DU PIN, Charles Louis Désiré

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Although a marginal figure, particularly amongst other officers of the period, Colonel Du Pin’s importance and reknown was to prove considerable, far exceeding that of many generals who refused to associate with him. Most famously, he was a key but controversial figure in the French intervention in Mexico. Born in Lasgraisses (Tarn) on 28 December, 1814, Du Pin studied at the Ecole Polytechnique in Palaiseau before attending the Ecole d’application d’état-major. He made lieutenant in 1839, was employed in Service de la Carte de France, promoted to captain in 1842 and the following year posted to Algeria where he began to make his name.

On 16 May, 1843, he participated in the capture of Abd-el-Kader’s smalah and featured at the forefront Horace Vernet’s painting of the event. Mentioned and decorated for his service, upon his return to France he was appointed aide de camp to General Marey-Monge and subsequently cavalry major in 1851. He returned to Algeria in 1853 and took part in the Zouave expedition under General Randon. Receiving honourable mention once again, he fought in the Crimea and on 19 September, 1855, he was made lieutenant-colonel, at the age of forty. After the Italian campaign in 1859, where he served as head of a cavalry division, he was named head of the topographic service for the expeditionary corps dispatched to China and, following the capture of the Pei-Ho forts, received both mention and his colonel stripes. During the pillage of the Summer Palace, he obtained a large number of valuable items and his collection quickly became famous. However, his passion for women, drink and gambling soon forced him to sell his collection to pay off his debts. The advertisement placed in the newspaper announcing the sale caused such a scandal that the military hierarchy was obliged to retire him from active service.

The Mexican expedition was to prove all too tempting for such an individual, and he initially enrolled on the Mexican side, before catching the attention of Forey and Bazaine, who put him in charge of counter-guerilla organisation in the Tierra Caliente region. The counter-guerilla movement was begun by the Swiss Stoëklin, but Du Pin’s understanding of the terrain, his tactical nous and his complete lack of respect for the traditional rules of engagement soon proved highly successful. Much to the displeasure of the generals on campaign, he answered only to the commander in chief, who gave him an entirely free rein in his operations.

His band of intensely loyal soldier-brigands, his infernal columns (greatly feared by liberals) and his appearance (a large beard, bright and bizarre Mexican-Hungaro uniform and pistol pushed through his belt) soon saw his infamy grow within the army. In the territories that he controlled, he signed his decrees as “governor Charles Du Pin”, and his methods were often swift and summary. Surprise attacks were common, prisoners were executed, villages suspected of colluding with the Juarists were burned to the ground and civilian suspects were eliminated. No quarter was given and Du Pin did not shy away from committing acts of cruelty. A bounty of 100,000 Francs was placed upon his head, but this proved in vain. A complex character, he at the same time wrote tender and heartfelt letters to his neice, who would have married him had her parents consented to the union, and happily admitted “I have waged a terrible war”. His participation could be considered extra-official, acting outside the confines of standard military activity, and following accusations –  voiced by the emperor Maximilian and his colleagues, who were both jealous of his success and critical of his methods – regarding his tactics, the “red devil”, the “monster” of the Tierra Caliente, was sent back to France in April 1865 and replaced by Captain Ney d’Elchingen. An investigation into his activities was opened but cleared him of any wrongdoing and he returned to Mexico in January 1866. The affair had already caused enough concern on both sides of the Atlantic to call into question the difficult conditions and questionable methods being used, and Du Pin was replaced again. Returning to France in 1867, he was made chief of staff to the Montpellier division, where he died the following year, worn out from years of campaigns and his excessive lifestyle. In his memoirs, General Du Barail nicknamed Du Pin “the condottiero”. Today we would probably call him a “mercenary”.

Jacques Jourquin (tr. & ed. H.D.W.)

The original article is taken from the Dictionnaire du Second Empire, 1995, and is translated with permission of the publishers Fayard.

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