The Spanish general Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba (1453-1515) led several successful military campaigns and was known as "El Gran Capitan" (The Great Captain). He revolutionized sixteenth century warfare by introducing a new firearm (called an arquebus) to his infantry forces. His innovative use of weaponry and strong organizational skills assured Spain more than 100 years of military superiority in Europe.
Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba was born into an aristocratic Spanish family in 1453. He became involved in military initiatives at a young age, fighting as a teenager to quell the Muslim occupation of Granada. In his younger years, Cordoba also served the Spanish royal court of Isabella of Castile, working as a page.
Cordoba assumed military leadership between 1482 and 1492. He contributed to the initiative that eventually ousted the Moors from his country and ended Muslim occupation of Spain. These early years in Cordoba's career familiarized him with various military strategies and increased his understanding of possible tactics. Cordoba was recognized for his personal bravery during this time. In one battle, the siege of Montefrio, he penetrated the Moors' defenses using ladders to scale the opponents' walls. In 1492, Cordoba captured the city of Granada from the Moors, bringing an end to the war against the kingdom of Granada. To achieve this victory he staged small skirmishes, creating confusion and deliberately capturing small villages. Cordoba emerged from this experience with an understanding of how to integrate mobile military initiatives with technical tools, such as siege craft and explosives.
Cordoba's successful initiatives against the Moors attracted the favorable attention of the Spanish queen, Isabella of Castile, and her husband, Ferdinand of Aragon. In 1495, Isabella ordered Cordoba to lead an army of more than 2,000 soldiers into Italy. He was to assist the Italians in recapturing Naples from the French. Coordination efforts between the Italian and Spanish forces proved to be ineffective, and Cordoba's forces lacked the necessary training to prevail. Spain was defeated by the French at the Battle of Seminara.
Cordoba was inspired by the outcome of Seminara. He retreated temporarily in order to train his troops and rethink his strategy in dealing with the French occupation of Italian territory. Because Italian forces were much larger than Cordoba's forces, he employed effective guerrilla tactics to disrupt the movement of supplies to the French. Using such tactics, Cordoba was able to avoid large-scale battles that would have demolished his forces and to successfully disrupt French military operations in Italy. Cordoba used these tactics to gain a foothold in the country, and then move toward the French-occupied Italian cities. In less than a year, Cordoba had stopped the French initiative and captured Atella, taken the French commander (Montspensier) as prisoner, and recovered the Roman port of Ostia. He returned the captured territories to the Italians by 1498. The pope recognized Cordoba and expressed gratitude for his victory in Italy.
Applied Lessons from the Field
Cordoba returned to Spain and applied what he had learned in the field to his military operations. He used his knowledge to restructure his forces in ways that were to have larger implications for military strategy. Cordoba introduced a new weapon to his forces—a heavy gun called an arquebus-which was fired from the shoulder and braced with supports. Cordoba realized that military operations would be more effective with increased flexibility. He assigned sections of his forces with strategic roles, rather than using them as one general force. He divided his forces into sections assigned to infantry, artillery, and cavalry. These new sections could operate and perform maneuvers more independently than they had previously done.
In 1503, Cordoba returned to Italy to expel the invading French. He faced a French army of 10,000 men. The Spanish force of 6,000 met the French near Cerignola, and quickly defeated them with the arquebuses. The French commander, the Duc de Nemours, was killed in this battle and power shifted to Cordoba's forces. This was the first time in military history that a battle had been won largely with firearms. Cordoba's explosives had been accidentally detonated during the battle, making firearms a crucial component of victory in this case.
Cordoba and his forces moved into Naples, occupying the city and pushing the French forces back to the Garigliano River. For awhile, neither side made any strategic progress toward victory, as they faced each other across the river. But Cordoba used his restructured forces to plan an offensive tactic. The Spanish army strung together pontoon bridges and crept across the river on the night of December 29, 1503. They successfully surprised the French forces. Surprise was particularly important in this attack since the French had assumed that the river was impassable. Cordoba and his army easily defeated the French with the powerful arquebuses as well as the use of pikes. Cordoba had also anticipated and prepared for coordination between his various section leaders in infantry, artillery, and cavalry. The French were again defeated in a smooth initiative that used advanced military strategy. Cordoba continued to pursue the French and captured the Italian city of Gaeta. The French initiative had lost its momentum after the defeat at the Garigliano River, and they were forced to sign the Treaty of Blois shortly after, relinquishing their hold on Naples.
Retired from Military Service
Cordoba gained immense popularity among his countrymen and was referred to as "El Gran Capitan" (The Great Captain). After Naples was returned to the Italians, King Ferdinand became threatened by Cordoba's popularity and ordered an end to his military career. Isabella of Castille had died, and Cordoba lost the support of his strong ally in the Spanish court. He returned to Spain at the King's orders and retired at his estate in Granada. On December 1, 1515, Cordoba died of malaria, an illness he had contracted during his military service in Italy.
Cordoba is remembered as a significant figure in military history because his introduction of firearms moved the army beyond fighting with pike and blade. The restructuring of his forces, was continued by successive Spanish military leaders, who were able to achieve dominance for the next 100 years.
Further Reading on Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba
Columbia Encyclopedia, Fifth Edition, 1993.
Keegan, John, and Andrew Wheatcroft. Who's Who in Military History from 1453 to the Present Day, William Morrow & Company Inc., 1976.
Lanning, Michael Lee. The Military 100, A Ranking of the Most Influential Military Leaders of all Time, Carol Publishing Group, 1996.
Merriam-Webster's Biographical Dictionary, 1995.
The Oxford Companion to Spanish Literature, edited by Philip Ward, Clarendon Press, 1978.