Mimi Geerges Interview with Tom Reiss, author “The Black Count”
Alexandre Dumas, painting by Olivier Pichat
|Birth name||Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie|
|Born||25 March 1762
Jérémie, Saint-Domingue (later Haiti)
|Died||26 February 1806 (aged 43)
|Allegiance|| Kingdom of France
Kingdom of the French
French First Republic
French Revolutionary Army
|Years of service||1786-1801|
|Commands held||Army of the Eastern Pyrenees
Army of the Alps
Army of the West
Commander of Cavalry, Armée d’Orient (1798)
|Battles/wars||French Revolutionary Wars
War of the First Coalition
War in the Vendée
Italian campaigns of the French Revolutionary Wars
Siege of Mantua (1796–1797)
French Campaign in Egypt and Syria
Battle of the Pyramids
|Relations||Alexandre Dumas, père (son)
Alexandre Dumas, fils (grandson)
Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, also known as Alexandre Dumas, (25 March 1762 – 26 February 1806) was a general in Revolutionary France; he is the highest-ranking person of color of all time in a continental European army. He was the first person of color in the French military to become brigadier general, the first to becomedivisional general, and the first to become general-in-chief of a French army. Dumas shared the status of the highest-ranking black officer in the Western world only with Toussaint Louverture (who in May 1797 became the second black general-in-chief in the French military ) until 1975, when the American Daniel “Chappie” James Jr became a US Airforce four star General, the closest United States equivalent of Général d’Armée, Dumas’ highest rank.
Born in Saint-Domingue, Alexandre Dumas was of mixed race, the son of a white French nobleman and anenslaved mother of African descent. He was born into slavery because of his mother’s status but was also born into nobility because of his father’s. His father took the boy with him to France in 1776 and had him educated. Slavery was illegal in metropolitan France and thus any slave would be freed de facto by being in the country. His father helped Thomas-Alexandre enter the French military.
Dumas played a pivotal role in theFrench Revolutionary Wars. Entering the military as a private at age 24, Dumas rose by age 31 to command 53,000 troops as the General-in-Chief of the French Army of the Alps. Dumas’ strategic victory in opening the high Alps passes enabled the French to initiate their Second Italian Campaign against the Austrian Empire. During the battles in Italy, Austrian troops nicknamed Dumas as the Schwarzer Teufel (“Black Devil,” Diable Noir in French). The French – notably Napoleon – nicknamed him “the Horatius Cocles of the Tyrol” (after a hero who had saved ancient Rome ) for single-handedly defeating a squadron of enemy troops at a bridge over the Eisack River in Clausen (today Klausen, or Chiusa, Italy).
Dumas served as commander of the French cavalry forces on the Expédition d’Égypte, a failed French attempt to conquer Egypt and the Levant. On the march from Alexandria to Cairo, he clashed verbally with the Expedition’s supreme commander Napoleon Bonaparte, under whom he had served in the Italian campaigns. In March 1799, Dumas left Egypt on an unsound vessel, which was forced to put aground in the southern Italian Kingdom of Naples, where he was taken prisoner and thrown into a dungeon. He languished there until the spring of 1801.
Returning to France after his release, he and his wife had a son, Alexandre Dumas, who became one of France’s most widely read authors of all time. The novelist Dumas’ most famous characters were inspired by the life of General Dumas. The general’s grandson, Alexandre Dumas, fils, would become one of France’s most celebrated playwrights of the second half of the nineteenth century. Another grandson, Henry Bauër, who was never recognized by the novelist Dumas, was a prominent left-leaning theater critic in the same period. The General’s great-grandson, Gérard Bauër, son of Henry Bauër, was also an accomplished writer in the twentieth century. A great-great-grandson, Alexandre Lippmann (grandson of the playwright Dumas fils), was a two-time gold medalist in fencing at the 1908 and 1924 Olympic games (he won silver in 1920).
Born 25 March 1762 in Jérémie, Saint-Domingue (today Haiti), Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie was the son of a French nobleman, the Marquis Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie (Antoine) (20 June 1714, Belleville-en-Caux–15 June 1786, Saint-Germain-en-Laye ) and Marie-Cessette Dumas (birth date unknown; d. 1772, La Guinodée, Saint-Domingue ), his black African slave.
Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, born 1714, was the oldest of three sons of theMarquis Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie (1674-1758) and Jeanne-Françoise Paultre, (or Pautre) de Dominon (died 1757). The Davy de la Pailleteries were provincial Norman aristocrats whose wealth was in decline. The family had acquired the title of “lords” (seigneurs) by 1632. The French kingdom granted the title “marquis” to the family by 1708.
Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie (“Antoine”) had two younger brothers, Charles Anne Edouard (Charles) born in 1716, and Louis François Thérèse (Louis) born in 1718. All three were educated at a military school and pursued careers as officers in the French military. They first served during the War of Polish Succession. Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, who reached the rank of colonel, notably saw action at the Siege of Philippsburg in 1734.
Career in Saint-Domingue
In 1732, Antoine’s younger brother Charles had been given a military posting in Saint-Domingue, a French colony in the Caribbean that generated high revenues from its sugar cane plantations, worked by African slave labor. In 1738, Charles left the military to become a sugar planter in that colony; he married Anne-Marie Tuffé, a rich local French Creole widow, and took over her estate.
That year Antoine also left the Army and joined his brother and his wife in Saint-Domingue. He lived with them and worked at the plantation until 1748. After the two brothers quarrelled violently, Antoine left Charles’s plantation, taking his three personal slaves.
At that point Antoine broke off contact with his brother and his family for a period of thirty years. During that time, Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie purchased the slave woman Marie-Cessette “for an exorbitant price” and took her as a concubine. In 1762, she gave birth to theirmixed-race son Thomas-Alexandre. During her time with Antoine, she also had three daughters with him. (Some accounts say two.) The French colonist made a living in Jérémie, Saint-Domingue as a coffee and cacao planter, under the assumed name of “Antoine de l’Isle.”
When the brothers’ parents, the Marquise Jeanne-Françoise and the Marquis Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, died in 1757 and 1758, respectively, Charles returned to Normandy to claim the title Marquis and the family château. The British blockade of French shipping during the Seven Years’ War reduced Charles’ income from sugar exports, so he tried to smuggle the commodity out of Saint-Domingue from his plantation. He used a wharf in the neutral border territory (and tiny island) of Monte Cristo (today Monte Christi, Dominican Republic). (Some historians argue that this Monte Cristo was the “real” island that inspired Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. ) Charles died of gout in 1773; Louis, the youngest of the Davy de la Pailleterie brothers, died three months later. He had served a 15-day sentence for being involved in selling defective weapons to the French military (a famous scandal at the time known as the Invalides Trial (le procès des Invalides).
Marie-Cessette Dumas — described as a “great matriarch to a saga of distinguished men” was a slave and concubine of African descent owned by the Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie. They resided together at a plantation called La Guinaudée (or Guinodée ), near Jérémie(formerly in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, now Haiti) until shortly before Antoine’s departure in 1775. He sold Marie-Cessette Dumas, their other two children, and her daughter by another man to a baron from Nantes before leaving Saint-Domingue.
The only source for her full name, “Marie-Cessette Dumas,” with that spelling, is General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas’s later marriage certificate and contract. Her grandson’s memoir gave her name as Louise, and another source recorded Cécile. Sources have spelling variations of her name, as standardization was not common at the time. Some scholars have suggested that “Dumas” was not a surname for Marie-Cessette, but, meaning “of the farm” (du mas), was added to her first names to signify that she belonged to the property. Others have suggested African origins of the names Cessette and Dumas, including Gabon, Yoruba or Dahomey.
The two extant primary documents that state a racial identity for Marie-Cessette Dumas refer to her as a “négresse” (a black female) as opposed to a “mulâtresse” (a female of mixed race).
Secondary sources on General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, dating back to 1822, almost always describe his mother as a black African (“femme africaine”, “négresse,” “négresse africaine,” “noire,” or “pure black African” .
Sources differ on the date and circumstance of her death. Two documents signed by Alexandre Dumas – his contract and certificate of marriage to Marie-Louise Labouret – state that Marie-Cessette died in La Guinaudée, near Trou Jérémie, Saint-Domingue, in 1772. Based on this death date, Victor Emmanuel Roberto Wilson speculates that she may have died in the mass outbreak of dysentery following a hurricane that struck principally the Grand Anse region of Saint-Domingue that year.
Two other documents attest that Marie-Cessette was alive after 1772: a letter recounting her sale in 1775 and an 1801 document signed by Dumas, saying that “Marie-Cezette” will be in charge of General Dumas’s properties in Saint-Domingue.
Thomas-Alexandre Dumas may have earlier claimed that she had died in order to avoid having to get her approval before marriage and revealing her slave status. In addition, he was in a hurry to leave for the military front.
Dumas used several names in his life: Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, Thomas Rethoré (or Retoré), Alexandre Dumas, Alex Dumas, and finally Thomas-Alexandre Dumas-Davy de la Pailleterie. “Davy de la Pailleterie” is his father’s family name. He used the name “Retoré” (sometimes spelled Rethoré) during and for some years after the period in which his father sold him and then re-purchased him (1775-1776). According to the biographer Tom Reiss, the name Retoré “was perhaps picked up from a neighbor in Jérémie (where the name can be found on official records of the period).” The name Dumas is from his mother. The first record of his use of the name “Alexandre Dumas” is his entry in the registry book of the Queen’s Dragoons, which he joined on June 2, 1786 (It was known in his platoon that this was “not his real name.” ) He used the simple form “Alex Dumas” starting in 1794. General Dumas used the full name “Thomas-Alexandre Dumas-Davy de la Pailleterie” on his son’s birth certificate
The enlistment roll-book for the 6th Regiment of the Queen’s Dragoons, which Dumas joined in 1786, described him as “6 feet tall, with frizzy black hair and eyebrows… oval face, and brown skinned, small mouth, thick lips.” According to the earliest known published description of him (1797), he was “one of the handsomest men you could ever meet. […] His frizzy hair recalls the curls of the Greeks and Romans.” It described his face as “something closer to ebony” than to “bronze.” Elsewhere General Dumas has been described as “dark — very dark.”
Thomas-Alexandre had two siblings by his parents: Adolphe and Jeannette. They also had an older half-sister, Marie-Rose, born to Marie-Cessette before Davy de la Pailleterie purchased her and began their relationship. His father sold Marie-Cessette and her other three children before arranging to take Thomas-Alexandre with him to France.
In 1776 when Alexandre was fourteen years old, his father sold the boy for 800 French livres inPort-au-Prince, officially to a Lieutenant Jacques-Louis Roussel (but unofficially to a Captain Langlois). This sale (with right of redemption) provided both a legal way to have Alexandre taken to France with Langlois and a temporary loan to pay for his father’s passage. The boy accompanied Captain Langlois to Le Havre, France, arriving on August 30, 1776, where his father bought him back and freed him.
From his arrival in France until Autumn 1778, Alexandre (then using the name Thomas Retoré) first lived with his father at the Davy de la Pailleterie family estate in Belleville-en-Caux,Normandy. After his father sold that estate in 1777, they moved to a townhouse on the rue de l’Aigle d’Or in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. There, Alexandre studied at the academy of Nicolas Texier de La Boëssière, where he was given the higher education of a young nobleman of the time. At this school, he learned swordsmanship from the Chevalier de Saint-George, another mixed-race man from the French Caribbean.
Flush with cash from the sale of his family estate, Davy de la Pailleterie for many years spent lavishly on Dumas. His notary said wrote that the boy “cost him enormously.” From 1777 to 1786, from age 15 to 24, thanks to his father’s wealth and generosity, Dumas lived a life of considerable leisure.
In 1784, at age 22, Alexandre moved to an apartment on Rue Etienne, near the Louvre Palace in Paris, socializing at venues such as the Palais-Royal and Nicolet’s Theater. In September 1784, while seated at Nicolet’s Theater in the company of “a beautiful Creole” woman, he and his companion were harassed by a white colonial naval officer, Jean-Pierre Titon de Saint-Lamain, and one or two others. Following Dumas’s verbal protests, the men “tried to force him to kneel before his attacker and beg for his freedom.” The police report on the incident shows that Titon chose not to press charges as he might have, and all participants were released.
Enlistment and service in the Queen’s Dragoons
In February 1786 his father Davy de la Pailleterie married Françoise Retou, a domestic servant from the Davy de la Pailleterie estate. Dumas did not sign as witness to the marriage contract. According to his son’s memoir, the marriage precipitated a “cooling off” which led the father to tighten Dumas’s allowance.
Soon after, Dumas decided to join the French Army, a common occupation for gentlemen. Unlike his noble peers, who took arms as commissioned officers, Dumas enlisted as a private. A 1781 rule enabled men who could show four generations of nobility on their father’s side to qualify to be commissioned as officers. Dumas had this, but the French race laws “made it hard for a man of mixed race to claim his rightful title or noble status.” ) According to the novelist Dumas’s account, on hearing of Alexandre’s plan, his father insisted that his son take a “nom de guerre” in order that he not drag the noble name “through the lowest ranks of the army.” He signed up for the 6th Regiment of the Queen’s Dragoons as “Alexandre Dumas” on June 2, 1786; 13 days later, his father died.
Dumas spent his first years in the Queen’s Dragoons in the provincial town of Laon, Picardy, close to the border with the Austrian Netherlands. On August 15, 1789, following the beginning of the French Revolution, his unit was sent to the small town of Villers-Cotterêts. The town’s newly formed National Guard leader, innkeeper Claude Labouret, had called for them to come in response to a wave of rural violence known as the Great Fear. Dumas lodged at the Labourets’ Hôtel de l’Ecu for four months, during which time he became engaged to Claude Labouret’s daughter Marie-Louise.
Dumas’ regiment was in Paris on July 17, 1791, where they served as riot police along withNational Guard units under the Marquis de Lafayette during the Champ de Mars Massacre of theFrench Revolution. Troops killed between 12 and 50 people when a large crowd gathered to sign a petition calling for the removal of the French king. When, two years later, someone denounced Dumas to the Committee of Public Safety, he claimed that his intervention in the conflict had saved as many as 2,000 people from massacre.
A corporal by 1792, Dumas had his first combat experience was in a French attack on theAustrian Netherlands in April of that year. He was one of 10,000 men under the command of theGeneral Biron. Stationed on the Belgian frontier in the town of Maulde, on August 18, 1792 Dumas captured 12 enemy soldiers while leading a small scouting party of 4 to 8 horsemen.
Second-in-command of the Black Legion
In October 1792, Dumas accepted a commission as lieutenant colonel in (and second-in-command of) the Légion franche des Américains et du Midi, founded a month earlier by Julien Raimond. This was a “free legion” (i.e., formed separately from the regular army) composed offree men of color (gens du couleur libre). It was variously called the “American Legion,” the “Black Legion,” or the Saint-George Legion, after its commanding officer, the Chevalier de Saint-George, Dumas’ former instructor in swordsmanship. The young officer Dumas frequently commanded the legion, as Saint-George was often absent from duty. In April 1793, General Dumouriez attempted a coup d’état; Saint-George and Dumas refused to join it and defended the city of Lille from coup supporters. In the summer of 1793, Saint-George was accused of misusing government funds, and the Legion was disbanded.
Commander-in-chief of the Army of the Western Pyrenees
On July 30, 1793, he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general in the Army of the North. One month later, he was promoted again, to general of division. In September, he was made commander-in-chief of the Army of the Western Pyrenees. In this brief assignment (September–December 1793), Dumas’ headquarters were in Bayonne, France, where (according to his son’s memoirs), he was nicknamed “Mr. Humanity” (Monsieur de l’Humanité) by localsans-culottes; they wanted to intimidate him to conform to their political line at a time when French generals were extremely vulnerable to accusations of treason that often led to execution.
Commander-in-chief of the Army of the Alps
On December 22, 1793, Dumas was given command of the Army of the Alps. His campaign in the Alps centered on defeating Austrian and Piedmontese troops defending the glacier-covered Little Saint Bernard Pass at Mont Cenis, on the French-Piedmont border. After months of planning and reconnaissance from his base in Grenoble, he had to wait for snow conditions to be favorable to his troops’ passage. In April and May 1794, Dumas launched several assaults onMont Cenis. In the final attack, Dumas’s army, equipped with ice crampons, took the mountain by scaling ice cliffs and captured between 900 and 1,700 prisoners.
Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, c.1800, in Republican Army uniform
Though his victory won Dumas praise from political leaders in Paris, he was called before theCommittee of Public Safety in the June of 1794, for reasons unspecified but probably to face charges of treason, as this was the period of the “Great Terror,” a period of accelerated political executions in the final months of the Reign of Terror period of the French Revolution. Dumas delayed his arrival in Paris until mid-July, and was lucky enough not to be seen by the Committee before the Terror ended with the execution of Robespierre on July 27, 1794.
Commander-in-chief of the Army of the West in the Vendée
In early August 1794 Dumas was briefly assigned (for two weeks) to command the Ecole de Mars military school (fr:Ecole de Mars) at Neuilly-sur-Seine near Paris. He was reassigned to lead theArmy of the West from August to October 1794. In this position, he was responsible for consolidating the recent government victory over a massive insurgency in the region of the Vendée against the French revolutionary government. He focused on increasing military discipline and eliminating soldiers’ abuses of the local population. One historian, despite or because of his pro-royalist sentiments, would characterize Dumas in this command as “fearless and irreproachable,” a leader who “deserves to pass into posterity and makes a favorable contrast with the executioners, his contemporaries, whom public indignation will always nail to the pillory of History!”
General in the Army of the Rhine
In September 1795 Dumas served under General Jean Baptiste Kléber in the Army of the Rhine. He participated in the French attack on Düsseldorf, where he was wounded.
General in the Army of Italy
Siege of Mantua
General Dumas joined the Army of Italy in Milan in November 1796, serving under the orders of its commander-in-chief, Napoleon Bonaparte. Tension between the two generals began in this period, as Dumas resisted Napoleon’s policy of allowing French troops indiscriminately to expropriate local property. In December 1796, Dumas was put in charge of a division besieging Austrian troops at the city of Mantua. By Christmas he had intercepted a spy carrying a message to the Austrian commander with important tactical information. On January 16, 1797, Dumas and his division halted an Austrian attempt to break out of the besieged city and prevented Austrian reinforcements from reaching Mantua. The French were thereby able to maintain the siege until French reinforcements could arrive, leading to the city’s capitulation on February 2, 1797.
Campaign in Northern Italy
Following the January 16 fighting, Dumas felt insulted by the description of his actions in a battle report by General Berthier, Bonaparte’s aide-de-camp, and wrote a letter to Napoleon cursingBerthier. Dumas was subsequently omitted from mention in Napoleon’s battle report to theDirectory, France’s government at the time. He was then given a command well beneath his rank, leading a subdivision under General Masséna, despite a petition from Dumas’ troops attesting to his valor. Under General Masséna in February 1797, Dumas helped French troops push the Austrians northward, capturing thousands of them. It was in this period that Austrian troops began calling him the der schwarze Teufel (“Black Devil”, or Diable Noir in French).
In late February 1797, Dumas was transferred to a division commanded by General Joubert, who specifically requested Dumas out of admiration for his republicanism. Under Joubert, Dumas led a small force that defeated several enemy positions along the Adige River. Dumas’ crowning achievement in this period came on March 23, when the general single-handedly drove back an entire squadron of Austrian troops at a bridge over the Eisack River in Clausen (today Klausen, or Chiusa, Italy). It was this feat for which the French began referring to Dumas as “the Horatius Cocles of the Tyrol” (after a hero who had saved ancient Rome). Napoleon called Dumas by this nickname, and rewarded him by making him cavalry commander of all French troops in the Tyrol; he also sent Dumas a pair of pistols. Dumas spent much of 1797 as military governor, administering the province of Treviso, north of Venice.
Commander of Cavalry in the French Campaign in Egypt
Dumas was ordered to report to Toulon, France in March 1798 for an unspecified assignment. He joined an enormous French armada massing there in preparation for departure to a secret destination. The armada departed on May 10, 1798, destination still unannounced. It was only on June 23, after the fleet had conquered Malta, that Napoleon announced that the mission’s main purpose: to conquer Egypt. Aboard the Guillaume Tell, in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, Dumas learned that he had been appointed as commander of all cavalry in the Army of the Orient. The armada arrived in the port of Alexandria at the end of June, and on July 3 Dumas led the Fourth Light Grenadiers over the walls as the French conquered the city. After the fighting, Napoleon sent Dumas to pay ransom to some Bedouins who had kidnapped French soldiers. The expedition’s chief medical officer recounted in a memoir that local Egyptians, judging Dumas’ height and build versus Napoleon’s, believed Dumas to be in command. Seeing “him ride his horse over the trenches, going to ransom the prisoners, all of them believed that he was the leader of the Expedition.”
From July 7 to 21, Dumas commanded the invading army’s cavalry as it marched south fromAlexandria to Cairo. Conditions of heat, thirst, fatigue, and lack of supplies for the troops on the desert march were harsh; there were a number of suicides. While camped in Damanhour, General Dumas met over watermelons with several other generals (Lannes, Desaix, and Murat). They vented criticisms of Napoleon’s leadership and discussed the possibility of refusing to march beyond Cairo. Dumas soon participated in the Battle of the Pyramids (following which he chased retreating Mameluke horsemen) and the occupation of Cairo. At some point during the occupation, Napoleon learned of the earlier mutinous talk, and confronted Dumas. In his memoirs, Napoleon remembered threatening to shoot Dumas for sedition. Dumas requested leave to return to France, and Napoleon did not oppose it. Napoleon was reported to have said: “I can easily replace him with a brigadier.”
Following the destruction of the French armada by a British fleet led by Horatio Nelson, however, Dumas was unable to get out of Egypt until March of the following year. In August 1798, Dumas discovered a significant cache of gold and jewels beneath a house in French-occupied Cairo, which he turned over to Napoleon. In October, he was instrumental in putting down an anti-Frenchrevolt in Cairo by charging into the Al-Azhar Mosque on horseback. Afterward (according to his son’s account, drawn largely from the memories of Dumas’s aide-de-camp Dermoncourt), Napoleon told him: “I shall have a painting made of the taking of the Grand Mosque. Dumas, you have already posed as the central figure.” The Girodet painting, however, which Napoleon commissioned eleven years later, shows a white man charging into the mosque.
On March 7, 1799, Dumas boarded a small ship called the Belle Maltaise in the company of his fellow General Jean-Baptiste Manscourt du Rozoy, the geologist Déodat Gratet de Dolomieu, forty wounded French soldiers, and a number of Maltese and Genoan civilians. Dumas had sold the furnishings of his quarters in Cairo, and purchased 4,000 pounds of moka coffee; eleven Arabian horses (two stallions and nine mares) to establish breeding stock in France; and hired the ship.
While returning to France, the ship began to sink, and Dumas had to jettison much of his cargo. The ship was forced by storms to land at Taranto, in the Kingdom of Naples. Dumas and his companions expected to get a friendly reception, having heard that the Kingdom had been overthrown by the Parthenopean Republic. But that short-lived republic had succumbed to an internal uprising by a local force known as the Holy Faith Army, led by Cardinal Fabrizio Ruffo, in alliance with King Ferdinand IV of the Kingdom of Naples. He was at war with France.
Imprisonment in the Kingdom of Naples
The Holy Faith Army imprisoned Dumas and the rest of the passengers and confiscated most of their belongings. Early on in the captivity, Cardinal Fabrizio Ruffo tried to trade Dumas for a Corsican adventurer named Boccheciampe, an imposter posing as Prince Francis, son ofFerdinand IV, in order to aid the Holy Faith movement. Boccheciampe had been captured by French forces north of the Neapolitan kingdom, shortly after he had visited the prisoners inTaranto, but Ruffo lost interest in a trade when he learned Boccheciampe had been killed by the French.
Dumas was malnourished and kept incommunicado for two years. By the time of his release, he was partially paralyzed, almost blind in one eye, had been deaf in one ear but recovered; his physique was broken. He believed his illnesses were caused by poisoning. During his imprisonment, he was aided by a secret local pro-French group, which brought him medicine and a book of remedies. In November 1799, Napoleon had returned to Paris and seized power. Dumas’ wife lobbied his government for assistance in finding and rescuing her husband, to little result. Napoleon’s forces, under the command of Dumas’ fellow general Joachim Murat, eventually defeated Ferdinand IV’s army and secured Dumas’s release in March 1801.
Dumas made few political statements, but those he made suggest deeply felt republican beliefs. One month after the French National Convention abolished slavery (February 4, 1794), Dumas sent a message to troops under his command in the Army of the Alps:
Your comrade, a soldier and General-in-Chief. . . . was born in a climate and among men for whom liberty also had charms, and who fought for it first. 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.
Marriage and family
In November 1792, stationed with the Black Legion in Amiens, Dumas married Marie-Louise Labouret in Villers-Cotterêts. She stayed in Villers-Cotterêts with her family during his military campaigns. Dumas bought a farm of 30 acres there. They had daughters Marie-Alexandrine (born September 10, 1794), Louise-Alexandrine (born 1796, died 1797), and a son, Alexandre Dumas, who became a prolific and notable author, with numerous successes in plays and especially adventure novels.
Later years and death
After he finally gained release in 1801, Dumas was not awarded “the pension normally allocated to the widows of generals” by the French government and he struggled to support his family after his return to France. He repeatedly wrote to Napoleon Bonaparte, seeking back-pay for his time lost in Taranto and a new commission in the military. He died of stomach cancer on 26 February 1806 in Villers-Cotterêts. At his death his son Alexandre was three years and seven months old. The boy, his sister, and his widowed mother were plunged into deeper poverty. Marie-Louise Labouret Dumas worked in a tobacconist’s shop to make ends meet. For lack of funds, the young Alexandre Dumas was unable to get even a basic secondary education. Marie-Louise persistently lobbied the French government to be paid her military widow’s pension. Marie-Louise and the young Alexandre blamed Napoleon Bonaparte’s “implacable hatred” for their poverty.
Legacy and honors
- Dumas’ name is inscribed on the south wall of the Arc de Triomphe.
- In 1913, a statue of General Dumas was erected in Place Malesherbes (now Place du Général Catroux) in Paris in Autumn 1912 after a long fundraising campaign spearheaded byAnatole France and Sarah Bernhardt. From the moment of its installation until some time after July 1913 the statue was covered by a shroud due to the difficulty of the numerous governmental agencies involved to reach agreement on the modalities of its official inauguration. It stood in Place Malesherbes for thirty years, alongside statues of Alexandre Dumas’s descendants Alexandre Dumas, père (erected in 1883) and Alexandre Dumas, fils(erected in 1906), as well as one of Sarah Bernhardt. The Germans destroyed it in the winter of 1941-1942, and it has never been restored.
- In 2009, a sculpture in his honor, made by Driss Sans-Arcidet, was erected in Paris, Place du Général Catroux (formerly Place Malesherbes). Representing broken slave shackles, it was unveiled on 4 April 2009. The critic Jean-Joël Brégeon has claimed that the symbolism of the statue was not appropriate because, apart from his noble upbringing, the general had never been a slave. Documents cited above, however, show that his father sold and then re-purchased Alexandre Dumas, disproving this claim. Dumas biographer Tom Reiss has suggested that the monument is inappropriate for other reasons: “In the race politics of twenty-first-century France, the statue of General Dumas had morphed into a symbolic monument to all the victims of French colonial slavery… There is still no monument in France commemorating the life of General Alexandre Dumas.”
- In April 2009, the writer Claude Ribbe started an internet petition, asking French PresidentNicolas Sarkozy to award General Dumas the Légion d’honneur. As of February 2014, the petition has gathered over 7100 signatories.