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The Conquest, Battle for Tenochtitlan

Noche Triste, Aztec warriors, Lake Texcoco, Sad Night, decomposed bodies

In Tenochtitlan, Alvarado feared an Aztec attack and instituted a number of harsh rules while Cortes was absent from the city. When Alvarado’s men attacked and killed hundreds of worshipers at a religious ceremony, the city’s outraged population revolted and besieged the Spaniards in the building where Montezuma was still being held prisoner. The revolt was underway when Cortes returned to the city.

Cortes and his men, as well as 3,000 Tlaxcalan allies, were allowed to enter the city and join Alvarado, but they were immediately surrounded and attacked. At Cortes’s request, Montezuma addressed the Aztecs in an attempt to quell the revolt. The Aztec ruler was stoned by his people, and he died three days later. Immediate retreat from the city appeared to be the Spaniards’ only option for survival. On June 30, 1520—a rainy night that became known as the Noche Triste (“Sad Night”)—the Spaniards attempted a panicked retreat. Fleeing across a causeway, they were chased by Aztec warriors and attacked on both sides by Aztecs in canoes. More than half the Spaniards were killed, all of their cannons were lost, and most of the treasure they attempted to carry out was abandoned or lost in the lake and canals. The Aztecs pursued the retreating Spanish troops, but the survivors of the Noche Triste managed to find refuge in Tlaxcala.

During the summer of 1520, Cortes reorganized his army in Tlaxcala with the aid of reinforcements and equipment from Veracruz. He then began his return to the capital, capturing Aztec outposts along the way and subduing Aztec settlements around Lake Texcoco. By May 1521 the island capital of Tenochtitlan was isolated and surrounded by the Spaniards. Spanish artillery mounted on ships specially constructed for the shallow lake bombarded Tenochtitlan. Spanish soldiers launched daily attacks on the city, whose supplies of food and fresh water had been cut. Famine, dysentery, and smallpox ravaged the Aztec defenders. In August, after a desperate siege of three months, Cuauhtemoc, the new emperor, was captured and Tenochtitlan fell. More than 40,000 decomposed bodies littered the destroyed city and bloated corpses floated in canals and the lake. A fabulous city and its empire had been destroyed.

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