Cortes Decides to Destroy Tenochtitlan
From Cortés, Third Letter, 278–81
When these measures had been taken [Cortés kept seven brigantines and sent three each to the divisions under the command of the alguazil mayor and Pedro de Alvarado], and the people already mentioned [the Suchimilco] had come to our aid, desiring to be at peace with us, I addressed them all, and informed them that I had determined to enter and attack the city in two days from that time, when I desired them to come prepared for the war, and by this means I should know whether they were true allies. They promised to comply with my wishes. The next day I caused our force to be got ready and fully equipped, and wrote to the officers in the other camps and the brigantines what I had resolved upon, and what it was incumbent on them to do.
The next morning, after having heard mass, and given the captains their orders, I departed from our quarters with fifteen or twenty horse[men] and three hundred Spanish infantry, accompanied by all our allies, an infinite host; and taking my course along the causeway towards the city, when we had advanced three bow-shots beyond the camp we fell in with the enemy, who were expecting us with horrid cries. As no hostilities had taken place for three days before, they had in the mean time removed from the water whatever we had thrown in to fill up the breaches in the road, and rendered every thing stronger and more difficult to take than before. The brigantines came up on both sides of the causeway, and, as they were able to approach quite near the enemy, they caused great destruction amongst them by their guns, musketry, and crossbows. Seeing this the men leaped out upon the ground and took possession of an entrenchment and bridge; and we began to pass over in pursuit of the enemy, who immediately fortified themselves behind other bridges and entrenchments which they had thrown up; these we succeeded in carrying, although 'with greater exertion and hazard than before, and we drove them, from the whole street and the square containing the principal houses of the city. Here I ordered the Spanish troops to halt, while I went with our allies to close up with stone and slashed bricks the places where the water flowed across our route: and although more than ten thousand Indians assisted in this work, it was not finished until the hour of vespers. During all this time the Spanish troops and our allies were engaged in fighting and skirmishing with the inhabitants, and laying snares for them, by means of which many perished. Taking the cavalry I scoured the streets of the city for a short time, driving the inhabitants with our lances from those parts where there was no water, and keeping them back so that they no longer dared to come upon dry land.
Considering that the inhabitants of this city were rebels, and that they discovered so strong a determination to defend themselves or perish, I inferred two things: first, that we should recover little of the wealth of which they had deprived us; and second, that they had given us occasion and compelled us utterly to exterminate them. On this last consideration I dwelt with most feeling, and it weighed heavily upon my mind, leading me to think in what way I could strike them with dread so that they should come to a knowledge of their error, and of the calamities we should bring upon them; with this view I continued to burn and demolish the towers of their idols and their houses. That they might become more sensible of their situation, I this day set fire to those noble edifices in the great square, where on the former occasion when they expelled us from the city the Spanish troops and myself were quartered. These buildings were so extensive that a prince with more than six hundred persons in his family and domestic retinue would have found ample space for their accommodation. There were others adjacent to these, which although somewhat smaller were more gay and elegant, and served Moctezuma for aviaries, in which he had every variety of birds known in that country. Although it grieved me much, yet as it grieved the enemy more, I determined to burn these palaces; whereupon they manifested great sorrow, as well as their allies from the cities on the lake, because none of them had supposed we should be able to penetrate so far into the city. This struck them with terrible dismay.
Having set fire to these buildings, as it was now evening, I assembled our force to return to the camp; and when the inhabitants saw that we were retreating, they pursued us in great numbers, and coming up in a furious manner, fell upon our rearguard. But the streets being throughout favorable for the movements of horses, the cavalry turned about to charge upon them, and pierced many of them with their lances; yet they did not cease rushing upon our rear uttering loud cries. This day they showed some feeling and not a little dismay, especially when they saw the people of Tezcuco, Chalco, Suchimilco, and the Otumies entering the city, burning and destroying it and fighting against them; all of them calling out by name the province to which they belonged; I and in another quarter the Tlascallans, who, as well as the others, displayed to the inhabitants of the city the bodies of their countrymen cut into pieces, exclaiming at the same time, that they would have them for supper that night and for breakfast the next day, as was in fact the case. Thus we returned to our camp to rest, for that day we had toiled much. The seven brigantines that I had retained entered the water streets of the city on the same day and burned a considerable part of it. The captains of the other divisions of the army and the six brigantines also fought gallantly on that day. I might well enlarge upon their exploits, but to avoid prolixity I omit the account, only adding that they returned victoriously to their camps without suffering any loss.