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.

General Thomas Alexandre Dumas

General Thomas Alexandre 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.

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35 Comments to “General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, father of Alexandre Dumas”

  1. mark perry says:

    i love alexander dumas i wish i was more like him….. and the reason he took his moms name and left his dad was bcause he disagreed with his dad marrying after his moms death. alexander told his father its me or her . his dad choose the woman and told him he cannot carry his last name around and have embarressment on the family. so dumas . was born…… and created his own legacy……..and how……

  2. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you! The layout is custom-made by MLB Designs (see link at the bottom left.)

  3. Aldo Gelder says:

    Brilliant website, exactly where did you obtain the layout?

  4. Stone Sinks says:

    Wow, aesome post. I just found your blog and I am already a fan. 8)

  5. Catherine Delors says:

    Thanks, Carol, I will look up the Nouvelle Revue d’Histoire. As for the name Dumas used by Cesette, I wouldn’t put much stock in it by itself, since it is very usual in Southern France. She could have picked it up from a former owner. “Mas” does mean farm in Provençal, but I have not seen it reported with the same meaning in Saint-Domingue. I will ask Creole-speaking friends.

    Indeed Thomas-Alexandre was born of a White father and Black mother, and he himself married a White woman. I will post shortly on the film “L’autre Dumas” which I just saw, and the issue of race when it comes to the great novelist. You are right, this would make a great historical novel, though unfortunately it didn’t make a great historical film.

    To be followed…

  6. Carol says:

    HI, I stumbled on you blog and have enjoyed reading it. However, I read that in Nouvelle Revue d’Histoire, No. 42, May-June 2009, Jean-Joël Brégeron noted Dumas had never been a slave; other accounts agree with you and yet others agree with this other writer. I’d like to know one way or another.

    I think perhaps she was a former slave, and her name seems to support that. I read that his mother managed a farm. Dumas comes from “du Mas,” “of the farm”. Slaves didn’t have last names, or had their masters, so if this was her last name–and that seems well documented–then it seems that it would be one she made up, perhaps upon freedom.

    Also, Dumas’s father was only half black (African-Haitian), so Dumas the writer would have been 1/4. Not that it really matters.

    It seems this family story would make a great historical novel : )

  7. Catherine Delors says:

    Thanks, Aaron!

  8. Aaron Sterling says:

    To read more about General Dumas, read World’s Great Men of Color. Volume II by J.A. Rogers.

  9. Catherine Delors says:

    Perhaps, but Richelieu was more a politician than a man of the cloth. It was the politician Dumas hated, not the Cardinal…

  10. penny klein says:

    thank you for this biography. but i am curious as to why Dumas seemed to hate Richelieu so much? is this related to the change of attitude toward religion from the revolution?

  11. Catherine Delors says:

    Agreed, Sam!
    I heard that a sculptor has been selected for the new statue, and I will not fail to report on it once I know anything more specific.

  12. sam says:

    So let’s do something about getting that statue reinstated. Surely France can find the money to do that, obviously it has already been left far too long. Leaving this undone is close to condoning the actions of the Nazi occupiers.

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  26. CATHERINE DELORS says:

    In 1802, when Bonaparte reinstated slavery, the number of Black Generals in the French military had risen to 12! Dumas and Toussaint were simply the best known. And that was without counting the lower ranking officers.

    Imagine what those men, who had risked their lives for their country and reached, on the basis of outstanding personal merit, the highest echelons of the Army, must have felt when suddenly they were told that they were nothing again.

  27. Evangeline says:

    How fascinating! I know of Dumas, pere and Dumas, fils, but not about the father of the line! I’m most struck by the General’s refusal to crush the revolution in Haiti, if not his place as one of four black men who reached prominent rank in the French army.

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  29. CATHERINE DELORS says:

    Thanks to you, Marg! Hopefully soon General Dumas will receive the honors he deserves.

  30. Marg says:

    Fascinating post Catherine. Thank you!

  31. CATHERINE DELORS says:

    Thank you, Sibylle! I will translate Toussaint-Louverture’s words: Uproot with me with the tree of slavery. I am going to your blog this minute…

  32. Sibylle says:

    By the way, it’s a great shame General Dumas’ memory has not been honoured properly, even by a Légion d’Honneur! I find Anatole France’s indignation very moving and can only share it ” Il a risqué soixante fois sa vie pour la France et est mort pauvre. Une pareille existence est un chef-d’oeuvre auprès duquel rien n’est à comparer. ” (He risked his life sixty times for France and died in poverty. Such an existence is a masterpiece nothing can compare to.”)

  33. Sibylle says:

    That’s a great post ! He seemed like a great man, especially for this “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.” Coincidentally, a primary school has just opened in front of my house and its name is Toussaint-Louverture, in memory of the leader of the Haitian Revolution. He is the one who said “Déracinez avec moi l’arbre de l’esclavage” which I think is an amazing quotation. My mayor pronounced it during the inauguration of the school, it was a great solemn moment and I was very happy to be there.
    I’ve just written a rather long post on my blog about our meeting :)

  34. CATHERINE DELORS says:

    Thank you, Eugene! I am so glad you liked it.

    I will post shortly on Alexandre Dumas, the novelist and son of General Dumas, and also on Toussaint-Louverture.

  35. Eugene says:

    Catherine, I really enjoyed this post. It is beautifully enlightening, and I thank you for sharing it . . .

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