Editor's note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.
(The Root) — Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 47: Which French general under Napoleon had African ancestry, and was a forebear to two French literary greats?
At the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, a mixed-race child born in the French colony of Saint-Domingue in the Caribbean grows up to cast aside his white father's noble heritage — and his family name — to join the French military. With strength and courage in battle, he is eventually promoted to its highest ranks. Over time, the future emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, comes to resent this outsized "black devil," but it is the soldier's son, a novelist, who will have the last word. By immortalizing his father in legend, the son not only makes the family name immortal; he becomes one of the most celebrated French writers in history.
Prepared to be amazed, as Joel A. Rogers might have put it. "The real Count of Monte Cristo," Thomas Alexandre-Dumas, was "a black man who rose to be a four-star general — the highest rank for a man of color in an all-white army before Colin Powell," Dumas' biographer, Tom Reiss, told The Root last November. When asked to describe the experience of researching his book, The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, which won the Pulitzer Prize this year, Reiss responded, "mind-blowing." Rogers couldn't have put it better.
A Nobleman's Son, a Slave's Name
Dumas was born Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie ("Alex" for short) on March 25, 1762, in Jérémie, Saint-Domingue, a French colony occupying the west of Hispaniola island in the Caribbean Sea (in the country that we know as Haiti today). Alex's mother was a black or mulatto slave, Marie Cessette Dumas. His father was the French nobleman, Alexandre Antoine Davy, whose title was the Marquis de la Pailleterie. The marquis (known as Antoine) had ventured to Saint-Domingue to live with his brother, Charles, a prosperous sugar planter. When the two brothers had a falling-out, Antoine fled to the countryside, taking three of Charles' slaves with him.
Though no record exists indicating they ever married, Antoine and Marie Cessette had four children, all of them "mulattoes and mulatresses," as a detective for Antoine's brother's family reported, according to Reiss. (To be sure, Alex's mother was not one of the slaves his father plundered, but one for whom he paid "an exorbitant price," the detective noted.) Given the blending of his parents, Reiss writes, Alex "had the unique perspective of being from the highest and lowest ranks of society at once."
It didn't last long, however. In order to finance his trip back to France, Antoine ended up selling Marie Cessette and three of his four children into slavery (it is also possible Marie had died three years earlier, perhaps in a hurricane, Reiss notes, but no solid evidence of her passing has been found). Antoine's favorite child, Alex, he eventually sold, too, at Port au Prince, but only "conditionally," Reiss explains; when Antoine assumed control of his family's chateau in Normandy, France, in 1775, he bought Alex back (but not the others) so that he could come and live with him.
On this score, Joel Rogers was too charitable toward Alex's father, romanticizing him as a French "nobleman" who "shunned" the planter class "to live among the Negroes, little knowing at the time that in so doing he was to add a thousand glories to his name" (World's Great Men of Color, Volume 2). Incidentally, Rogers also was wrong about the "thousand glories to his name" part, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
In 1776, the year of America's Declaration of Independence, Alex Dumas found himself heading east across the Atlantic, to the Old World, where, as a member of his father's household, he received an excellent education and embraced the nobleman's lifestyle with extravagant clothing, expensive dinners, hunting, horseback riding, dancing, dueling and the company of women. Whatever domestic bliss there was, however, ended in 1786 when Alex's father, by then 71, married his 33-year-old housekeeper and, in doing so, cut back on his contributions to Alex's lifestyle.
With no resume to speak of and few apparent options, Alex decided to join the military, even though that meant starting at the bottom as a lowly private. If Alex's future son Alexandre Dumas, père, is to be believed (the label père, which means "father" in French, can be confusing, given that he was a son — but more about that later), Antoine Davy was so appalled he told Alex, "I don't intend for you to drag my name through the lowest ranks of the army," according to Reiss. In response, a defiant Alex, without knowing it, changed the course of literary history by dropping his father's noble name in favor of his slave mother's name. Thenceforth, he would be known as Alex Dumas — not Davy — a break from his father that proved permanent three weeks later when Antoine Davy died.
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."
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.
Unbeknownst to Dumas, Napoleon had an informant shadow a meeting Dumas was having with his fellow officers, and when word traveled back, Reiss writes, Napoleon (I imagine him looking up!) confronted Dumas with explosive accusations of mutiny and sedition. Napoleon even threatened to shoot Dumas if it continued. Not one to back down, Dumas reiterated his desire to fight for his country, and not for the selfish goals of one man. With that, he asked for a leave to return to France. Adding to the mix, Reiss notes, were Dumas' frustrations that Napoleon had no apparent intention of abolishing slavery in Egypt. Remember, Dumas' last name had been that of a slave, his mother.
General Dumas departed Egypt in 1799 — months after Napoleon's own unannounced exit. The sailing was less smooth for Dumas, however. When the ship Belle Maltaise sprung a leak, the crew of 120 men was forced to make an unplanned stopover in Italy. Thinking they would land among friends, they were sorry to discover Taranto had fallen to the anti-French insurgency, the Holy Faith Army, and in the confusion, Dumas was seized as a prisoner of war and imprisoned in a fortress dungeon. It was only when Dumas' wife persuaded French officials to intervene that the general gained his release — two years later.
And where was Napoleon during all of this? He was governing France now, having made himself head of a three-member council after staging a coup to topple the directorate. In his new role as first consul, Napoleon eroded much of the egalitarian spirit of the early French Revolution. In particular, new, more restrictive laws were passed to undermine free black people living within France, while slavery and the slave trade were reopened in its colonies. (Anyone who's heard of the Haitian Revolution knows this came back to haunt Napoleon, but that's for a future column in this series.) In a move that must have caused great personal pain to Dumas, Napoleon also ordered the capture or killing of any black Saint-Dominguan caught wearing the uniform of a military officer.
But there was more.
Reiss writes that when Dumas' former soldiers asked Napoleon to provide assistance to the retired general (his finances were in disarray after his imprisonment), Napoleon scoffed, "I forbid you to ever speak to me of that man!" Not long after, Dumas died of cancer. It was 1806, the year the French under Napoleon defeated the Prussians and took Warsaw, while in America, the explorers Lewis and Clark finished surveying the Louisiana territory. To the south, Saint-Domingue was in its second year of independence as the Republic of Haiti, but its 43-year-old native son, Alex Dumas, would never have the chance to see it.
The Legends of 'the Black Count'
Responsibility for General Dumas' legacy fell to his son, Alexandre Dumas, père (1802-1870), one of the most illustrious novelists in French — indeed, world — literature, and a man keenly aware of his own African ancestry, as we shall see in another column. (His name can be confusing. Because Alex Dumas was really Thomas-Alexandre, his son was not a junior but became the senior Alexandre Dumas, père to his own son, Alexandre Dumas, fils, also a writer, who lived between 1824 and 1895.) Although the young Alexandre, père, was only 3 when his father died, the stories of General Dumas' accomplishments stayed with him his entire life and lent inspiration to his legendary stories.
We see the general's reflection especially clear in two of his son's most famous works, The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) and The Three Musketeers (serialized in 1844). In The Count of Monte Cristo, Dumas tells the story of a man named Edmond Dantès imprisoned in a dungeon, an obvious reference to his father's experiences in Italy, Reiss explains. And in The Three Musketeers, one of General Dumas' most famous rumored exploits inspired a whole scene. Drawing the connection, Reiss writes that "multiple histories relate[d] that [Dumas] once fought three duels in one day, winning all three despite being gashed in the head — almost certainly the basis for one of the best-known and most comic scenes in Three Musketeers in which, d'Artagnana challenges Porthos, Athos, and Aramis to duels on the same afternoon. (The scene ends happily — 'All for one and one for all!' — as a real enemy appears.)"
It's true what they say about the pen being mightier than the sword. Despite his father's capture and trashing by Napoleon, Alexandre Dumas, père, the novelist, lovingly immortalized his father in the history of French literature.
As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.