By the time that General Leclerc died of yellow fever in November 1802, 24,000 French soldiers were already dead, 8000 were in hospitals: the campaign in Saint-Domingue was mired in quicksand. Momentum had shifted to the insurgents who were motivated by hatred of slavery and hatred of those who sought to restore slavery in the colony. If events had developed according to Napoleon's original time-schedule, the return of slavery to Saint-Domingue would already be assured and Leclerc with thousands of troops would be strengthening France's control of Louisiana, aided by massive reinforcements from the French-occupied Netherlands. Those expectations were dashed by the bravery of the insurgents and lethal diseases that cut down thousands of French soldiers.
General Rochambeau, who succeeded Leclerc as commander of the French army in Saint-Domingue, proved to be both a competent military man and a sadistic maniac. His extermination policies towards the insurgents included a series of atrocities which in turn led to wholesale reprisals against French troops. Mass hangings and drownings, victims burned at the stake, ambushes and massacres-such episodes became common occurrences in a war to the death. Meanwhile, in 1803 hostilities between England and France resumed. The English soon blockaded the principal ports in Saint-Domingue and sold supplies and munitions to General Dessalines who led the struggle against the French. In June 1803 Rochambeau was ordered to transfer his headquarters from Port-au-Prince to Cap Français. As the end game approached, Dessalines relentlessly besieged one town after another. Cayes and Jacmel were taken, followed by Léogane and Jérémie. Saint Marc was occupied on September 2; the French commander in Port-au-Prince capitulated on October 3, setting the stage for the assault on le Cap Français.
Formerly referred to as "The Paris of the Indies," Le Cap had been the principal French naval base in the Caribbean. It could once boast of more ship traffic in and out of its harbor than the leading port in France, Marseilles. But revolutionary events transformed far more in Saint-Domingue than in France. About 2/3rds of le Cap had gone up in flames in June 1793 during the rebellion of 10,000 slaves in the city. Ten years later, French presence in the colony had steadily dwindled until only their hold on le Cap remained. Rochambeau personally led the defense of the city, with about 5000 troops under his command. Blockhouses, called Forts, were set up at strategic points-Forts Vertières, Bréda, Champain and, at the highest elevation, Pierre-Michel. Each fort had artillery pieces and many well-armed soldiers. Fort Vertières was pivotal, since it controlled the road from Port-au-Prince into le Cap. Naturally, the defenders used the terrain effectively, with forts positioned over a ravine if possible, so as to expose assailants to a maximum of murderous fire.
With about 15,000 soldiers under his command, Desssalines ordered one unit after another into the battle that raged from dawn through late afternoon on November 18, 1803-a legendary day celebrated by Haitians and extolled by her leading poets. Before the insurgents could break through the line of defense, the first priority was to seize control of a hill, the Butte Charrier, which overlooked Vertières and from which the fort could be bombarded by artillery. Getting up the hill while hauling the needed artillery under withering French fire was the first great task. Dessalines chose the most intrepid of his generals, François Capois, to lead the first attack. He and his men first had to cross a bridge over a ravine. Against extraordinary odds, they charged into a hailstorm of bullets, shrapnel, and artillery shells. Bodies of the dead and dying piled up, many horses collapsed, the smoke became thicker by the minute, and yet the place of each man who fell was quickly filled by someone else dashing in from the rear.
Ulrick Jean-Pierre's painting marvelously captures the élan and raw courage of officers and men on attack, with bodies under foot, horses falling and plumes of smoke everywhere. The most-cited and extraordinary episode on this historic day concerned the ardor and incredible luck of General Capois in the heat of the battle. At one point, Capois had his horse shot out from under him. He leapt ahead, sword in the air, urging his men forward. Then his hat was shot off his head and still he kept plunging ahead, with two-thirds of his men already dead or wounded. From the French side came shouts of "Bravo! Bravo!" Drums rolled. All of a sudden the French ceased firing and a cavalryman galloped out to deliver a public message: "Le capitaine général Rochambeau envoie son admiration à l'officier qui vient de se couvrir de tant de gloire." Then the messenger returned to his lines and the battle resumed! After recounting this surreal moment in his book The Black Jacobins, C.L.R. James remarked: "The struggle had been such a nightmare that by now all in San Domingo were a little mad, both white and black."
Dessalines pulled back Capois and what remained of his unit and ordered another unit under General Gabart into the struggle. Attacks were launched against all blockhouses at the same time so as to make it impossible for the French to concentrate their fire on any one point. After an hour of hand-to-hand combat, Gabart and his men secured the hill position, ringed it with mounds of earth to absorb bullets, and proceeded to fire artillery shells into Fort Vertières until the French were forced to retreat back towards le Cap. By the end of the afternoon, a smog of smoke and fumes of gunpowder practically obscured vision. Suddenly a violent thunderstorm drenched the field strewn with dead and dying men and horses. Night fell. The French had withdrawn to their base in the city. The insurgents had triumphed; their casualties included 1200 dead and 2000 wounded.
Late that night, Rochambeau proposed an armistice in a dispatch to Dessalines. The latter flatly refused and demanded capitulation. In effect, Rochambeau had no choice but to accept the demand. Withdrawal was to take place within nine days so as to ensure an orderly French departure from the colony. Of course, the English blockade resulted in the French surrendering to the English. In less than a month, on January 1, 1804 at Gonaïves, Dessalines proclaimed the independence of Saint-Domingue and gave the new state the name it had been given by Arawak inhabitants of the island before the arrival of Columbus: Ayti, or Haiti, meaning "Land of Mountains." The Battle of Vertières clinched the success of the independence movement. November 18 has since been celebrated as Armed Forces Day in Haiti.
Already in January 1803, when Napoleon learned of Leclerc's death and the huge loss of French soldiers in Saint-Domingue, he must have glimpsed the need for a radical change of plans for Louisiana. Napoleon had also intended to send to Louisiana thousands of French troops then stationed in the Netherlands, but icy weather conditions kept the ships in port. Before they could set out, the English blockaded the port. On May 18, Great Britain declared war on France, ending the brief lull created by the Peace of Amiens. This stage of the war, which continued until Napoleon fell from power in 1814, also included the English blockade of Saint-Domingue alluded to earlier. The drain of men and resources in the colony together with the resumption of the war against England forced Napoleon to scuttle his plans for Louisiana. The dominance of English sea power, the loss of a naval base at Le Cap, the absence of a strong army to defend Louisiana all persuaded the First Consul to sell the territory to the United States rather than have it seized by England. President Jefferson was wary of a strong French military presence in the Caribbean or in Louisiana. But as a slave owner, he loathed the prospect of an independent black republic. Indeed, after Haiti won its independence, Jefferson arranged for an embargo against the new state. His contemporary and rival, Alexander Hamilton-who staunchly opposed slavery---fully appreciated the close link between the revolution in Saint-Domingue and the purchase of Louisiana:
To the deadly climate of St. Domingo, and to the courage and obstinate resistance made by its black inhabitants are we indebted for the obstacles which delayed the [continued French] colonization of Louisiana, till the auspicious moment, when a rupture between England and France gave a new turn to the projects of the latter, and destroyed at once all her schemes as to this favorite object of her ambition.1
The year 2003 marks the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase and the winning of Haitian independence. The links between the two are indissoluble.
John T. O'Connor
University of New Orleans
1 Cited by Robert L. Paquette, "Revolutionary Saint Domingue in the Making of Territorial Louisiana" in David Barry Gaspar and David Patrick Geggus (eds.), A Turbulent Time: The French Revolution and the Greater Caribbean (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1997), pp. 54-55.