History Wars

Thomas-Alexandre Dumas: The Black French general who stole Napoleon’s thunder

Thomas-Alexandre Dumas and Napoleon

Readers are probably familiar with author Alexandre Dumas, the Frenchman who gave the world such classics as “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Cristo.” In his time, however, his fame was eclipsed by that of his father, revolutionary French Gen. Thomas-Alexandre Dumas.

General Dumas was everything anyone thought an epic French field commander should be. He was over six feet tall, strong, and built like a brick storehouse. The son of a French aristocrat and a Haitian slave, he was born into slavery but taken to Paris and educated like a French noble during the reign of King Louis XVI. When it came time for the French to throw away the monarchy, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was ready to take his place in history.

Dumas entered the French military as a private in 1786 at age 24. Though he could claim commission as a noble, French race laws meant he had to enlist. So he entered into the 6th Regiment of the Queen’s Dragoons. His unit ended up in Paris to try to quell demonstrations against the king.

By 1792, the First French Republic had been declared and Dumas was a corporal. He would get his first taste of combat against the Austrian Netherlands that year, capturing 12 enemy soldiers and leading a scouting party. He earned a battlefield commission and became second in command of the Black Legion, a force of Men of Color.

A lot happened for him and for France that year, and in 1793, he was a brigadier general, commanding the Army of the Western Pyrenees. By the end of the year, he was 31 years old and the General-in-Chief of the French Army of the Alps, leading 53,000 troops. His first campaign came against a combined force of Austrians and Piedmontese, where he captured a mountain, taking the enemy by surprise and capturing hundreds of troops.

His rise to the top of the revolutionary army continued until 1796, when he was a general serving directly under a new top leader, Napoleon Bonaparte. In Italy, Dumas became the worst thorn in the side of the Austrians, thwarting their movements at every turn. His dominance over Austrian forces led the Austrians to dub him “The Black Devil.”

Thomas-Alexandre Dumas portrait
Thomas-Alexandre Dumas portrait by Guillaume Guillon-Lethière, c. 1797.

Napoleon wasn’t thrilled with Dumas, and his disdain had nothing to do with performance. Wherever Dumas went, his battlefield reputation preceded him and earned him the adulation of his troops and civilians alike. He was taking some of Napoleon’s glory. Still Napoleon had to acknowledge Dumas’ achievements, and made him the commander of French troops in the Tyrol and a military governor.

Dumas also accompanied Napoleon on the French invasion of Egypt, making him cavalry commander of the Army of the Orient. When the local bedouins saw a man of Dumas’ height and build, they mistook Dumas as the leader of the expedition. People mistaking Dumas for the leader didn’t sit well with the future Emperor. When Napoleon learned that Dumas and number of his generals questioned the wisdom of the Egyptian expedition at all, it only soured his opinion further. Dumas was sent back to Paris, but due to the destruction of the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile, he would be delayed.

When he finally got going, his ship began to sink in the Mediterranean, and though he made it to shore, he was on the shores of an island at war with France, the Kingdom of Naples. He would be held as a prisoner of war until 1801, when Napoleon had seized power in Paris. Napoleon did not treat Dumas with the respect (or pension) normally afforded generals, nor would he give Dumas a new commission.

Dumas struggled to support his family, and died of stomach cancer in 1806. The family continued to struggle, and his son Alexandre, barely got an education. As an author, Alexandre Dumas’ most famous characters were inspired by the exploits of his larger-than-life father.