to swell out our numbers, and do what lay in their power. The crossbow-men received orders that some were merely to load, while others fired, and this always in platoons. The musketeers received similar orders, and the remaining portion of our men, who were armed with swords and shields, were principally to strike at the enemy in the region of the belly, in order to stop them from venturing so near to us as they had the time before. Everyone was also particularly cautioned not to leave the ranks. It was also the particular duty of our cavalry not to leave each other in the lurch, always to attack in full gallop, and only aim at the face and eyes. The ensign Corral received a guard of four men, and in this way we sallied forth from our camp, with our standard flying. We had scarcely proceeded a quarter of a mile when we found the fields covered with warriors; they had large feather-knots on their heads, waved their colours, and made a terrific noise with their horns and trumpets: indeed, the pen that would wish to describe everything we saw here, would not find it such an easy task! this was indeed a battle of as fearful and dubious an issue as well could be. In an instant we were surrounded on all sides by such vast numbers of Indians, that the plain, here six miles in breadth, seemed as if it contained but one vast body of the enemy, in the midst of which stood our small army of 400 men, the greater part wounded and knocked up with fatigue. We were also aware that the enemy had marched out to battle with the determination to spare none of us, excepting those who were to be sacrificed to their idols. When, therefore, the attack commenced, a real shower of arrows and stones was poured upon us; the whole ground was immediately covered with heaps of lances, whose points were provided with two edges, so very sharp that they pierced through every species of cuirass, and were particularly dangerous to the lower part of the body, which was in no way protected. They fell upon us like the very furies themselves, with the most horrible yells; we employed, however, our heavy guns, muskets, and crossbows, with so much effect, and received those who pressed eagerly upon us with such well-directed blows and thrusts, that considerable destruction was made among their ranks, nor did they allow us to approach so near to them as in the previous battle: our cavalry, in particular, showed great skill and bravery, so that they, next to the Almighty, were the principal means of saving us. Indeed our line was already half broken; all the commands of Cortes and our other officers to restore order and form again were fruitless, the Indians continually rushing upon us in such vast crowds that we could only make place with sword in hand to save our line from being broken. Our only safety was owing to the great number of the enemy itself; for they stood so closely crowded that each shot we fired must have done great execution among them. They left themselves altogether no room to manœuvre in, while many of the chiefs, with their men, were not even able to mix at all in the engagement. Besides this, disagreements and inimical feelings had arisen out of the previous battle between the commander-in-chief [Del Castillo, Bernal Diaz. The Conquest of New Spain (Kindle Locations 3212-3237).]

Comment: It has been objected that Cortes never fought against overwhelming numbers with an army as small as this, but that is what Bernal Diaz has described on two occasions thus far in his book. Is such a thing possible? I’ve run across the same sort of account more than once. Caesar describes such battles. And of course the Spartans engaged in many such against far superior forces. Even in the America Civil War where both sides had similar training, battles led by Stonewall Jackson against superior forces succeeded perhaps to a large extent because the Northerners he fought against feared him and the maniacal behavior of his troops. And here, even though the Tlascallans sought to destroy Cortes’ forces, they feared them at the same time thinking them a band of demons. Despite overwhelming numbers it seems probable that many did not expect to win but rather rushed against this Cortes tiny force out of duty expecting to be killed.

Thus far Diaz hasn’t mentioned the armor the Spanish soldiers wore, but surely it protected them against the arrows that rained down upon them in this battle. Their horses too must have been heavily armored.

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