Few men can claim as many firsts as Thomas-Alexandre Dumas; premier French revolutionary general, the first non-white top-ranking officer in European military history, and one of the first non-white individuals in French history to be elevated to the status of national hero. Entering the army as a private at age 24, Dumas rose to command some 53,000 troops as the General-in-Chief of the French Army of the Alps, before going on to aid Napoleon closely in many of his most famed military campaigns.
The distinguishing qualities of Dumas Senior, arguably originate from his childhood – he was born the son of Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, a white French nobleman and Marie-Cessette Dumas, an enslaved woman of African descent, unfortunate concubine of said aristo. Dumas thus inhabited a curiously fluid social situation; being technically both born into slavery care of his mother’s, but with a right to aristocratic status thanks to his father. A unique, if not rather isolating and uncertain position – this duality of status was to follow him his whole life through. Moreover, it presented him with a choice; to be brought low by the misfortune of his mother, or else rise above it and leverage the privileged position of his father.
In one-way or anther, he succeeded in doing the latter, living first with his father in the family’s countryside pile, before upping sticks and travelling to live in a suitably plush Parisian townhouse. It was during this time, that he received the education of a nobleman, studying at the academy of Nicolas Texier de La Boëssière, learning the art of swordsmanship into the bargain – never a bad thing. Upon the completion of his education, he promptly enlisted in the French army, although rather curiously, he chose to enlist as a private, rather than officer, even though his noble blood would have accorded him such a privilege. One can’t help but wonder whether he felt the need to prove himself worthy, rising through the ranks from the bottom-most rung. Whether this was his intention or not, he achieved just that.
His military career is of course the distinguishing period of his life. That a mixed race man, in the volatile environment of ever more anarchic revolutionary France, should rise above the prejudices leveled at his ethnicity not only to become one of the most highly educated, tactically proficient and successful senior officers in the French Revolutionary Army, but that he should reach the status of French national icon, is remarkable.