‘The Black Count,’ A Hero On The Field, And The Page
Gen. Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was one of the heroes of the French Revolution — but you won’t find a statue of him in Paris today.
He led armies of thousands in triumph through treacherous territory, from the snows of the Alps to the sands of Egypt, and his true life stories inspired his son, Alexandre Dumas, to write The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.
How did the son of a Haitian slave and a French nobleman become Napoleon’s leading swordsman of the Revolution, then a prisoner, and finally almost forgotten — except in the stories of a son who was not even 4 years old when his father died?
“I like to think of him as history’s ultimate underdog,” says author Tom Reiss. His new book, The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, uncovers the real life that inspired so many fictional heroes.
“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.”
Dumas’ exploits in battle can seem almost superheroic — taking the field against Austria in a squabble over Italy, he “formed what all of the eyewitnesses there called a ‘one-man army,’ deciding to drive the Austrians single-handedly out of the country,” Reiss says. “He’s offered 5,000 soldiers, and he doesn’t want them because he likes leading small bands, so he decides that he can do better in this terrain by taking out a group of 20 dragoons.”
Overwhelmed by 1,000 Austrian troops at a small, crucial bridge, Dumas didn’t falter as his troops turned tail and fled. “He’s just cutting them down with his saber, and he gets shot and he gets stabbed, but nothing will make him lie down,” Reiss says. Reinforcements arrived eventually, but instead of retiring to the medical tent, Dumas “jumps on a horse and continues to chase the Austrians … and after that, even Napoleon, who hated him, had to give him a huge credit in Paris.”
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