Born Thomas Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie in 1762 to an enslaved black woman and a white French nobleman, the young Thomas-Alexandre spent his first fourteen years on the island of Saint Domingue. Following his mother's death, Alexandre joined his father in Normandy in 1776. Later, he moved to Paris alone. In 1786, after losing financial support for his free Parisian life, Alexandre enlisted as a private in the French army under his mother's name - Dumas. Had his mother been white, he would have inherited his father's title and noble status; and if he had chosen military service, he would have entered the army with a commission.
Quickly, Dumas earned a reputation for bravery. As a private in the cavalry, he embraced the ideas of the Revolution, becoming a steadfast republican early on and remaining so while serving in Bonaparte's army. From his rank of corporal in the newly formed Black Legion in 1792, he received a series of quick promotions until he reached the highest rank in the French army. He also became a favorite of Napoleon Bonaparte, who held him in high esteem and trusted him with important missions. In 1799, however, Dumas left Egypt when Napoleon wanted him to remain with the army. This plunged Dumas deeply into the dungeon of Napoleon's disfavor.
Later he was literally imprisoned in southern Italy until 1801. "Napoleon never forgave Dumas," Gallaher notes, "and even continued to punish his wife and children after his death." The study of Alexandre Dumas's life is also the study of race relations in Revolutionary France. Gallaher points out that before the Revolution, being half black was a hindrance to Dumas, a benefit in the middle of the Revolution when he was promoted to lieutenant colonel, and a nonfactor later in his career when he was promoted to general.