Sergeant Beaudoin in Haiti

Sergeant Philippe Beaudoin was born in Burgundy, France, on 20 June 1775.When he was sixteen he volunteered to serve in the armies of  the French Revolution and he saw service in Germany and in Italy. In April 1800 his unit, the 31st Demi-Brigade, was despatched to Brittany where it was to embark for a major expedition. The troops first thought that this would be directed against the British Isles but, to their dismay, news leaked out that they were being sent to Haiti in the West Indies.

The French colony of Haiti had experienced revolt after revolt in the 1790s before falling into an uneasy peace in 1798. The governor, Toussaint Louverture, however, was pushing for autonomy from France and this angered the French ruler Napoleon Bonaparte. To bring Haiti to heal Napoleon organised a vast expedition and made his brother-in-law, General Leclerc, commander-in-chief. The 31st was to be a part of this armada.

Beudoin feigned illness in a fruitless attempt to avoid being shipped westwards to the tropics – a notorious destination at the time and the graveyard of countless European soldiers – but he could not evade his duty for long and he formed part of a convoy of fresh reinforcements sent out from Brest in May 1802.

His account of Haiti, and the fighting he experienced, is appalling. The war was brutal, unforgiving. Leclerc’s men neither gave nor asked for mercy. The ‘brigands’, those who rose up and fought the French, resisted with a determination, motivated as they were by the fear that the French had come to restore slavery (which, indeed, they had). Towns and villages were burnt, troops and civilians were massacred. And, to add to the woe, the French army was ravaged by Yellow Fever.

Beadoin’s journal is honest and gives a frightening indication as to the character of this cruel conflict:

I joined the battalion at La Marmelade. Two days later we fought a stubborn battle which lasted the whole day. We were attacked from all sides. They had 15,000 men against 600 of us. Despite their overwhelming numbers we pushed them back on all sides. One man in the 2nd company had the misfortune to be taken prisoner by the rebels. They hacked at him with knives, bayonets and swords and left him for dead. After pushing them back we came across this man trying to riase himself up. We carried him back to our lines where he was promptly treated by our surgeons. Some prisoners had suffered a worse fate. One man had had his eyes gouged out, his nails torn from his fingers and his privates sliced off. They set fire to every house they could. So you can see it’s hardly a gentlemanly war. If any of them fall into our hands we finish them off quickly.
    The next day it was the same kind of thing – going up mountains and then coming down them. Both sides committed the usual cruelties. Our supplies were running low, however, and we had no way of replenishing our stock. Fortunately, night put an end to the battle. Major Chataigné held a council of war and evacuation to Plaisance was discussed. At eleven that night we were on the road. We fought as we marched down the main road. There were numerous ambushes and we were shot at from behind rocks and trees. Anyone who was wounded was left behind – unfortunate was he who could not march. We arrived at Plaisance but were soon obliged to fight everyday as we had at La Marmelade. A detachment of 100 men from the unit and from the 38th were sent to Picq-Bourreau but were massacred by the brigands. A friend of mine, Ricquois, was among their number and this caused me much grief.
    The next day, and the day after that, we fought hard. We lost many men. We took 200 of theirs prisoner and hanged them straightaway.
    On the evening of the 18th October the Major held a council of war to determine what to do as we were now hard pressed. We had no food and no supplies, we were surrounded in the interior of the island and bereft of outside help. We had no generals to lead us – I didn’t know where they were. The entire army had been dispersed throughout the island in detachments and every day we were threatened with massacre. I can’t put it any other way, we were truly in a pitiful situation. The council of war decided that we should evacuate this place that very night.
    We began our preparations at two in the morning. It was heart-breaking. I was on guard at the hospital and we were forced to leave behind fifteen sick soldiers to the mercy of the brigands for want of the means to transport them. One of them, a handsome young man from the 38th Line bitterly lamented his fate, crying out ‘How’s it possible that you can leave me to face the cruelty of those brigands! Kill me!’ I didn’t have the courage to do this and as I left he was crying like a child.
    Our march was illuminated by the flames of burning houses. The brigands screamed and shouted at us, firing at us from both sides of the road. This went on for some three hours. We fired back as we marched along, but aiming was almost impossible. We lost at least fifty men. This is how it went until we reached Port Margot, passing through huge mountains in excessive heat.
    From there we marched to Carrefour in order to rescue our second battalion. They had fought a fierce action against General Christophe who, like Dessalines, had gone over to the enemy. As he did so he’d taken a large part of our supplies of munitions and food with him with the result that we were deprived of almost everything and surrounded. Fortunately our men had been able to dig themselves in and had used two cannon to good effect. They’d been attacked by 20,000 brigands and had beaten them off. Even so, fearing for our safety we all pulled back to Port Margot.
    In that town we found the 30th Light and the 38th Line. The brigands nevertheless came after us, in vast number. They attacked vigorously but we held on at great cost. Night fell and another council of war sat in order to decide whether to evacuate. It would be a hard thing to do considering the number of wounded and sick in the hospital. Nobody knew what to think or what to say. The council decided that every soldier who could carry a musket should do so.
    At that moment in time we had just one black general remaining with us – Paul Louverture, nephew of Toussaint. (1) His plan was to massacre us on the night of 21–22 October 1802. He brought several battalions of negroes into our camp but fortunately for us our commander, Baron, suspected treason and ordered the men to arms. We formed up a little way from the blacks. The general was surprised to hear the drums beating, he rode over and demanded to know who had disobeyed his orders. In reply our commander pulled out a pistol and shouted ‘You deserve to have your brains blown out!’. The black, seeing his life in danger, asked to be spared granting us freedom to evacuate without molestation.
    The next day we set out, fearful and anxious. We had had to leave behind some fifty of the incurably sick. The brigands gave their word that they would be cared for. No sooner had we left than they set fire to the hospital and the unfortunates were consumed in the flames. That’s the kind of word they keep.
    We were glad not to be attacked as we were encumbered by a great number of sick and wounded. It would have been impossible to escape. It had been three weeks since we had seen any bread. We finally arrived at  Borgne and there was food there. General Brunet (2) was in command there.  On 26 October the 38th Line left to reinforce Cap Français which, at that time, was weakly defended. It was the most important place in the colony and the brigands were rushing to seize it. The interior of the island had been evacuated and we just held on to the ports. If no more troops were forthcoming from France then we would soon have to evacuate a few of those as the sickness was rampant among us. The brigands had seized their moment. They were fighting for a cause more legitimate than ours. At the start of the revolution they had been given their liberty, now we were trying to make them slaves. And France had given them the means to fight. We had trained them in the art of fighting. They wanted to be independent from the countries of Europe after always having been slaves for the whites.
    We were evacuated and sent to Cap Français on the 31st. The operation went badly wrong and it was all the fault of the Navy and the general. We had been fighting for two weeks and our losses had so reduced our fighting strength that we could barely continue.  In order to add to our discomfort the ships that had come for us were six miles away.  Only thirty men at a time could fit on the ships’ boats and the enemy attacked us furiously. Fortunately we had brought two cannon with us and these tore the enemy to shreds. We had some prisoners with us but killed them before embarking. Many of our supplies were lost or thrown into the sea. The most terrible spectacle was this – many women, white as well as black, wished to follow us and gathered on the quai. But we had to abandon them. They threw themselves at us with cries and lamentation, you had to be as hard as a rock not to be affected. I saw the brigands attack and massacre them with bayonets.
    I was put on board the Mignonne. It was calm and we had to spend four days at sea in order to reach Cap Français. We suffered terribly from thirst. On the  4th November we arrived, but without much joy. We were lodged in the Fathers’ Hospital but were surprised to see that the enemy had seized the heights above the town.  We learnt that Leclerc, our commander in chief, had died on the night of the 1st November. (3) General Rochambeau, in Port au Prince, took over.
    Despite our suffering we were ordered to establish batteries which we did in hardly any time. Over the next five days we pushed the enemy back, crushing them with our artillery and gunfire. Fortunately they had just two cannon and these were dismounted on the second day.
    They abandoned their position and pulled back to a second one six miles from the first. They had lost 15,000 men. Our loss had been 700 men, as many dead as wounded.
    On the 16th November General Rochambeau arrived. On the 7th December I was struck down with fever. I was obliged to go to the hospital. I counted eighty men in my room. During the course of the day they took fifty-two away, dead. That very day some 600 died in that hospital. The place was so vile that even a healthy person would not have been able to resist for long. I resolved to get out as soon as possible. (4)
    On the 15th December I left the hospital, despite hardly being able to walk, and joined what remained of the regiment at Saint-Michel on the other side of the bay. A fort of the same name was nearby and a small place called Petite Anse, with a burnt sugar refinery, was close by. In this latter place we were tormented by clouds of horrible flies. We evacuated the place on the 26th December, transferring to the fort as the enemy was approaching. It was in bad condition with few guns. A week later we were embarked on the frigate l’Intrépide in order to go and garrison Saint-Nicolas. We went to Tortue but then our frigate hit some rocks and we had to transfer to la Guerrière. After cruising off the coast we were surprised to find ourselves near Port-de-Paix. Coming within range we fired a broadside against the town. It was delightful to see the inhabitants trying to flee. I now realised that we were going to assault the town. Two forts were firing at us and it took us nearly four hours to get safely ashore. We lost a number of man as we came ashore in the ship’s boats, canister and bullets were falling on us like hail. We prepared to assault the larger of the two forts. Despite the heavy fire coming from the defences we took the place in less than half an hour. We put six hundred men to the sword. Some escaped. The smaller fort had come under assault at around the same time; a newly-arrived battalion from France had formed the assaulting-party. Altogether the enemy lost 4,000 men. We stayed in the place for two days before continuing on to Saint-Nicolas, a journey which took four days.
    It’s a small place. There’s a small citadel, a hospital, a prison and a house for the general. Fort Victoire on the bay is well-constructed and armed. The air around here is good and wounded are sent from all over the island to the depot here. A new fort, named after General Noailles, overlooks the river. It’s furnished with 24-pounders and has a single gate. Fort Valliere is to the south. It’s surrounded by a wall the height of a man. The first line of defences around the town is a series of blockhouses each containing four cannon. The forts provide the second line.
    The commanders are General Lapoype, a very old man, and General Dubarquai, a general of brigade. General Baron, our commander, had stayed at le Cap as he was ill with fever. His loss was to be regretted. Eight days after our arrival a major called Mouillefarine also died.
    On the 22nd March 1803 a battalion of the 60th Line arrived from France. We incorporated its men into our unit. Four companies were sent off to Tortue to scatter a band of brigands who had massacred 600 of our sick and burnt them. That act of cruelty finished off 300 men from our unit. After much skirmishing the brigands had to retreat. The region was pacified and the companies returned to us. At around the same time the garrison at Port-de-Paix had to evacuate, having been decimated by fever.
    General Noailles (5) arrived from Havana on the 3rd July and took over command of the place, replacing the other two generals who departed for le Cap.  We feared that we would soon be running out of food. We were now surrounded on all sides. On land the enemy was growing bolder and nothing was coming through to us.
    Two months later we were reduced to eight ounces of biscuit and salted herrings. Thus it continued for ten weeks. We ate everything that moved – donkeys, horse, cats and dogs, rats and mice. There were a vast number of these in the barracks but we finished them off.
    Meanwhile 40,000 enemy soldiers had arrived and were preparing to come against us. We were 900 strong. Our position was critical. Everyday envoys arrived to tell us  to surrender or evacuate, or face assault. Despite such threats we held on and we spent both night and day on the ramparts, keeping alert. Our guns were often in action but the enemy managed to establish a battery of two artillery pieces on the Macauda heights which annoyed us considerably. How had they managed to do this? Fortunately for us they weren’t good artillerymen and the guns in Fort Victoire managed to silence the enemy’s artillery. But there was no rest to be had; our position was critical. Rochambeau capitulated at le Cap on 24th November 1803, surrendering to Dessalines and the English. (6) He arranged to surrender his men and ships. As Rochambeau passed by on his way into captivity he sent our general a message allowing him to surrender too if he saw fit. Our general, a true soldier,  refused suggest a proposal. We were the last place in the colony to hold out – something which became readily apparent when all the enemy’s forces at le Cap came against us two weeks later.
    On the 4th December 1803 our general took measures to begin our secret evacuation. We didn’t have sufficient boats to bring us all off and so it was decreed that only soldiers and no civilians should be allowed to leave. On the 5th, as night fell, the evacuation began. At eight in the evening we formed up and began to be transferred on to vessels in the harbour. No sooner had we left the shelter of the port than we were pursued by an English frigate. We had nine boats in our little flotilla and the English ship didn’t know which one to chase. Fortunately for us it went after the general’s boat, chasing it all the way to Cuba without, however, being able to capture it. That night a storm made us all change colour. On the 6th December we arrived in Santiago, Cuba. (7) To cap our misfortune, we hit a rock as we came into the harbour; fortunately for us, however, our second batallion came to our rescue. Without their help I believe we would all have been lost – not a single Spaniard lifted a finger.

Noailles and his men, having escaped to Santiago, then attempted to reach Havana. From there they then tried to get to France but were captured by an English frigate and became prisoners of war. Beaudoin arrived in Scotland in May 1804. Although his ordeal was over he was a shattered man. Released from prison in June 1812 on the grounds of ill-health, he returned to France and retirement.
    He was, perhaps, fortunate. Of Leclerc’s original expedition of 20,000 men very few survived, indeed Leclerc too succumbed to Yellow Fever. Some further 25,000 reinforcements had been despatched to Haiti and were similarly decimated. Some of the expedition escaped to America or Cuba whilst the rest became captives of the British. Even so, perhaps 40,000 Frenchmen had died. Meanwhile, Haiti, much to Napoleon’s chagrin, proclaimed its independence in 1804.


(1) The French had organised a number of black units and enlisted their support in driving out the Gbritish in 1797 and 1798. Paul Louverture, along with Christophe, Dessalines and Toussaint Louverture had, therefore, originally been in French service. When the revolt began the bulk of these commanders and their units sided with the rebels.
(2) Jean-Baptiste Brunet, 1763–1824, was a distinguished officer and was promoted to general of division in June 1802.
(3) Leclerc died of Yellow Fever. His body, accompanied by his wife – Pauline Bonaparte – was returned to France on 10 November 1802.
(4) Yellow Fever ravaged Leclerc’s army. Spread by a mosquito, and particularly dangerous in the rainy season, the disease was killing hundreds of soldiers a week. The initial symptoms included headaches, nausea, fevers and muscular pain. Severe symptoms included the vomitting of black fluid and usually led to a delirium and death.
(5) Louis-Marie Noailles was born in 1756 and fought in the American Revolution. He died in 1804.
(6) The French position in Haiti had worsened considerably since the English put an end to the Peace of Amiens and declared war on 17 May 1803. The French Navy was unable to match the Royal Navy which soon dominated the Caribbean.
(7) Cuba was a Spanish colony and Spain was then an ally of France.