General Alexandre Dumas: Soldier of the French Revolution

General Alexandre Dumas: Soldier of the French Revolution

General Alexandre Dumas: Soldier of the French Revolution

General Alexandre Dumas: Soldier of the French Revolution

Synopsis

Born Thomas Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie in 1762 to an enslaved black woman and a white French nobleman, the young Thomas-Alexandre spent his first fourteen years on the island of Saint Domingue. Following his mother's death, Alexandre joined his father in Normandy in 1776. Later, he moved to Paris alone. In 1786, after losing financial support for his free Parisian life, Alexandre enlisted as a private in the French army under his mother's name - Dumas. Had his mother been white, he would have inherited his father's title and noble status; and if he had chosen military service, he would have entered the army with a commission. Quickly, Dumas earned a reputation for bravery. As a private in the cavalry, he embraced the ideas of the Revolution, becoming a steadfast republican early on and remaining so while serving in Bonaparte's army. From his rank of corporal in the newly formed Black Legion in 1792, he received a series of quick promotions until he reached the highest rank in the French army. He also became a favorite of Napoleon Bonaparte, who held him in high esteem and trusted him with important missions. In 1799, however, Dumas left Egypt when Napoleon wanted him to remain with the army. This plunged Dumas deeply into the dungeon of Napoleon's disfavor. Later he was literally imprisoned in southern Italy until 1801. "Napoleon never forgave Dumas", Gallaher notes, "and even continued to punish his wife and children after his death". The study of Alexandre Dumas's life is also the study of race relations in Revolutionary France. Gallaher points out that before the Revolution, being half black was a hindrance to Dumas, a benefit in the middle of the Revolution when he was promoted to lieutenant colonel, and a nonfactor later in his career when he was promoted to general.

Excerpt

Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, who took the last name of his black slave mother, Marie Dumas, rose from the rank of private in the army of Louis xvi to general of division during the French Revolution. His father was Alexandre-Antoine Davy, a lesser French nobleman who spent more than twenty-five years in Saint Domingue. An illegitimate mulatto, born in a French colony (1762), Thomas-Alexandre's future was not promising. But when the French Revolution opened all ranks in the army to all men, Alexandre Dumas rose rapidly. He commanded the Army of the Alps in 1794 and served under General Bonaparte in Italy (1796-1797) and Egypt (1798-1799). His bad relationship with Bonaparte brought an early end to his military career, and two years in an Italian prison destroyed his health and brought an early end to his life (1806).

General Dumas is best known for having fathered the author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. However, his life provides an excellent study of the revolutionary principles of liberty and equality as they applied to a "man of color" who had neither a powerful family to support him nor political or social connections. His life also provides a look into the relationship between the army and the government in Paris during the Reign of Terror. Finally, his relationship with Napoleon Bonaparte provides a very interesting window to view a side of the Emperor of the French that is not always manifested in studies of Napoleon.

My interest in General Dumas came by way of my studies of foreign soldiers in the armies of the French Revolution and the empire. Among the documents at the Château de Vincennes (Service Historique de l'Etat-Major de Armée) dealing with the Légion franche des Américains (Xk 9), an all black corps, I found Alexandre Dumas. the printed information of General Dumas comes primarily from the first volume of his son's Mémoires. However, Alexandre Dumas (père) idolized his father, hated Napoleon, and made little effort to hide his feelings. As a result, he is selective as to what he includes and excludes with respect to the life of his father. Nevertheless, one must begin any study of the general with the son's Memoires. But Dumas (père) must be carefully checked against the archival material whenever that is possible. Other biographers have relied heavily on Dumas (père). I have relied primarily on . . .

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