I was expecting a good read in the The Black Count by Tom Reiss, considering it won the Pulitzer Prize, but I didn’t expect it to be as exceptional as it was. The book follows the extraordinary life and military career of General Alex Dumas. You may be saying “that guy wrote the Count of Montecristo.” No, that was his son, Alexandre Dumas. But his father was the inspiration for Alexandre’s novels, a wronged warrior in search of some sort of justice in a France that had transformed from a republic to a dicatatorship. Like any good drama the book starts with the author hiring a safe cracker to open a safe in the Alexandre Dumas Museum in Villers-Cotterets, France because the museum curator has died. In the safe, the author finds a rich trove of correspondence between Alex Dumas and his wife. The author soon shifts from the present to the French sugar colony of Saint Dominique (Haiti) in 1762 where Alex Dumas was born to a fugitive French nobleman named Alexandre Antoine Davy, the Marquis de la Pailleterie and an African slave named Cessette Dumas. The first ten years of his life was spent in a land where people of mixed race were upwardly mobile and large numbers of biracial women were shopkeepers and plantation owners. This was all made possible by the Black Code issued by Louis XIV in 1685 that made the children of unions between African and French eligible for protections of the French state and possibility of full freedom. Although some people of mixed raced parentage got on rather well the African slaves lived in a world of toil under some of the harshest conditions in the Western hemisphere.
Alex’ father was able to come out of hiding after his brother died and decided to return to Normandy to claim his title, but incredibly he sold his son and his daughters into slavery in order to pay for the journey. When he arrived in France he purchased Alex back from the Captain he sold him to but not his sisters. As soon as Antoine gained his inheritance he lavished Alex with money and clothes and sent him to Paris to school to live the life of gentleman. In Paris Alex thrived in a life of extravagance and rakishness that was expected of the young gentry of the time. This lasted until his father got remarried to his house servant and cut Alex off.
Something in Alex changes at this point in his life and he creates his own identity away from his self-serving father by joining the military as a common soldier and not as an officer as his father would have wished. He also drops his father’s name and from there on goes by his mother’s name of Dumas. This is the dawn of the revolution in France and this is also where the author shines as he seamlessly entwines the fortunes of Alex Dumas with rise and fall of the French Revolution from a republic of liberty to a paranoid dictatorship.
In the military Alex finds his calling. His superior physical strength and sharp mind make him an exceptional soldier. His prowess in swordsmanship and horseplay are second to none. He becomes one of those legendary battlefield figures such as Sir James Douglas (also known as Black Douglas or Douglas the Good), Sigfried Sassoon, Audie Murphy, or Carlos Hathcock where a combination fearlessness, uncanny luck and superior skills create an individual of mythic proportions.
While Alex was still a private he falls in love with Marie Louise Laboret, his landlord’s daughter, and asks her to marry him. Her father says that they can marry only after he becomes a sergeant. They don’t have long to wait as Dumas quickly rises from a private in the Queen’s Dragoons to a Lieutenant Colonel of the Black Legion to Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the Alps. They were soon married and from their letters it is very evident that they were deeply in love their whole life.
As the leader of the Army of the Alps, he wins a major victory over Austrian forces dug into the precarious Saint Bernard Pass. The victory opens up the Piedmont of Italy to invasion by the Republican army. During Dumas’ ascension in the ranks, the French Revolution unfolds creating significant opportunities for advancement in the military as France seeks to spread the revolution to other countries, but conversely contains deadly traps for public figures that were constantly in danger of being brought before the Committee of Safety to face charges of treason. Revolutionary opportunities came with revolutionary risks as the author, Tom Reiss states. And Dumas is accused of treason just after his victory at Saint Bernard Pass but manages to delay his visit to Paris long enough to avoid the Great Terror as Robespierre is executed. Here Dumas’ duel identity created a bit of confusion for the Safety Committee, he was noble by blood and therefore suspect but he was also a slave by blood which would make him irreproachable. He embodies a contradiction, but in the end his denunciation of his title and his Revolutionary zeal causes his African persona to win over his politically dangerous noble one.
In a year, Dumas had gone from a corporal in the dragoons to being made a general of a division, which is a command of ten thousand troops. And while sieging the city of Mantua, Dumas intercepts a secret message stating that a superior Austrian force was en route to break the siege. Dumas successfully deploys his French troops against the twice as large Austrian force. Leading from the front, Dumas has two horses shot out from under him as he slashes away at the enemy and successfully repels the Austrian reinforcements, therefore halting the breakout. However, Dumas’ siege saving maneuver is left out of an after action report sent to Paris by Napoleon, which infuriates General Dumas. But this would not be the last time that Dumas is at odds with the rising Corsican. In Dumas’ next engagement he single-handedly beats back an entire squadron of Austrians on a bridge in the Tyrol. This instance he is not overlooked by Napoleon who names Dumas “Horatius Cocles of the Tyrol”. Napoleon also shows his gratitude by sending him a set of pistols and makes General Dumas the head of the cavalry in the Tyrol. This will be about the last time that Napoleon praises Dumas for Dumas’ steeped belief in the Revolution of 1790 would put him at increasing odds with Napoleon’s policies and consolidation of power.
In 1798 General Dumas is made the commander of all cavalry of the Army of the Orient in Napoleon’s disastrous campaign to conquer Egypt. Again Dumas serves with distinction in the Battle of the Pyramids and is at the vanguard of repressing a revolt in Cairo, where he even charges into the Al-Azhar Mosque. Napoleon has a painting created of the episode years later but he replaces Dumas with a white man. Dumas’ relationship with Napoleon becomes completely ruptured when he gets wind of seditious musings by Dumas and other generals. General Dumas was not one to mince words and he thought the whole expedition was a catastrophic farce that left France vulnerable. But he was proven right after the self-serving Napoleon abandoned the army the following summer after the French fleet was defeated at the the Battle of the Nile. When General Kleber learned that Napoleon had flown the coop and left him in charge he said, That bugger has left us here, his breeches full of shit. We’re going back to Europe to rub it in his face.
Dumas didn’t get a ship to leave Egypt until almost a year after Napoleon and unfortunately it was hardly seaworthy. They had to put in for repairs at Taranto, Italy, a place where they thought was still controlled by the French. But to their misfortune the Neapolitan monarchists had regained control and Dumas was imprisoned by the zealous Holy Faith Army. During this time his wife impassionedly wrote letters to Napoleon and the French government to get him released, but it took two long years for him to be freed and by that time Dumas’ health had spiraled downward, possibly due to poisoning.
When Dumas finally returns to France he finds most of the societal changes wrought by the Revolution to be wiped away, especially in terms of race. Dumas now found his marriage to his French wife to be illegal and slavery was reinstituted. Napoleon had met with former Caribbean slave owners and realized how much money he was losing now that there were no more slaves to harvest sugar cane and rolled back all the social progress that made France a beacon of hope for many around the world. The General was also unable to receive his pension and his protestations went unheard. Alex Dumas died a broken and bitter man but his son Alexandre would become obsessed with his legacy which drove his art. His father was the inspiration for the character Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo with Napoleon being the main reason behind the character’s abuse and imprisonment. Also the swashbuckling adventures of The Three Musketeers is based on his father’s strong moral character and dueling prowess. Tom Reiss has done the world a great service in bringing to life an important and forgotten Black hero who led 10,000 Frenchmen to battle in an age when Africans in the Western world were enslaved and who epitomized the promise and failure of the French Revolution. Unfortunately there is no monument to General Alex Dumas in France. The one that did exist was blown up by the Nazis during the occupation.