Charles Louis Désiré Du Pin (1814-1868): Red Devil

If he doesn’t appear in any of the Flashman books, he should have.  Of all the outrageous soldiers of the 19th century, Du Pin is one of the most notorious and, like Flashman himself, appears to have been everywhere.

He was born at Lasgraisses in the shadows of the Pyrenees,  attended Ecole Polytechnique in Palaiseau and was enrolled as an officer in the French Army.  His first few years were uneventful, but that changed for good once he was sent to Algeria in 1842.  Made a name for himself a year later in the battle of Smalain the 1847 capture of Abd-el Kader, and featured in the panoramic painting of the event of the sort so beloved of the 19th century patriots.  (Full marks if you can make him out.)  Promoted to Major by 1851, he was off to fight in the Crimea in 1855 (French cavalry made no such nonsensical cavalry charge into any valleys of death). Four years later he was in Italy, leading a cavalry division and helping the locals break away from the Austrian Empire.   Along the way he picked up a pair of Legions d’Honneur and and some other decorations for bravery.

By now a lieutenant colonel of cavalry, he was off to China as head of the French Topographical Service, helping to ensure that the Chinese abide by the treaty forced on them by Britain and France and America in the Opium Wars.  (The Chinese had execute Father  Auguste Chapdelain, a French missionary; honor demanded satisfaction.)

Perhaps surprisingly, the swaggering Du Pin was greatly moved by the cultural achievement s of the Chinese,  comparing the many treasures of the Summer Palace to Alladin’s cave.   He described them as the remnants of a once great civilization, and noted that the locals inability to defend them in the face of European might was proof positive of Chinese degradation.  Other members of the expedition were perhaps not quite so sensitive to art, but recognized its material value and wasted no time in grabbing what they could.   Du Pin himself nicked a massive album of artwork,  the so-called Forty Scenes by Qianlong, as well as some other tasty souvenirs.  His more official reward was a promotion to full colonel.

His work done and China pacified, he stopped briefly in Japan (this was, recall, 1861, just a few years since Perry opened up the country to foreigners), which country and whose people greatly impressed him, far more than the Chinese:   “While the Chinese give the impression of indifference and dullness, the Japanese appear lively, alert, and intelligent”*

Back home in Paris he threw himself into the sensual recreations of soldiers from time immemorial, none of which, done right, are cheap in Paris.  Eventually the high cost of low living caught up with him and he took out an advertisement in which he announced the sale of those souvenirs he had brought back from China.  Hypocrisy was apparently much valued at the time, and the baldness of this act was enough to get him expelled from active service.

A man of has special talents is somewhat limited in ways of making a living.   Fortunately for him, there was always a place in the world for a talented soldier of European training, and also fortunately, there was a war going on in Mexico.

The country was in a bad way.  Money had run out and Benito Juárez, anxious to maintain his nation’s independence, was trying to deal with the problem by repudiating foreign debt.  His European creditors did not take it well, and brought their grievances to their respective governments.  In France, this meant Napoleon III, who saw this as an opportunity.

His first move was to send in the troops.  How hard could it be to get the better of a bunch of Mexicans?

Pretty hard, as it turned out.   French troops arrived in 1862 and marched inland to take the strategic town of Puebla.  They expected a walkover.  On May 5 1862 (hence the holiday) they were trounced.*

Puebla was evidence that this was going to be trickier than at first anticipated.  More troops were sent, among whom was Colonel Du Pin.  What to do with him?    Given his reputation,  it was difficult to know. Then again, he was not quite regular army, not any more, and noted for being something of a hot head.   What he got was the assignment to gather a counter-guerrilla unit.

It was a grim charge. His enemy, partisans of Juarez, many of them local part timers rather than professional soldiers,  could be brutal and were making serious trouble for the Imperial forces.  Du Pin was not fazed.   Standing slightly outside the official army, he put out a call for volunteers .  He dressed for the part, with a dramatic sombrero, a bright red coat, yellow riding boots,  a chest of medals, pistol in his belt and a cigar between his teeth – J.E.B. Stuart had nothing on Du Pin – all very distinct, and apparently to the dregs of the world who happened to be in Mexico at the time.    He enlisted 800 or so and managed to whip them into shape.  After training, he led them north into the Tierra Caliente, the hard, hot country, in search of Juaristas.

Du Pin was now in his element. Indifferent to standard operating procedure,  adored by his dubious band of brothers,  answering to no one but the commander in chief, more than willing to fight the enemy on their own terms, he was soon terrorizing the countryside.  Civilians suspected of enemy sympathies were hanged,  prisoners shot,  Juarist villages burned.

Politically, Napoleon III had upped the game by talking the Austrian Hapsburg Maximilian into taking the place of Emperor of Mexico.  That gentleman arrived with his wife Carlotta  in 1864, which may have been a little late for someone whose natural tendency was towards open handedness and liberalism.  It was a matter of too little too late;  the locals had suffered too much at the hands of foreign  interlopers.

Du Pin was not alone in his excesses, but he was among the most notorious.  His reputation was such that he could enter towns and more or less ensure outward compliance by giving his set speech:

“I am Colonel Du Pin!  Obey me or die.  All resistance is futile.  You are acquainted with Du Pin?  Let me tell  you who I am.  I protect the good, but I have no patience for the bad.  I kill men, I rape women, I murder children, I destroy my enemies with fire, iron and blood – Mark well what I say to you!”*

To a point it may have been bluster, but it won no hearts nor minds (least of all Maximilian’s); indeed, widows of those he killed are said to have pooled their money to put a price on Du Pin’s head.

Eventually the stories reaching the Royal Palace got gruesome enough that Maximilian (for whom Du Pin showed no respect and whose humanity he held in contempt) sent him back to France with a list of his excesses.   Once again, he under-estimated his opponent.  Du Pin was shameless before the tribunal, and succeeded in overawing them.  When asked why he had prisoners hanged by the neck, he said it was preferable to some he could mention who hanged men by their feet, and let thirst and the brutal Mexican sun kill them off slowly.

He appealed to Napoleon III for more men and a second chance, and a few months later he was back in Mexico and back in the saddle.  Maximilian was not happy, but there was little enough he could do.

In the event, events overtook both men.  Deciding to cut his losses, Napoleon III ordered the withdrawal of all troops by February 1867. The ships pulled out, heading back to France, the cost in blood and treasure utterly pointless.    Some men, faithful to the dream,  chose to remain, encouraged by Maximilian’s determination to somehow prove a good monarch.

It didn’t happen.  He was arrested in May and Juarez  allowed him to be executed in June.  Mexico for Mexicans.

As to Du Pin,  he managed to wrangle a sinecure as chief of staff to the Montpelier division. 1867   That same year saw the long delayed publication of his short treatise on Japan.  He died in 1868, exhausted by hard living.  He left behind the manuscript of his memoirs, now safely in the archives of the French Ministry of War, and as yet unpublished.

Perhaps it is for the best.


*“Autant le Chinois a l’air lourd et abruti, autant le Japonais parait vif, alerte et intelligent” Le Japon: moeurs, coutumes, description, géographie, rapports avec les Européen.  His sole French companion on that trip was the explorer/writer/photographer Antoine Fauchery who regrettably died of dysentery before their ship set sail for home.  Apparently Du Pin did some camera work himself, quo vide Sebastion Dobson’s article,  Charles-Louis Du Pin: A French Photographer in Japan

**This is not to be confused with the 1863 Siege of Puebla, the occasion for the ancillary battle of Camerone, in which troops of the French Foreign Legion were bested by Mexican troops.  That small encounter is remembered to this day as an example of fidelity to the cause, much like the Alamo or Dunkirk,  and each year the Legion parades Captain Danjou’s wooden hand in honor of the battle in which he and his men gave their lives.

**“Je suis le colonel Du Pin. Obeissez ou vous êtes morts. Toute resistance et inutile. Connaissez vous bien le colonel Du Pin? Je vais vou dire qui je suis. Je protege les bons, mai je n’ai pas de petie pour les mechants. Je tue les hommes, je viole les femma, j’assassine les enfants, j’extermine l’ennemi par le feu, le fer et le sang; tenez vous le pour dit!”  see De Québec à Mexico: souvenirs de voyage, de garnison, de combat et de bivouac

Quinlong picture courtesy MIT:


2 thoughts on “Charles Louis Désiré Du Pin (1814-1868): Red Devil

  1. Quite an interesting fellow! I certainly do not share Du Pin’s values, but the colonel is quite typical of some 19th century adventurers and his life help us better understand the state of mind of Europeans towards the rest of the world at that time…
    A great great uncle of mine, Louis van der Straten Waillet, who was Lieutenant in the Belgian Expeditionary Corps in Mexico in 1864-66, left some memoirs too (quite humble in comparison). Unfortunately, I haven’t found a word about Du Pin’s extravagant volunteers’corps. Maybe in the archive’s of the Royal Museum of Belgian Army?

    • Maybe so! Worth investigating, in any event.

      Question – how extensive are these quite humble memoirs? (More to the point, I suppose, how interesting are they?) One benefit of the internet age is that even small pieces of the historical edifice can be made available to the masses. They sound like a candidate. I’m certain I would be interested, for one. (Are they in French or Dutch?)

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