Building an Aztec Cityscape – Part 4: Cortes’ War Wagons

War wagons!

War wagons were wooden carts for deploying missile troops. They had slits in them for crossbowmen and arquebusiers to be able to fire from while having some protection against enemy missile weapons. I think of them as wooden APC’s (WPC’s maybe?). Hernan Cortes used them as he was besieged in Tenochtitlan in 1520 – yes – over 500 years ago now.

This is Part 4 of my series on “Building an Aztec Cityscape”. The war wagons were so integral to the events in 1520 that I needed to have some as part of my cityscape. If you have missed the other parts, they are:

The first use of a war wagon in medieval Europe is ascribed to the Hussites during the Hussite Wars (1420-1434) in Bohemia. They were horse-drawn and would be linked together like a mobile fort.

A modern replica of a Hussite war wagon (from Wikipedia here).
Hussite war wagons deployed (image from New World Encyclopedia)

Nearly 100 years later, Cortes would build some similar ones. These would be constructed as a measure of desperation to escape the Aztec capital. Cortes’ war wagons were thrown together during the time when they were besieged by the Aztecs in Tenochtitlan.

I need to give you a condensed chronological synopsis – the history of this time is quite full of twist, turns, and intrigue. The timeline is confusing but important for context. Therefore, listed here below is a condensed chronology with respect to the use of war wagons and a couple of possible wargame scenarios that I am working to build:

  • November 18, 1518 – Cortes departs the Spanish colony of Santiago de Cuba with his expedition – before he could be detained by Lieutenant Governor Velazquez (who had originally commissioned his expedition). Cortes leaves abruptly so that the Governor (who had justifiable suspicions about Cortes and his motives) could not relieve and replace him prior to his departure.
  • February 1o, 1519 – After fitting out in Trinidad and San Cristobal de la Habana, Cortes sails for Mexico.
  • March 22, 1519- Cortes arrives in Mesoamerica. He will fight and win several battles with both the Maya and the Tlaxcalans up until later in 1519. By that time, his victories will have given him a few key assets. One of these, from the Maya, was a slave girl named Malintzin aka La Malinche who was to serve Cortes as a key translator, and later, his mistress. The second was a post-conflict alliance secured with the Tlaxcalans, whose warriors would provide the bulk of Cortes’ forces.
  • November 1, 1519 – Cortes begins his march to Tenochtitlan to try to meet Montezuma II.
  • November 8, 1519 – Cortes arrives at Tenochtitlan and meets Montezuma II. He and his contingent are welcomed to the city and stay in it.
  • November 14, 1519 – through a ruse, Cortes successfully seizes Montezuma II and makes of him a puppet/hostage.
  • March 5, 1520 – Meanwhile, back in Cuba, Lieutenant Governor Velazquez sends an expedition led by Panfilo de Narvaez to intercept Cortes
  • April 19, 1520 – Narvaez and his troops arrive in Mexico. Cortes, with some of his Conquistadores, leaves Tenochtitlan to deal with this internecine threat. He leaves behind a trusted lieutenant, Pedro de Alvarado, in charge of the remaining Spanish/Tlaxcalan forces in Tenochtitlan.
  • May 16, 1520 – The Aztec nobility and elite troops in Tenochtitlan celebrate the Festival of Toxcatl. It is a large assembly of all the elite and elite military of the city, who are unarmed and dancing in a city square or plaza. Alvarado, afraid that the celebration is a prelude to an attempted massacre on them, seals off the plaza where the dancing/celebration is taking place. His Conquistadores methodically move through the throng and murder or capture every possible Aztec. One of the captured elites is Cuitlahuac, Montezuma II’s brother.
  • May 29, 1520 – Back on the coast, Cortes defeats Narvaez (despite being outnumbered by Narvaez by 2:1). He incorporates Narvaez’ surrendered troops into his forces and returns with them to Tenochtitlan on June 24th . (This Conquistador-on-Conquistador fight would be a good possible scenario for a wargame (using my Civilizations Collide supplement to Buck Surdu’s Feudal Patrol rules).
  • June 2, 1520 – The Aztecs have been fully enraged since the festival massacre – and the situation is dire for the Conquistadores.
  • June 25, 1520 – In an attempt to mollify the Aztecs, Cortes releases Cuitlahuac. This was a rare strategic error. Immediately, Cuitlahuac, who rightly viewed his brother to be no more than a Spanish puppet, assumes Montezuma II’s powers and takes command of the siege of the Spanish as the new Aztec Emperor. The Spanish are besieged and are holed up in the Palace of Axayacatl. The Aztecs attempt to burn the Spanish out of the palace, but are repulsed by cannon and arquebus fire.
  • June 27, 1520 – Cortes forces Montezuma II to go to the roof of Palace of Axayacatl to plead with the Aztecs to stop the fighting. He is struck in the head by a rock from a sling and is gravely injured. At the same time, Cortes instructs his troops to scavenge wood from the Palace of Axayacatl and build several war wagons. His hope was that by using war wagons he could protect his own missile troops from the slings and arrows of the Aztecs – and make it easier for the Conquistadores to escape Tenochtitlan and survive.
  • June 28, 1520 – Cortes makes his first attempt with his war wagons to reach the causeways. He loads them with crossbowmen and arquebusiers, and supports them on the ground with sword and buckler men, and cannon (probably falconets and maybe lombards). Their movements are not powered by horses, but by the Spanish themselves. The Conquistadores fight bravely, but are pushed back. (This would be a possible scenario for a wargame on the cityscape with the war wagons).
  • June 29, 1520 – Cortes decides that the Temple of Yopico, a tall structure, was enabling the Aztecs to be able to hit his troops with enfilading missile fire from above. This is his second use of his war wagons, and he literally used them in a half-circle (yes, “circling the wagons”). He uses them similarly as before to help the Conquistadores to reach the Temple. This time they were tactically successful. However, the war wagons were to take so much damage that they are destroyed in the process. Cortes, beneath his personal banner, successfully leads his troops to ascend the 100 steps of the temple, killing many war priests and setting fire to the structure. But, the Conquistadores cannot hold the position against the Aztec numbers and are pushed back. (This – the assault on the Temple of Yopico – would be a second possible scenario for a wargame on the cityscape with the war wagons).
  • June 30, 1520 – Montezuma II either dies of his head wound, or is killed by the Conquistadores – accounts differ.
  • July 1, 2020 – La Noche Triste (the Night of Sorrows or the Sad Night) – the Spanish break out of Tenochtitlan at a high cost in lives, materiel, and looted treasure. (This – La Noche Triste – would be a possible scenario for a wargame on the cityscape and/or just the causeways with or without the war wagons).

Of course, then followed the Battle of Otumba, where Cortes used his cavalry to save his entire force against overwhelming odds. Eventually, he was able to regroup and with the help of brigantines, make a successful assault and conquer the city of Tenochtitlan. And yes, I have brigantines in the queue, along with war canoes. Plus I will be adding the two naval types (brigantines and war canoes) to the next version of my Civilizations Collide supplement – along with these two scenarios.

The only good image I can find of war wagon use comes from the cover of Sheppard, Si. (2018). Tenochtitlan: 1519-21. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, shown below. It is an excellent resource, and I do recommend it. There is a larger blow up of the same picture in the book – and you can see the war wagons in the lower right hand side at the base of the temple.

Enough background information (at least I hope). In looking for war wagons, I was challenged. I did consider scratch building some until I discovered these at Gringo 40’s in the UK in their 28mm Conquistador section.

From Gringo 40’s website.

Yes! I had found my solution! I ordered four from them, and the company was great. They even gave me a free Cortes figure (which I will paint soon I hope). Even better, these were solid METAL. Assembly was just adding the undercarriage axle supports, the wheels, and a wheel spacer. There are two benches inside and I can get two figures into the wagon. One challenge faced me that was new – no brush or angled brush would reach under the benches for painting. They do look nice though.

On the left is my 28mm Cortes figure, and the war wagons as received. The one with the figures in it is dry-fitted with the other pieces. While I have three figures in there, after painting them I’m now limiting that to two.
A close angle of the same shot as above. The only brush access to the bench undersides was restrictive through this end.
I gave the war wagons a spray prime – and then after a curing period, a brush prime – swirling a few cheap brushes like mops on the insides – getting as much primed as I could. This destroyed those brushes, but that was fine. Then I glued on the undercarriages and pressed them down.
After the previous step, I attached the wheels and spacers/holders for the wheels, and reapplied primer which as you see here was needed.

I then used various browns (I list all my paints and more at the end of this post). to approximate a used wood tone. After all, these war wagons were made from old recycled lumber. At this point in the project, I still wondered how I was going to get paint etc. under the benches, as well as how I was going to varnish them. As you may imagine, these are heavy! I decided that they needed a “dip” – in some Army Painter dip. To retrieve them without a huge mess, I used a pot I bought from a Salvation Army Thrift store, some twine from the hardware store, and an old piece of balsa.

The war wagons in brown, and the pot, dip, and twine.
How I was able to suspend the war wagons into the dip in the pot. I just had to restring each one after the dipping process.
After the dip.

I needed to do more shading and some dry brushing after the dip, and then I spray varnished them outside (as I could for once).

Nice enough to varnish outside! Not common weather in New England year-round, but it’s summer.
War wagons finished!

As this is the penultimate (love that word) post in the series, I will share some action shots below of the war wagons on the cityscape.

Battle in the Cityscape! Cortes tries to break out!
Trying to escape Tenochtitlan with their lives – and their gold – the Conquistadores fight towards the causeways.
Close up shot of a war wagon with an arquebusier and a crossbowman at the ready. The poor sword and buckler men get to push.

I think these will be very fun in a game. I just need to write rules specifically for their use.

The next post will be….(insert drumroll)…the FINAL REVEAL.

I hope to have a video link as well as pictures of the cityscape for you. These, because they are “vehicles” and were completed in July and August, all count as more of my entries into Dave’s Season of Scenery Challenge! Thanks so much for looking. I hope that you enjoyed the brief history and the war wagons themselves.

Please let me know your thoughts and ideas in the comments section! And the FINAL REVEAL is coming!!!

For all of my previous posts on games, units, and other projects for my 16th Century Spanish Conquest supplement for Feudal Patrol™ – “Civilizations Collide” – please see this page.

PAINTS, INKS, GLAZES, SHADES, WASHES, PIGMENTS, FLOCKING, GLUES AND MORE THAT I USED ON THESE TERRAIN PIECES/MODELS:

  1. Vallejo Surface Primer “German Green Brown”
  2. Gorilla Glue
  3. Vallejo “Flow Improver”
  4. Vallejo “Airbrush Thinner”
  5. Vallejo Model Air “Dark Yellow”
  6. Rustoleum Painters Touch “2x Ultra Cover Satin Ivory Silk” (spray)
  7. Vallejo Model Air “Sand (Ivory)”
  8. Vallejo Model Air “Wood”
  9. Vallejo Model Color “Wood Grain”
  10. Citadel “XV-88”
  11. Citadel “Skrag Brown”
  12. Army Painter “Soft Tone” (dip)
  13. Cotton Twine
  14. Army Painter “Strong Tone” (wash)
  15. Krylon “Clear Matte” (spray varnish)