Who Was Napoleon’s ‘Black Devil’?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: His life, exploits and legacy had a profound effect on literature.

Thomas-Alexandre Dumas portrait by Olivier Pichat (Bruno Arrigoni/Musee Alexandre Dumas)
Thomas-Alexandre Dumas portrait by Olivier Pichat (Bruno Arrigoni/Musee Alexandre Dumas)

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But, remember, this was the powerful and much-feared Committee of Public Safety, so even though General Dumas captured Petit Saint Bernard and Mount Cenis later that spring — operations that vaulted him to the status of war hero — the committee, led by Maximilien Robespierre, wanted to see him back in Paris. Backed by a law empowering the committee to execute all “enemies of the people,” its members read into Dumas’ battle delays defiance, not wisdom. Fortunately for him (and all future lovers of French literature), history intervened when the French executed Robespierre and the committee’s terror reign under him ended. As a result, Gallaher writes, “The charges against Dumas … were simply thrown out or forgotten.”

Back in the saddle, Dumas assumed command of the Army of the West in Vendeé, where he earned plaudits for imposing order on an army that had grown too fond of plunder, even murdering peasants. In the summer of 1795, Dumas then teamed up with the Army of the Rhine to attack Austria’s positions in the always coveted (thus contested) Rhineland. Injured in the battle, Dumas spent the rest of the year on France’s Eastern frontier and at home with his pregnant wife and child.

Napoleon and the ‘Black Devil’

In November 1796, Dumas traveled to Milan, in Italy, where he formed a bond with a man who would one day control his fate: Napoleon Bonaparte. Dumas served under Napoleon in two major campaigns, Italy in 1796-1797 and Egypt in 1798-1799. Eisenhower and Patton they were not.

Reiss argues that ideological differences played a key role in the tensions between them: “Dumas saw himself as a fighter for world liberation, not world domination.” Reiss also believes Napoleon became jealous of Dumas’ towering size. You’ve heard of “the Napoleon complex” — well, this is the guy! And it couldn’t have made him (at 5 feet 7 inches) too happy when the chief medical officer of the French invasion of Egypt wrote (as quoted by Reiss) that Dumas,  at more than 6 feet tall, “look[ed] like a centaur,” so that “when [the troops] saw him ride his horse over the trenches, going to ransom prisoners, all of them believed that he was the leader of the expedition” — not Napoleon. Let’s just say that Napoleon was not amused.

The feeling was mutual. Dumas disliked Napoleon for advancing his own political agenda and criticized him for not doing more to keep his troops from exploiting local populations and his generals from whipping up a cult of personality around him. At the same time, Dumas was convinced Napoleon was going out of his way to diminish Dumas’ military accomplishments. And on January 18, 1787, Dumas let Napoleon know it obliquely in a letter that Reiss quotes: “I have learned that the jack ass whose business it is to report to you upon the battle … stated that I stayed in observation throughout the battle. I don’t wish any such observation on him, since he would have shit in his pants.” Here Dumas was dumping on Napoleon’s messenger, but his message to the future emperor was clear: Don’t mess with the facts!

In battle, Dumas continued attracting attention — and acclaim — for his courage. In fact, after leading small groups of soldiers against the Austrians in Italy, the Austrians started calling Dumas der schwarze Teufel, “the black devil,” according to Reiss. Napoleon, too, was bedeviled by Dumas’ battlefield prowess. Acknowledging them, he coined his own nickname for Dumas: “the Horatius Cocles of the Tyrol,” a reference to the man who had protected ancient Rome from the Barbarians. Actually, Dumas should have been doing more to protect himself from Napoleon.

Their relationship suffered a fatal rupture after Napoleon launched his Egypt campaign in 1798. French soldiers and officers found themselves fighting in a sweltering climate without sufficient supplies, or even water, for a cause many of them did not support or understand. In the field with them, Dumas only felt more resentful of Napoleon’s ambition. This time, however, he went too far in venting.