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[Written by Geert van Uythoven, reproduced with permission]

Général Thomas-Alexandre Dumas

Born on the island of San Domingo, in Jérémie (now in Haiti), on 25 March 1762. Bastard son of Antoine-Alexandre Davy, marquis de la Pailleterie, chevalier de Saint-Louis, extra-ordinary commissary with the artillery, and a negress, Marie-Césette Dumas. A son of Thomas-Alexandre would become the famous novelist. Johnson writes about him: “In addition to being a first-class soldier and a staunch Republican, Dumas was possibly the strongest man in the French army. One of his favourite tricks was to place four infantry muskets on the floor, insert one finger into each barrel, and raise them simultaneously to shoulder height; in the riding school he liked to stand up in the stirrups, take hold of an overhead beam, and lift himself and his horse bodily off the ground. On one occasion, having seen a soldier commit some breach of discipline, Dumas rode up to him, grasped him by the collar, and without even bothering to put the man across his saddlebow galloped off with him to the nearest police post.” 2 Herold says the same and adds: “Once, in Austria, when some infantrymen were unable to scale a palisade, the general simply picked them up and threw them across it one by one, thus putting the terrified Austrians to rout.” His assessment of Dumas is “a veritable one-man army but not a good General.” 4

Dumas entered service on 2 June 1786, as a dragoon in the 5th Régiment Dragons “la Reine.” When the French Revolution started he was a Brigadier, serving in Dumouriez’ army. Stationed at Camp Maulde, on 11 August 1792, on his own he captured twelve Tyrolean Jaeger. Dumouriez promoted him to maréchal-de-logis, some time later to Lieutenant with the hussars, and was promoted to higher ranks, distinguishing himself all the time.

After a while Dumas was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel of the “Légion Franche de Cavalerie des Américains et du Midi.” On a certain day in 1793 he was ordered to occupy an outpost with one of his squadrons at Mouviau, in the vicinity of Lille. During this stay he attacked a Dutch outpost of 42 men with fourteen of his own, and killed six of them and took sixteen prisoners. For this feat of arms Dumas was promoted to Général de Brigade (30 July 1793). In this rank he was charged with the defense of Pont-a-Marque in order to keep open communications between Douay and Lille, and again distinguished himself in such a way that he was nominated for Général de Division (3 September 1793). On 9 September the convention approved his promotion, and ordered him to take over a command in the ‘Armée des Pyrénées-Orientales’, which command became vacant by the death of Général Delbecq.

However, Dumas would never make it to that army proper. He was transferred to the Alpes to take over command of the ‘Armée des Alpes’, at the age of 31. One of his first acts was to ‘invite his staff officers to strip of their gold and silver rank badges, which in his view smacked of luxury and corruption, and replace them with items made of wool.’ 2 He led on 23 April 1794 the attack on the Piemontese defences on the mountain St.-Bernard after marching for two days through heavy snowfall, capturing all redoubts, and following up this victory by attacking three Piemontese-held redoubts at Mont-Valérien. Taking these, the guns were turned on their former owners, who were compelled to evacuate the chapel of the Saint-Bernard also. The French took five guns beside mortars, thirty mountain guns, 200 muskets, and capturing 200 prisoners. In this way Dumas secured this access into France.

Following up his previous successes, Dumas planned to throw the Piemontese out of their defences at Mont Cénis. In a daring night attack on 11 May, but not after heavy fighting, Fort Miraboue was taken. At the same moment, Dumas took a column of 3,000 men to the rich valleys of Bordonnach and Césanne, and established himself at Coulx. Then the attack on Mont Cénis was executed. The charge was led by the Division Bagdelaune, who advanced impetuously, in spite of the heavy fire by the Piemontese. The left column took Rivetz, while the right column turned the Piemontese line, who took flight. The French advanced as far as the towns Ferriéres and Novarre, capturing many muskets and much ammunition, and taking 38 guns and mortars, all the baggage and 1,700 prisoners.

On 21 July 1794, Dumas was appointed to Général en Chef of the ‘Armée de l’Ouest’, and had to fight battles in the Vendée that brought glory to no-one. However, Dumas did what he could to enlarge and maintain discipline, and to do justice to anyone. Later he also served in the province Bouillon to quell the insurrection there.

After this, Dumas was send to the ‘Armée du Rhin’ (General Pichegru), commanding the right wing of the army. During 1795 he was again sent to the ‘Armée des Alpes’ to serve under Kellermann. During 1796, he was sent to Italy to serve under Napoleon Bonaparte, leading the 2nd Cavalry Division. He commanded a Division taking part in the siege of Mantua. His active participation in the siege and the interception of important messages brought him to the notice and he received praise from Napoleon himself. When on 16 February 1797 the Austrians under Provera tried to enter Mantua, Dumas vigourously counterattacked near San-Antonio and managed to capture 800 men and two guns.

Before Mantua, again Johnson tells: “Berthier had infuriated Dumas by reporting that he had remained ‘in observation’ when Wurmser had made his final attempt to break out of Mantua. Having first got nine officers of the 20th Dragoons to certify in writing that he had one horse killed under him on the day in question, and another one buried by a shell, Dumas wrote to Bonaparte to express the hope that the author of the report would now ‘make caca in his breeches’”. 2

After Mantua had capitulated, Dumas was send to the defile of Borgo. Then Napoleon dispatched him to Tyrol leading a cavalry Division, to reinforce the French there. Commanding the French force was General Joubert, who put so much trust in Dumas that he gave him command of the advance guard. On 22 March 1797 the Austrians were defeated at Neumarkt, and scattered. Dumas and General Belliard were ordered to pursue the Austrians that were retreating to Tramin with the 5th and 8th Dragoon Regiment and the 85e Ligne. At Saint-Valentin the Austrians tried to make a stand and managed to hold again against repeated attacks by General Belliard with the 85e Ligne, until they were taken in the flank by Dumas at the head of his cavalry. Driven from the battlefield by an all out attack led by Dumas and Belliard, the Austrian lost their bagage, two guns and 600 prisoners. Returning to Joubert at Brixen, Dumas led again the pursuit at the head of his cavalry on the following day.

On 25 March coming to grips with Austrian cavalry near Botzen, the French were temporarily driven back by overwhelming numbers. Dumas killed a number of Austrians in close combat, receiving two slight sabre wounds. Then he blocked for some minutes, standing on his own on a bridge, the advance of a complete squadron, before he was reinforced by his own troops. In his report to Napoleon Joubert wrote: “Especially the conduct of General Dumas was outstanding. Three times he charged at the head of his cavalry, and with his own hand he killed many of the enemy. His valour has contributed much to the success of today’s actions. He received two light sabre cuts, when he held back the Austrian cavalry, standing on his own on a bridge.” Driving the Austrians from one position after another, all natural fortresses, Dumas also took the village Klausen leading the attack of the 5th Dragoons and the carabiniers (light infantry).

Arriving before the defile of Innsbrück on 27 March, defended by an Austrian battalion, three guns and Tyrolean inhabitants, General Belliard forced the defile, after which Dumas charged through it in hot pursuit, losing a horse that was shot dead under him. The Austrians lost 600 men, two guns, three caissons, some wagons and twenty dragoon horses. Dumas lost his pistols during this combat, but they were replaced by Napoleon with some superb others. However, his original pistols were returned by the Austrian General Baron de Kerpen, accompanied by a honorary letter about Dumas’ valour.

Advancing further then Innsbrück was very hazardous for the French because of the kind of terrain and the activities of the inhabitants. Therefore, by order of Napoleon Dumas was given command over two Divisions counting 5,000 men at Brixen to hold the Austrians in check, while Joubert returned to Italy with the remainder of the French. Campo-Formio made an end to hostilities. Returning to France Dumas received much praise from Napoleon for his conduct, and therefore not surprisingly would accompany him to Egypt. 3

Dumas accompanied Napoleon in the expedition to Egypt. The cavalry was divided into four brigades (commanded by Leclerc, Murat, Mireur and Davout), under overall command of Dumas. When the French reached Egypt in July 1798, Dumas went ashore without waiting for his cavalry, borrowed a musket, and set off into the interior with the advance guard of the 4e Légère. 2 Dumas took part in the battle of the Pyramids. When the insurrection of Cairo took place, according to some it was Dumas who led the counterattack at the head of the French that restored French control. However, Dumas was very critical of Napoleon and it nearly came to mutiny. While Napoleon was preparing his Syrian campaign, Dumas told him that he was very ill because of the climate. Napoleon is stated to have said: “I can easily replace him with a brigadier”, and let him go. 4

Dumas’ passage back to France was terrible. The ship he was on was leaking and in order not to sink nine Arabian horses and ten guns were thrown overboard. The ship managed to reach Tarente and the captain asked for help, but instead the passengers and crew were captured, and Dumas was held prisoner in very horrible circumstances. At last returning in France, Dumas received no active posting in the new French army, and was finally dismissed by the consuls.

  1. Babié, F. & Beaumont, L., “Galerie Militaire ou Notices Historiques sur les Généraux en Chef, Généraux de Division, etc….” (Paris An VIII) Tome 3e
  2. Johnson, David, “The French Cavalry 1792-1815” (London 1989)
  3. Derrécagaix, Général, “Nos Campagnes au Tyrol, 1797 — 1799 — 1805 — 1809” (Paris 1910)
  4. Herold, J. Christopher, “Bonaparte in Egypt” (London 1962)
  5. Panckoucke, “Victoires, Conquêtes, désastres, revers et guerres civiles des Français, de 1792 à 1815” (Paris 1817) Tome II

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