Thomas-Alexandre Dumas became France’s first black general in 1793. This was the period of the French Revolutionary Wars, marked by political extremism and atrocities. Yet Dumas won a reputation as a humane commander, who allegedly once had a guillotine taken down and burnt, claiming his men were short of firewood. In 1796 he was sent to Italy to serve under Napoleon Bonaparte, but the two men did not get on.
Dumas objected to the looting of Italian towns, which Napoleon generally tolerated. But Dumas proved his skill as a military leader, defeating the Austrians several times, who nicknamed him ‘the Black Devil’. In 1797, while suffering intense grief at recent news of the death of his infant daughter, Dumas captured a crucial bridge, then single-handedly held it against an Austrian cavalry squadron, receiving two sabre wounds.
His aide-de-camp described the scene: “I managed to turn toward the general; he was standing at the head of the bridge of Clausen and holding it alone against the whole squadron; and as the bridge was narrow and the men could only get at him two or three abreast, he cut down as many as came at him.” Even Napoleon was won over, nicknaming Dumas ‘the Horatius of the Tyrol’, after the hero who saved Rome.
Napoleon promoted Dumas and rewarded him with a pair of pistols from the armoury at Versailles, to replace those he’d lost at the bridge.