General Leclerc in Saint-Domingue 1801–1802


24-31 Oct 1801

Leclerc sails from France for Saint-Domingue. He is Commander-in-Chief of France’s largest expeditionary army ever with 20,000 European troops, who are called “the elite of the French army.” Rochambeau is named second in command. Bonaparte gives Leclerc very specific instructions on the stages of the expedition, which he expects will take three months.

First stage, 15-20 days: Leclerc is to convince Saint-Domingue residents of France’s good will and peaceful intentions. Leclerc is to claim the troops are there to protect the colony and preserve its peace, allowing the troops to land and take control of the major port cities.

Second stage: wage war against the rebel army generals to break the masses’ moral and leave them leaderless.

Third stage: disarm all the blacks and mulattoes and force them back onto plantations to reinstate slavery. Bonaparte’s commands to Leclerc include “Do not allow any blacks having held a rank above that of a captain to remain on the island.”

October 1796

Power struggles develop in the face of Louverture’s growing power. To solidify his position and strengthen his ties, Sonthonax appoints Louverture Commander–in–Chief of the army. Laveaux sails to France as deputy while Sonthonax reluctantly stays in Saint-Domingue to perform his duties as civil commissioner. He plans to depart the colony in eighteen months when his assignment ends.

4 February 1802

File:Henri Christophe, roi d'Haiti.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
General Christophe

General Christophe sets fire to Le Cap, burning it to the ground in anticipation of the European troops’ arrival. “The most devastating war in the entire history of Saint Domingue had now begun.”

6 February 1802

Leclerc enters Le Cap, which is now completely destroyed. He carries with him a letter from Napolean Bonaparte requesting Louverture’s surrender. In France, Bonaparte is undeterred, and from February 1802 to November 1803 sends 80,000 troops and 408 ships to reinforce Leclerc’s troops, some of who have been in Saint-Domingue since 1792.

Louverture hastily sends instructions to his leaders throughout the colony, warning that the French intend to restore slavery. All of his letters are intercepted and one by one his generals defect to fight for the French. Dessalines and Christophe are trapped in the North. By mid-February nearly half of Louverture’s army is fighting under Leclerc, who gains entire control of the South.

Louverture’s only option is to hold out until the rainy season, several months away, with the hope that France’s troops would succumb to the tropical climate  and fall ill. His strategy was founded in reality: within the first two weeks of Leclerc’s arrival, two thousand European troops were already in the hospital, ¾ of them sick and the rest wounded. After three weeks, 500 more had died and another 1,000 were wounded.

Leclerc is forced to request an additional 6,000 apart from those already promised and further reinforcement of 2,000 per month for the next three months in order for his mission to succeed.

24 March 1802

The French suffer a major loss in the Battle of Crête-à-Pierrot when European troops attack a fort defended by Dessalines. Leclerc, attempting to break the resistance in the West, intended to recapture the fort to compensate for the fact that his campaign is already behind schedule.
Dessalines’ forces are outnumbered, with 1,500 blacks facing 12,000 Europeans and colonists. Undeterred, Dessalines gives a rousing speech urging his countrymen to fight for independence:

“Take courage, I tell you, take courage. The whites from France cannot hold out against us here in Saint Domingue. They will fight well at first, but soon they will fall sick and die like flies. Listen well! If Dessalines surrenders to them a hundred times, he will betray them a hundred times. I repeat it, take courage and you will see that when the French are reduced to small, small numbers, we will harass them and beat them; we will burn the harvests and then take to the hills. They will be forced to leave. Then I will make you independent. There will be no more whites among us.”

Dessalines holds out against two attacks launched by Leclerc and then manages a “brilliantly maneuvered” evacuation of his troops through enemy lines ten times their own number. Leclerc’s inability to defeat Dessalines and his resistance army signifies a major turning point in the war.

25 March 1802

France, England and Spain sign the Treaty of Amiens, achieving peace for 14 months during the Napoleonic wars. By this point France has gained back control of many of the colonies it had lost in recent years.

26 April 1802

A warrant is issued in the colony for the arrest and capture of Louverture and Christophe. After several failed negotiations, Louverture tries once more to reach a settlement with the French, sending Christophe to confer with Leclerc in order to discover his intentions. Christophe deserts, taking with him 12,000 soldiers as well as artillery and munitions.

Leclerc makes an offer to Louverture which would allow him to retire with his staff, retain his army ranks and functions, and retire to a place of his choosing. Louverture, realizing that he can’t survive another loss, accepts. As a result Dessalines is forced to submit as well, and reluctantly joins the French, breaking ties with Louverture in the process. Dessalines is the more militant of the two, and holds the opinion that Louverture should have thrown out the French and declared independence when he learned of Leclerc’s expedition. Dessalines begins biding his time to unite the colony’s blacks and mulattoes in order to finally expel the French.

27 April 1802

Bonaparte approves a decree reestablishing slavery and the slave trade in Martinique, Tobago and Sainte-Lucie. Bonaparte insists that slavery won’t be restored in Saint-Domingue and Guadeloupe.

Three months after landing, when he had intended the campaign to be finished, Leclerc realizes that “the difficulties involved in reconquering Saint-Domingue and bringing it fully under French domination [are] eminently more formidable than Bonaparte had ever presumed.” A third of his original army is incapacitated and thousands more have been killed in battle. By now European troops are dying in hospitals at the rate of 30-50 per day. There are few treatment options:  “the principle cities that had been burned to the ground offered little or no resources at all” and the Europeans are without medical supplies, clothes, or shoes.

In order to maintain his current position and take the mountains in the North and the West where the resistance army is concentrated, Leclerc estimates he needs 25,000 additional troops. He writes in June that “Every day the blacks become more audacious . . . . I am not strong enough to order a general disarmament or to implement the necessary measures . . . . The government must begin to think about sending out my successor.”

7 June 1802

Leclerc betrays his agreement with Louverture, deceiving the and imprisoning the governor general. Leclerc lures Louverture into a conference, arrests him, binds him “as a common criminal,” and ships him to France with his family and manservant. He is incarcerated and left “tragically, to die of consumption in an isolated prison cell high in the French Alps.”

July 1802

Indigenous popular movements reemerge in the South with the objective of expelling the French. The blacks and mulattoes see that, despite France’s claims, Leclerc fully intends to reinstate slavery.

7 July 1802

In Louverture’s absence, Leclerc temporarily restores peace and production and orders the resistance troops back to work.  New waves of rebellion erupt when he tries to disarm and suppress laborers, who resist and take to the hills to join maroon guerrilla bands. Several rebel leaders control up to several thousand troops, who terrorize the whites as the insurrection becomes increasingly generalized.

By the end of July, French troop losses are “dramatically accelerated by the persistent ravages of the fever.” News reaches Saint-Domingue slavery has been restored in Guadeloupe, in keeping with the law passed by the French government to reopen slave trade. The blacks’ reactions to this development is damaging to Leclerc, who now blames his expeditions failures to date on the premature restoration of slavery:

“Had there been any initial doubt as to the purpose of Leclerc’s mission with its secret instructions, the restoration of slavery in Guadeloupe, combined now with his measures to disarm the black population and troops, unequivocally dispelled it and left the masses with one imperative objective: the unmitigated and permanent destruction of the French presence in Saint Domingue.”

August 1802

Saint-Domingue at last receives news of Bonaparte’s May decree that reestablished slavery in Martinique, Tobago and Sainte-Lucie. Despite Bonaparte’s reassurances that emancipation in Saint-Domingue will not be revoked, the slaves are already aware that he has reneged on the same promise in Martinique.

“The news of the restoration of slavery in the other French colonies fanned the flames of revolution in Saint-Domingue.”

Black and mulatto officers in the French army, incorporated after Louverture’s surrender, break with the French and rejoin the revolutionary troops and maroon guerrilla bands. Slave resistance against French increases in the North, prompting the South to become more organized as well. Insurrection is everywhere, and suspected plotters are “executed by the dozen” as the whites’ terror reaches new heights. The French resort to using terror as a method of control, and increase the frequency and severity of their violence against blacks and mulattoes.

The core of the revolution is now composed primarily of average laborers, not military leaders, who had already been fighting for over ten years. “The course of the struggle that they began in 1791 had transformed them; they were no longer, nor could they ever again be, slaves.” Despite setbacks these fighters continued to spread through the region to proselytize, recruit, assemble, and devise plans of action to overcome the French. “The whole burden of resistance now lay squarely upon their shoulders, and for resisting they would face firing squads, be hanged, drowned, even gassed to death.”

Henri Christophe points out “the danger (for France) is in the general opinion of the blacks.” As a result, Leclerc realizes he would have to kill all the blacks in Saint-Domingue to successfully complete his mission.

27 August 1802

In Saint Louis in the South blacks rise up against the whites, taking advantage of an insufficient level of troops. Black militia, many deserting the French, capture the fort during the night and take the city.

“This was the first time a city had been successfully been captured by insurgent blacks in the South.”

Insurrections throughout the region reflect the growing participation of black soldiers and low-ranking officers. These troops, forced to fight for the French when their leaders deserted, use their positions and arms to aid insurgent movements. At this point it becomes increasingly clear that France is steadily losing its campaign to take control of Saint-Domingue.

26 Sept 1802

A general insurrection spreads throughout the entire Grande-Anse region. Maroons descend from the mountains and set fire to five plantations and kill six managers. The outbreak is part of a much bigger plot planned by an extensive network for insurrectionary activity. One rebel leader had “established a whole network of spies and agents who carried out his instructions to visit the plantations of the area, to convince the workers that the French had arrived to put them back into slavery, that they must rise in revolt against the French government, and that at any given time they should assemble at Fond Rouge to receive orders and munitions . . .”

The French hunt for the rebels, killing anyone they suspect. Though Leclerc’s reports reassure Bonaparte that the situation is in control, the rebels gain on the Europeans. In the East, up to 5,000 revolutionary troops gather. Black and mulatto officers and soldiers desert with the French troops’ equipment and begin attacking cities. Entire plantations are abandoned or overthrown. There are multiple uprisings throughout the South.

2 October 1802

Leclerc realizes that in order to accomplish his goals it will be necessary to completely restart the colony, eliminating the rebels and importing new slaves to run the plantations.

He writes to Bonaparte: “[For] if my position has turned from good to critical, it is not just because of the yellow fever [which he along with his troops suffered from], but, as well, the premature reestablishment of slavery in Guadeloupe and the newspapers and letters from France that speak of nothing but slavery. Here is my opinion on this country: We must destroy all the blacks in the mountains – men and women – and spare only the children under 12 years of age. We must destroy half of those in the plains and must not leave a single colored person in the colony who has worn an epaulette.”