Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, also known as Alexandre Dumas (not the author), was an influential general in Revolutionary France. Born in Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti) to a white French nobleman and an enslaved mother of African descent, he ranks among the most successful military commanders of the 18th century, playing a pivotal role in the French Revolutionary Wars.
In addition to being the highest-ranking person of color in continental European military history, he is the first non-white person in the French military to become brigadier general, the first to become divisional general, and the first to become general-in-chief of a French army. Dumas was the highest-ranking black officer in the Western world, an achievement shared only with fellow Haitian Toussaint Louverture until 1975 (when Daniel “Chappie” James Jr became a four star General in the U.S. Air Force, the closest American equivalent to Dumas’ rank of Général d’Armée).
Dumas joined the military as a private at the age of 24, which set him apart from most noble-born men, who tended to opt for officer ranks. By age 31, he rose through the ranks to command 53,000 troops as the General-in-Chief of the French Army of the Alps. Dumas’ victory in opening the strategically vital passes through the Alps enabled the French to initiate their Second Italian Campaign against one of their major rivals, the Austrian Empire. During the battles in Italy, Austrian troops nicknamed Dumas the Schwarzer Teufel, or “Black Devil”.
Meanwhile, the French – including Napoleon, whom he served under – nicknamed him “Horatius Cocles of the Tyrol”, after the hero who had saved ancient Rome, for single-handedly defeating a squadron of enemy troops at a bridge over the Eisack River in Clausen.
On top of his already impressive legacy, Dumas fathered a son who was also named Alexandre – he went on to become one of history’s greatest authors and playwrights, known for such seminal works in as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. Many of novels’ chief characters were inspired by the life of his father.