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Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba
(March 16, 1453 - December 2, 1515) Spain

Gonzalo Fernández

General

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Don Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, Duke of Terranova and Santangelo, also known simply as Gonzalo de Córdoba (Italian: Consalvo di Cordova), was the second son of Don Pedro Fernández de Córdoba, count of Aguilar, and his wife Doña Elvira de Herrera, who belonged to the family of Enriquez, the hereditary admirals of Castile, a branch of the royal house of Trastamara.

By common Spanish definition of that time, both his parents were considered Jewish converso because the founder of de Cordoba family in the 14th century married a Jewess who converted to Christianity, while the Trastamara dynasty and its Enriquez branch stemmed from marriages of Castilian royalty to women of Jewish converso descent. During notorious anti-converso riots in Cordoba, Gonzalo, already a famous general, fought in converso militia against "Old Christian" rebels.

Gonzalo was born at Montilla near the city of Córdoba. His father died when he and his elder brother, Don Alonso, were boys. The counts of Aguilar carried on an hereditary feud with the rival house of Cabra, and the children were drawn as vassals into the factional fights of the two families. As a younger son, Gonzalo had to make his own fortune, but he was generously aided by the affection of his elder brother, who was very wealthy. War and service in the king's court offered the one acceptable career outside the church to a gentleman of his birth.

He was first attached to the household of Don Alfonso, the king's brother, and upon his death devoted himself to Isabella of Castile, who later became queen. During the civil war, and the conflict with Portugal which disturbed the first years of her reign, he fought under the grand master of the Santiago, Alonso de Cárdenas. After the battle of Albuera, the grand master gave him special praise, saying that he could always see Gonzalo in the front because he was conspicuous by the splendor of his armor. Indeed the future Great Captain, who, as a general, was above all things astute and patient, could, and habitually did, display the most reckless personal daring. He would go into a fight as if he loved it, and having a shrewd sense and a reputation for intrepidity, a free-handed profusion, and the personal magnificence which strikes the eye, he would secure the devotion of his soldiers.

During the ten-year war for the conquest of Granada he completed his apprenticeship under his brother, the count of Aguilar, the grand master of Santiago, and the count of Tendilla, of whom he always spoke as his masters. It was a war of surprises and defences of castles or towns, of skirmishes, and of ambuscades in the defiles of the mountains. The military engineer and the guerrillero were about equally employed. Córdoba's most distinguished single feat was the defence of the advanced post of Illora, but he commanded the queen's escort when she wished to take a closer view of Granada, and he beat back a sortie of the Moors under her eyes. When Granada surrendered, he was one of the officers chosen to arrange the capitulation, and on the peace he was rewarded by a grant of land in the town of Loja, near Granada.

So far he was only known as an able subordinate, but his capacity could not be hidden from such an excellent judge of character as Isabella, to whom as a woman he appealed by a chivalrous union of devotion and respect. When, therefore, the Catholic monarchs decided to support the Aragonese house of Naples against Charles VIII of France Gonzalo was chosen by the influence of the queen, and in preference to older men, to command the Spanish expedition. It was in Italy that he won the title of the Great Captain; Guicciardini says that it was given him by the customary arrogance of the Spaniards, but it was certainly accepted as just by all the soldiers of the time of whatever nationality.

He held the command in Italy twice. In 1495 he was sent with a small force of little more than five thousand men to aid Ferdinand of Naples to recover his kingdom. Ironically, his first battle in Italy, at Seminara in 1495, was a disastrous defeat, but he quickly rallied and returned home after achieving success, in 1498. After a brief interval of service against the conquered Moors who had risen in revolt, he returned to Italy in 1501. Ferdinand of Spain had entered into his iniquitous compact with Louis XII of France for the spoliation and division of the kingdom of Naples. The Great Captain was chosen to command the Spanish part of the coalition. As general and as viceroy of Naples he remained in Italy till 1507.

During his first command he was mostly employed in Calabria in mountain warfare which bore much resemblance to his former experience in Granada. There was, however, a material difference in the enemy. The French forces, commanded by the Scotsman Bernard Stewart, Lord of Aubigny, consisted largely of Swiss mercenary pikemen, and of their own men-at-arms, called gendarmes. With his veterans of the Granadine war, foot soldiers armed with sword and buckler, or arquebuses and crossbows, and light cavalry, who possessed endurance unparalleled among the soldiers of the time, he could carry on a guerrillero warfare which wore down his opponents, who suffered far more than the Spaniards from the heat.

But he saw clearly that this was not enough. His experience at Seminara showed him that something more was wanted on the battlefield. The action was lost mainly because Ferdinand, disregarding the advice of Gonzalo, persisted in fighting a pitched battle with their lighter troops, some of whom were untrustworthy Neapolitans. In the open field, the loose formation and short swords of the Spanish infantry put them at a disadvantage against a charge of heavy cavalry or pikemen. Gonzalo therefore introduced a closer formation, and divided the Spanish infantry into the battle or main central body of pikemen, and the wings (alas) of shot, called a pike and shot formation.

The French were expelled by 1498 without another battle. When the Great Captain reappeared in Italy he had first to perform the congenial task of driving the Turk from Cephalonia, then to aid in the campaign against the king of Naples, Frederick, brother of his old ally Ferdinand. When the king of Naples had been deposed, the French and Spaniards engaged in war . The Great Captain now found himself with a much outnumbered army in the presence of the French. The war was divided into two phases very similar to one another. During the end of 1502 and the early part of 1503 the Spaniards stood at bay in the entrenched camp at Barletta near the Ofanto on the shores of the Adriatic.

He resolutely refused to be tempted into battle either by the taunts of the French or the discontent of his own soldiers. Meanwhile he employed the Aragonese partisans in the country, and flying expeditions of his own men, to harass the enemy's communications. When he was reinforced, and the French committed the mistake of scattering their forces too much to secure supplies, he took the offensive, pounced on the enemies depot of provisions at Cerignola, took a strong position, threw up hasty field works, and strengthened them with a species of wire entanglements. The French made a headlong front attack, were repulsed, assailed in flank, and routed. The later operations on the Garigliano were very similar, and led to the total expulsion of the French from Naples.

Gonzalo remained as governor of Naples till 1507. But he had become too great as not to arouse the jealousy of such a typical king of the Renaissance as Ferdinand the Catholic. The death of the queen in 1504 had deprived him of a friend, and it must be allowed that he was profuse in rewarding his captains and his soldiers out of the public treasury. Ferdinand loaded him with titles and fine words, but recalled him so soon as he could, and left him unemployed till his death.

De Cordoba was first among the founders of modern warfare. As a field commander he had no equal in the modern era until the rise of Napoleon. While European generals fought for the conquest of important strategic sites, de Cordoba, like Napoleon three centuries later, saw his goal in the destruction of the enemy army. He was the first European general who systematically organized the pursuit of defeated armies after a victory in order to destroy the retreating enemy.

Until Napoleon no European field commander was as efficient as de Cordoba in this task. De Cordoba founded the first modern standing army and the near invincible Spanish infantry that dominated battlefields of Europe during 16th and first decades of 17th centuries. The best generals of Charles V and Philip II were either the pupils of the Great Captain or were trained by them. Three centuries later Wellington still profited much from De Cordoba's school: the Torres Vedras campaign has a distinct resemblance to Barletta, and Assaye to the Battle of Garigliano.

He was called El Gran Capitán ("The Great Captain") by contemporaries and "the Father of Trench Warfare" by historians.

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