La Légion Noire
Once in the army, Dumas joined a group of dragoons, light cavalry, which, according to Reiss, “did the toughest and dirtiest jobs.” Whatever his playboy past, soldier Dumas established himself as the “consummate warrior,” Reiss writes, “and a man of great conviction and moral courage … renowned for his strength, his swordsmanship, his bravery and his knack for pulling victory out of the toughest situations.” Rogers was also right on this count, though in his comic book Your History, he leapt from history into tall tales when he wrote that Dumas “was so strong that while sitting on a horse he could hold on to a beam over head and then lift the horse with his legs.” An impressive feat, but when you consider warhorses averaged more than a thousand pounds, according to Reiss, this claim was more than a little exaggerated. (My editor Sheryl Huggins Salomon, though, tells me that she once saw a cyclist who was training for Olympic team trials leg-press more than 900 pounds!)
Reiss also notes that Dumas “was known … for his profane back talk and his problems with authority.” In other words, if there had been a French prequel to Patton, it might have been about Dumas. But while that general was consumed with fighting Nazis in North Africa, Italy and France, this earlier general had to wade through the excessively bloody French Revolution, noble as its calls for liberty, equality and fraternity were.
For Dumas, it was a critical turning point. In fact, in the year of revolution, 1789, he met his wife, Marie Louise Labouret, while stationed with her family at Villers-Cotterêts. They married in 1792 — the same year Dumas was promoted to corporal after leading a group of four dragoons to capture 12 Austrian raiders along the Belgian frontier.
1792 was important for another reason as well: It was the year King Louis XVI was deposed and France became a republic. As the country mobilized, new military units formed. Among them was la Légion Noire (the Black Legion), a coalition of free and mixed-race blacks from the French colonies under the command of another mixed-race man, Joseph Boulogne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Hearing of Corporal Dumas’ daring, Saint-Georges tried to recruit him, but Dumas’ notoriety had spread so far that he became the object of a fierce bidding war until Saint-Georges offered him the rank of lieutenant colonel — second in command. As historian John G. Gallaher writes in his book, General Alexandre Dumas: Soldier of the French Revolution, “[t]he transition for Dumas must have been a shock. Almost overnight he was catapulted from a corporal leading patrols of five or six men on reconnaissance missions to commanding a legion that quickly reached battalion strength.” Yet Dumas continued to demonstrate his valor in battle and in 1793 was promoted again, this time to general of division in charge of 10,000 men.
More good news followed when the National Convention in France decreed that slavery in its colonies was to be abolished and that all men, regardless of color, were to become citizens under the French constitution. In a letter of exhortation to his soldiers on March 6, 1794, Dumas conveyed his swelling feelings in the third person. As Reiss quotes him: “Sincere lover of liberty and equality, convinced that all free men are equals, he will be proud to march out before you, to aid you in your efforts, and the coalition of tyrants will learn that they are loathed equally by men of all colors.”
Marching out before the Army of the Alps in 1794, Dumas engaged in a series of furious, frozen mountain battles against the Austrians. By this point, he had risen to commander-in-chief, which, as Reiss pointed out in Harvard Magazine, was the equivalent of a four-star general today. The number of men under his command: 53,000.
Dumas’ reputation as a strong-willed leader at times landed him in hot water with his superiors. According to Reiss, in one crucial instance, in January 1794, he balked at the Committee of Public Safety’s order to seize mountain passes in “conquest of Mont Cenis and Petit Saint Bernard without delay.” “Offensive war suits the character of the French,” Dumas replied, “but it is the responsibility of the man in charge of leading them to prepare with caution and wisdom everything that leads to victory.”