General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, father of Alexandre Dumas
I began writing a post about the novelist Alexandre Dumas, one of France’s most beloved and popular writers, when I realized that it was impossible to do so without first mentioning his father, General Dumas.
Thomas Alexandre, no last name (slaves had none) was born in 1762 in Saint-Domingue, modern-day Haiti, the son of the Marquis de la Pailleterie, a Normand nobleman, and his slave Césette. When Alexandre was 8, his father returned to France and sold him to a new owner.
However, the Marquis later showed some belated paternal feelings, repurchased his son and had him brought to France, where young Alexandre received the education of a French gentleman. Yet relations were not smooth between father and son. Alexandre enlisted as a private in the regiment of the Queen’s Dragons under the surname of Dumas, which had been his mother’s nickname. His father was outraged by Alexandre’s rank and disowned him upon that occasion.
In the Army Alexandre was soon noticed by his superiors and comrades for his physical strength and his bravery. However, his chances of promotion were limited: under the Old Regime, only noblemen could become officers (Alexandre, born out of wedlock, was not a nobleman.) The Revolution burst in 1789, and in the course of the summer, his regiment was sent to Villers-Coterets, a hundred miles from Paris, to control a volatile situation. There he met and wooed the daughter of an innkeeper, Marie Labouret.
The Revolution soon took a more radical turn, and many noblemen emigrated, leaving the officer ranks open to distinguished commoners like Alexandre. He met with speedy promotion and, in 1793, was the first Black man to reach the rank of General in the French army. Soon other Black men would follow: Generals Toussaint-Louverture, Beauvais, Rigaud and Villatte. Slavery was abolished in all French possessions in 1794.
Alexandre Dumas succeeded General Biron (formerly the Duc de Lauzun, who appears as a character in Mistress of the Revolution) as Commander-in-Chief of the Western Army against the royalist Chouan insurrection. After overseeing a much needed military reorganization, he spoke up against the atrocities of that civil war. He asked for, and was granted other commands in the Pyrenees, the Alps and Italy, where his daring and bravery in combat became the stuff of legend. The Austrians nicknamed him the Black Devil.
He also participated in the campaign of Egypt. During his return voyage in 1799, his ship had make an unexpected stop in Southern Italy, where he was captured and detained in atrocious conditions. Alexandre was not released until 1802, the year when Bonaparte reinstated slavery (yes, Bonaparte’s race policies deserve, and will receive their own post later.)
Alexandre was asked to participate in the expedition to quash Toussaint-Louverture’s rebellion in Haiti. He flatly refused, which earned him the implacable enmity of Bonaparte and put an end to his career. Alexandre then married his longtime love Marie Labouret, by whom he had a son, also named Alexandre, the future novelist.
His military pension remained unpaid, he was denied the Legion of Honor, his health was failing due to his long imprisonment in Italy. He died in 1806, at the age of 44. His son Alexandre was not yet 4, but Marie, now widowed, kept the memory of the General alive. The future novelist grew up hearing of his father’s exploits, of his popularity with his fellow soldiers. Do we hear echoes of the General’s life in the military camaraderie of The Three Musketeers, in the harrowing imprisonment of Edmond Dantes in The Count de Monte Cristo? I believe so.
Has General Dumas, the first Black General in the French Army, received since his death the recognition he has earned? His statue in Paris, destroyed by the Nazi occupant during World Word II, has yet to be replaced. He never received the Legion of Honor, even posthumously.
At least you can read his name among those of French military heroes of the Revolution and the Napoleonic era inscribed on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.