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

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

by Tom Reiss


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307382467
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 09/18/2012
Pages: 432
Product dimensions: 6.62(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

TOM REISS is the author of the celebrated international bestseller The Orientalist.   His biographical pieces have appeared The New Yorker, The New York Times and other publications.  He makes his home in New York City. 


New York, New York

Date of Birth:

May 5, 1964

Place of Birth:

New York, New York


A.B., Harvard College, 1987; M.A., University of Houston, 1991


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Copyright © 2012 Tom Reiss.
Excerpted by permission of Crown/Archetype.
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Table of Contents

prologue, part 1 • February 26, 1806  
prologue, part 2 • January 25, 2007  
book one chapter 1 • The Sugar Factory  
chapter 2 • The Black Code  
chapter 3 • Norman Conquest  
chapter 4 • “No One Is a Slave in France” 
chapter 5 • Americans in Paris  
chapter 6 • Black Count in the City of Light  
chapter 7 • A Queen’s Dragoon  
book two chapter 8 • Summers of Revolution   
chapter 9 • “Regeneration by Blood”   
chapter 10 • “The Black Heart Also Beats for Liberty”   
chapter 11 • “Mr. Humanity”   
chapter 12 • The Battle for the Top of the World   
chapter 13 • The Bottom of the Revolution   
chapter 14 • The Siege   
chapter 15 • The Black Devil   
book three chapter 16 • Leader of the Expedition   
chapter 17 •  “ The Delirium of His
chapter 18 • Dreams on Fire   
chapter 19 • Prisoner of the Holy Faith Army   
chapter 20 • “ Citizeness Dumas . . . Is Worried
    About the Fate of Her Husband”   
chapter 21 • The Dungeon   
chapter 22 • Wait and Hope   
epilogue • The Forgotten Statue   
Author’s Note on Names   


A Conversation with Tom Reiss

Q. Who was Alex Dumas? What makes him relevant today?

A. Alex Dumas was one of history's most odds-defying figures, and his story is an inspiration to anyone. Born the son of a slave and briefly sold into slavery himself, he made it to Paris before the Revolution, and though he inherited a noble name from his white father, he threw it off, took his mother's slave name "Dumas," and volunteered for the army at the lowest rank. During the Revolution, Alex first rode with the Queen's dragoons—protecting people from revolutionary mobs—and then he helped form a group of revolutionary mixed-race horsemen called the Black Legion that rode to defend France's frontiers from invasion. In solo combat, Alex Dumas could fight off a dozen men (there are many eyewitness accounts of those exploits). But he also showed incredible leadership and was raised, by age thirty-one, to the rank of general. As commander-in-chief of the French army in the Alps, roughly the equivalent of a four-star-general today, this young man from the tropics, who had barely seen snow before, led 53,000 poorly supplied men in fierce glacier fighting against the best alpine troops in the world. He could be celebrated as the patron saint of all U.S. Special Forces today.

But even as he gave all for his side, his real character was shown in how he treated the enemy or those under his command. Here Alex Dumas was equally uncompromising, and he constantly clashed with his superiors. He was promoted to general at the height of the Terror when Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety assigned commissars to accompany the generals in the field with portable guillotines—dozens of generals and other officers were decapitated for supposed political offenses or for showing too much leniency. Dumas stood up to any intimidation (it was said he even burned one of the portable guillotines for firewood). I found many letters written years later by Dumas's former enemies thanking him for protecting their rights and defending them from his own army's abuses.

Dumas's jaw-dropping ascendancy as a black man through the white ranks of the French Army also represents a key turning point in the history of slavery and race relations—one that, incredibly, has been overlooked until now. General Dumas was a pioneering black leader in a modern white society—the precursor to Colin Powell and President Obama—but nearly two hundred years before them. His career realigns our understanding of racial politics in the era of slavery. It is also drenched with irony: at the same time that he led more than 50,000 white soldiers to honor and glory, a black man like him in the United States—which presented itself as the font of liberty—would be relegated to shining a general's shoes.

Finally, beyond his importance as a historical figure, Alex Dumas influenced literature and popular culture in ways that would have been unimaginable to him—not only books but movies and even comics. He was the red, white, and-blue?wearing superhero of the Revolution, and his exploits inspired his son to create the Three Musketeers, who were among the main prototypes for the modern action hero. (Alex's son basically divided up his exploits and gave them to the individual characters, because if all these feats had been credited to one man, it would have seemed too unbelievable.) And as the inspiration for The Count of Monte Cristo, which became a template for the modern thriller protagonist—the wronged man in search of justice—the ghost of Alex Dumas lives in everything from Batman to The Bourne Identity.

Q. How did you find this story?

A. It began in my parents' basement when I came across the memoirs of Alexandre Dumas, the novelist. Dumas is one of the most famous writers in the world, having published The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, but the first two hundred pages of his memoir are all about his father. You can imagine it: Dumas had grown up in terrible poverty, hearing the stories of his father's fame and bravery at the height of the Revolution—and he knew that Napoleon was somehow behind his father's fall from grace but never knew the full story. While General Dumas died when his son was not yet four years old, young Alexandre deeply loved his father, and heard the tales of his exploits from his mother and from old soldiers who would stop by to pay their respects and reminisce about the incredible general, who had been unlike anyone they had ever known, in talents and courage but also in his humanity and invincible spirit. Dumas's memoir is impossible to read without being deeply moved by the loss of this towering man, but what really stuck with me is the love that shows through from the son, the writer, for his father, the soldier. The first part of the memoir ends with the writer describing the day his father died. His mother met him on the stairs in their house, lugging his father's gun over his shoulders, and asked him what he was doing. Alexandre replied: "I'm going to heaven to kill God—for killing daddy."
I couldn't get this out of my mind. It conveys so powerfully the rage we feel when the most important person in life is taken from us.

Q. In your previous book, the international bestseller The Orientalist, you revealed the surreal secret life of Lev Nussimbaum, a Jewish man who transformed himself into a Muslim prince and became a bestselling author in Nazi Germany. Now, in THE BLACK COUNT, you tell the little-known story of General Alex Dumas, a real-life epic hero, forgotten by history. How do you come to write about people few others even know existed?

A. I believe the past really is undiscovered country—that we've barely begun to chart it. I've always been drawn to unjustly forgotten people, those who've been marginalized for one reason or another. Alex Dumas is someone who was forgotten utterly because he did not fit the conventional narrative. The reason his life was forgotten was no accident—it was deliberate. On one level because he crossed a powerful and ruthless man, Napoleon, but on another level because he crossed history. Alex Dumas came of age during a unique and forgotten moment when France was forging the modern world's first post-racial society. The French Revolution was doing what the American Revolution had not done. Napoleon destroyed that moment and buried it—and he did the same thing to its shining human example: General Dumas. Napoleon even had Dumas's image removed from a famous painting of the Egyptian Expedition and replaced by a blond, blue-eyed officer.

Q. It took you seven years to research the life of General Dumas, traveling all over the world tracking down source material. What was that process like?

A. Tracking down the life of a man who died more than two hundred years ago was a new experience for me. I had to rely entirely on old documents—letters, diaries, memoirs, newspaper cuttings, and battlefield reports—to get at the truth. I went all around the world—I went to Egypt to follow Alex's campaigns there, and in the south of Italy I found the fortress cell where he'd been imprisoned for three years. But the place I returned to again and again, was a little gray cobblestoned town fifty miles northeast of Paris called Villers-Cotterêts.

I found an old man in the town who had grown up in the house where General Dumas had died, and who had lived his life devoted to what he called "the Dumasian spirit." He had lost the use of his leg in a traffic accident, decades before, and took inspiration from the story of General Dumas to persevere. He and a few others supported me in my quest to resurrect the general—they felt the injustice of his disappearance. In fact, these "Dumasians" actually helped me to achieve my greatest research coup—the thing that made this book possible—which was access to the most personal and valuable papers in existence about General Dumas, including the handwritten memoir of his captivity in the dungeon that was the basis for The Count of Monte Cristo as well as personal letters from Marie-Louise and many others. These papers were in a locked safe, to which no living person had the combination. The Dumasians helped me get access to the safe, which was in a government building, but I hired a professional to actually drill into the safe to get it open.

Q. How could a man of this stature and importance remain unknown for so long? Aside from his importance as a military figure and, through his son's stories, to world literature and culture, General Dumas led a career as a black leader in a white society that remained unequaled until our own time, when Colin Powell and Barack Obama have finally followed in his footsteps.

A. I think the answers go back to the Revolution—to its fundamental rejection of racial and religious categories, which has characterized the French republic ever since. But maybe more important, they go back to the forgotten road of racial emancipation and modernization that France alone took in the eighteenth century before reversing direction under Napoleon. In the course of my research, I discovered an entire forgotten civil rights movement under the King. And most of all—an entirely forgotten side of the revolutionary era that produced a kind of post-racial dawn in France that other countries would not see until our own times: Alex Dumas was the towering figure, but there were others—the head of the French senate was black, and Paris had the world's first racially integrated schools—a hundred and fifty years before Brown v. Board of Education!

I think his legacy was blotted out in part to hide the indignity of France's rapid retreat into racism and slavery—it was the betrayal of its own Revolution's greatest promise and accomplishment. With General Dumas in the picture, the full extent of France's fall would have been too painfully apparent.

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The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 46 reviews.
AliceLiu-MissingChunk More than 1 year ago
There is something profoundly important in Tom Reiss' The Black Count" that relates to how we define our personal stories and the stories of our collective consciousness. The Black Count details the life of Alex Dumas, father of Alexandre Dumas the author of the Count of Monte Cristo. Born to a titled white father and slave mother, Dumas was both sold into and bought out of slavery by his father. When Dumas joined the military, he eschewed the higher rank that was his birthright and entered as a common soldier, taking on his slave mother's name. He quickly earned his way up the ranks. What we can all learn from his experience is that he did not hold on to the wound of his slave experience: He allowed his personal history to define his values, but chose not to allow it to define him as a man. Reiss details the birth of race-based slavery as a relatively new phenomenon when viewed within the annals of all of human history, showing that it was based out of commercial expediency rather than racial superiority. He even gives mention to the fact that the chain of ownership began with black Africans, a fact almost always left out of the slavery discussion. I only mention this because this is a wound that needs closing. Is there racism? Most definitely. Should we stand up against it? Absolutely. But that does not mean people need to define themselves by it. Doing so creates a kind of self-imposed slavery, limiting what a person believes is possible for him/herself. With a good three quarters of black children in America living without a present father figure, Alex Dumas serves as a role model of what kind of person they can be and how powerful the concept of choice is in what they will believe about themselves. The other thing that Reiss does in The Black Count is to make intricate connections between historical fact and everyday life. There is a tendency these days to reduce complex situations into simplistic rhetoric. When terms like "collateral damage" replace the concept of human tragedy, campaigns are built on "don't you love America," and illegal war are begun over "bringing the evil-doers to justice," we desperately need a different way to understand the world we live in. Instead of interspersing dry historical fact within the Dumas story and expecting the reader to make his/her own connections, Reiss explains the context and consequences with the deftness of a great novelist. The result is that the reader sees the complexities of human history at every level and understands that life cannot be reduced to black and white, dichotomous thinking. Our society needs a paradigm shift into this more "wholistic" way of thinking, where we understand that all our choices have multiple, interconnected consequences. The Black Count is more than just history, it reflects a lesson back to us about our own personal stories and public dialogue.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wow. This is an amazing story about a man we SHOULD already know. I am so grateful that the author told this story so that Gen Dumas can be remembered. The story is very personally inspiring, but also a tale of revolution gone bad. If you like Mccullough or Ambrose and their style of vivid historical storytelling, then you will like this book.
jlks More than 1 year ago
Much like "The Orientalist, Tom Reiss was able to deliver an interesting, detailed and ultimately surprising story about a character in history that I'm ashamed to admit didn't even know was a true historical character. Also much like "The Orientalist", there is a lot of history provided for the reader to get through. I admit, there were a few times that I felt my eyes glazing over, where I had to re-read a passage that my mind wanted to skip over, but it definitely was worth it. I can appreciate the amount of time, dedication, travel and research that went into the reconstruction of General Dumas' life. It clearly was a labor of love for Mr. Reiss, and it turned out beautifully. I learned a lot throughout the story of the two Dumas men, and I am thankful for that. But part of me also wonders if maybe a bit of the history could have been condensed - or left out completely - to make the story flow a little better. I did feel it got bogged down at times, especially when the story branched out from Dumas to the plight of a certain country. Yes, the history was important, but was it so important that it required so much detail? The best pieces of this story, for me, were the quotes (from letters and other writings) of both Dumas men, as well as Mr. Reiss' personal asides about his journey to piece this all together. I loved how much the son adored the father, and loved seeing how the father doted on the son. I appreciated Mr. Reiss pointing out the parallels between General Dumas' life and some of Alexandre Dumas' characters (for the slow ones like me). Before this book, my knowledge and interest in Napoleon were passing, at best. I know what I remember from school and what I've learned from various History Channel shows, but never really stopped to think about the person and/or ruler he was. After this book, though, my interest is piqued. The interactions between Napoleon and Dumas, as described in this book, add a whole new layer to the term "Napoleon Complex" in my mind.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I bought this after hearing an author's interview on Fresh Air, which has provided many good reads. I am not a bio buff, but I really enjoyed this book. The subject was indeed heroic and overcame odds that would be considered impossible today. This book had a good review of the first western nation to establish abolition of slavery. It has also given me a broader view of the French revolution than I previously had. If you are interested in war history, Europe post enlightenment, France, and it's revolution, colonialism, Napoleon, or any of the Dumas family I recommend you read this one.
Another_Bibliophile More than 1 year ago
I hate FINISHING Biographies. It's a moment of depression. The life of General Dumas is fascinating, exciting, and tragic. A life not to be missed. Tom Reiss does a wonderful job of expressing this man's life and the world he lived in while frequently making subtle reminders to the reader that he's working off of actual documents, reinforcing the author's credibility. Very skillful rendering of a fascinating life... .. just, as always with biographies of historical figures, don't hold your breath for a happy flowery ending. Thank you Mr. Reiss.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. The writing style was something different from other authors of biographies I have read, but I really enjoyed it. It felt as if the author was sitting in my living room telling me this great story. If you are expecting to read detail after detail of Dumas's life, you won't get it. The author gives you the "big picture", the moment in history when this great General lived, then he places him in that moment so you can really understand what his life, his thought were. We finished the book really knowing this man and also understanding his background and the years he lived in.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This well written book provides a well written connection between the novels read in literature classes and the history that shaped them (which tends to only be read about in history classes).
avilov More than 1 year ago
Excellent biography about an important but forgotten general.
DC_ReaderSC More than 1 year ago
This is a fairly well written book. The subject as largely unknown and the author clearly conducted as much research as was possible. I would have to surmise that the theme is the influence of Dumas, the general on Dumas, the author. Fans of the novelist will likely enjoy this read. I am more of a history fan, so I felt shorted at times. I would liked to have gotten more information about the battles. But overall this was a satisfying purchase.
Teebokaroo More than 1 year ago
I am about halfway thru the book. I find it very interesting and educational and easy to read; It is not a textbook, but it is written in a modern way like a story. If you like history and this starts in the mid-1700's and later, it covers French history as well as touching on North America and the Caribbean during that period. Great for European history buffs!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Extremely well done. Reiss has performed remarkable research and brings Dumas to life. I really enjoy such a book that reveals a little known but important historical character.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It reminded me tht no matter how much we think we know of the past we'll never really know the full story about these peoples lives.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
BookPurring on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I grew up reading Dumas pere work, The Count of Monte Cristo is one of my favorite books. Just by reading the synopsis of this book I was hooked as I am sure will happen to other Dumas' fans. There is a lot of detail in this book that I did know now, the author does a great job at referencing real life characters and situations that if one has a good memory and is paying attention can relate to Dumas' work. Characters and situations that show up in his novels Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. The author also does an excellent job at conveying how much Dumas adored his father. I found the snippets from Dumas' memoirs the most interesting. The drawback for me is that it took a long time to become interesting. Almost a 100 pages! The reason being the book goes back to the times of Dumas's great grandfather. Unless you have a keen interest in Saint-Domingue and slavery at the time it's simply hard to get through this part of the book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book speaks the true nature of Man. The author renders a man vividly and poignantly. The scope of human events as historical views engraves windows of equal modern history. General Dumas, the “Black Count” is a beautiful telling of devotion.
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pedigreedmutt More than 1 year ago
started a little slow but well worth it. I totally enjoyed the very well documented story of the father of alexander Dumas, Alex Dumas. I certainly hope he gains his rightful place in history. a remarkable story of a remarkable man
Tubbster More than 1 year ago
Really well done biography of a forgotten and ignored hero. Reiss does a thoughtful job of detailing the turmoil of the revolutionary period in France, the devotion of a gifted son to a father who died too soon, and the machinations of economic forces in re-instituting racism and slavery in France. Should be required reading for students of French history and Black History, as well as those who blindly idolize Napoleon.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this exploration of the life of author Alexandre Dumas's father. It is a brilliant look at a time and world that interests me. It's not a novel but if you've enjoyed The Three Musketeers and stories about the Napoleonic era you'll like this.
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