Friday, August 02, 2013

The Black Count - A Book Review

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo


Subject: Biography  of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas Davy de la Pailletrie, father of Alexander Dumas Sr. (1802-1870) author of the Count de Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. Born in 1762 on the French colony of Saint-Domingue, T.A. Dumas was the son of a French aristocrat and a slave, who come to France in 1776 and during the French Revolution rose from the rank of Corporal to General. Serving under Napoleon in Italy and Egypt, Dumas became a prisoner of war in 1799 and held captive in a Dungeon for two years. Ignored by Napoleon after his return, he died in obscurity in 1806.

An enjoyable read if dubious history, Reiss interlaces the story of General Dumas with his own search for Dumas' records and letters. Reiss records his travels to Hati, France, Italy, and Egypt as he follows Dumas' life. Reiss also gives us a "The French Revolution For Dummies" to further pad out the book and help his NPR-PBS readers understand the historical backdrop. While good as pop history; it suffers from four main flaws -

First, because the historical record is so thin, Reiss relies heavily on Alexandre Dumas' memoirs. Written in the novelist's hero-worshiping romantic style, 50 years after General Dumas' death, his comments on his father are dubious history to say the least. Reiss also quotes the General's letters and some other primary sources, including French Army official records and correspondence, but most of the book is simply speculation and conjecture about what the hero “must have,” “may have” or “probably” felt, heard or thought. It can't be anything else, because General Dumas died young, left no memoirs, and made little or no impression on most of his contemporaries.  And despite all his travels, Reiss'  account does not differ much from John Gallaher’s 1997 monograph, General Alexandre Dumas: Soldier of the French Revolution.  

Second,  he vastly overstates the historical importance of General Dumas, his military ability, and his impact on his contemporaries.  Dumas did not rise from private to General because he was a military genius - but because he was a strong Republican, politically reliable, and there was a need for men with military experience.  The French Revolutionary Army was full of young Generals who were extremely young or former enlisted men. Some were even political favorites with absolutely no military experience (cf: Jean Carteaux,  Commander "Army of the Alps"  a former painter)  Nor was his meteoric rise unusual.  A comparison of Dumas to the other officers/Generals in the "Army of Egypt" shows the following:
  • Dumas - Royal Army Corporal.  General at 31 (1793)
  • Desaix -  Divisional General at 24. (1793)
  • Reynier - Divisional General at 24 (1795)
  • Kleber - 1792 enlisted as a private, Division Commander -1793. 
  • Dommartin -   Royal Army Captain, General at 28 (1796)
  • Napoleon - Commissioned Lieutenant, General at 24 (1793)
  • Murat -  Enlisted Private, General at 30 (1797)
  • LeClerc - Commissioned Lieutenant, General at 26 (1798)
  • Davout - Royal Army Lieutenant,  General at 23 (1793)
Sometimes minor historical figures are unjustly forgotten, but usually they deserve to be forgotten because the were, well, minor.

Thirdly, Reiss seems to think Napoleon and General Dumas were rivals, and that Napoleon  hated Dumas because:  "... he didn't like the fact that this 6-foot-plus, incredibly dashing and physically brilliant general was such a contrast to him in every way.. Also, he didn't like being confronted ... and Dumas was really someone who couldn't stop from speaking his mind." [NPR Interview]. This is absurd. Not only is there no proof of this, Napoleon wasn't jealous of anyone -he was Napoleon - and in any case, was constantly surrounded by dashing, physically brilliant generals, his entire career.

And Napoleon had some very good reasons for not giving General Dumas a command upon his return from prison in 1801.  The army was downsizing since war on the continent had ended, and didn't start again until 1804. Second, Dumas had shown himself to be insubordinate, in Egypt to Napoleon,  to General Kellerman in 1796, and to General Berthier 1797.  Throw in his quitting the Egyptian Campaign, his poor health (he spent almost 2 years of medical leave from 1794-1796), and his Republicanism, there's really no reason for Napoleon to have given him a Command over more deserving, more loyal generals.

Finally,  Reiss tries make General Dumas, some sort of noble Black man in a white man's world.  Or per the NPR interview:  "He's a black man, born into slavery, and then he rises higher than any black man rose in a white society before our own time," Reiss tells NPR's Scott Simon. "He became a four-star general and challenges Napoleon, and he did it all 200 years ago, at the height of slavery."

Actually, we have no idea how "black" Dumas was. Was his mother a mulatto or a Negro? We don't know.  We do know that Dumas came to France at 14, spoke perfect French, had European features, and lived the life of young aristocrat (including horse riding and fencing) till the age of 24.  His family, friends, colleagues,  and wife were all white and French. He was French in every way, except skin color.

Nor was he a great noble figure.  Reiss completely ignores Dumas' treatment of  General François Kellermann.   Upset at returning to the "Army of Alps" as a subordinate, Dumas began writing letters to Paris charging Kellermann (in the language of the Russian Revolution) with being a "Counter-Revolutionary". A sensitive point, since Kellermann had already been imprisoned for being a former aristocrat. When called to account and shown the facts, Dumas wrote insulting letters to Kellermann, forcing a transfer.

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