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by Alex Hanton
History is full of real life action heroes -- people who spit in the face of fate while kicking all of the available asses in their vicinity. We usually celebrate those heroes with song or statue or historically inaccurate movies with incredible explosions. But sadly, some of the most amazing people from history were largely ignored by writers at the time, all because their skin wasn't pale enough.
Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was born into slavery in 18th century Haiti. His father was a rich white guy who eventually freed him and brought him to Paris, where he became renowned as a swashbuckling badass. He once fought three duels in a day, courted his share of sexy womenfolk, and amazed onlookers with feats like lifting his horse off the ground. We're pretty sure he would have become a Zorro-style superhero if it was actually possible for a man of color to have a secret identity in 1790s Europe.
As an adult, Dumas became a fervent supporter of the French Revolution, which promised to end slavery and declare all men equal. Unfortunately, the rest of Europe was still ruled by servant-hunting jerkfaces who didn't much like their chances of surviving in a fair society. Half the continent immediately invaded France, and Dumas joined the revolutionary army. In 1791 he was promoted to corporal. Within two years, he was a general leading vast armies against France's enemies.
Dude was so badass, he sometimes let the horse ride him.
And when we say "leading armies," we don't mean surveying the battle from a nearby ridge while sipping on champagne, like the generals he fought. Dumas was always in the thick of battle and often managed to turn the tide through sheer force, leading witnesses to describe him as a "one-man army." He was even fearless with his own side. At one point during the height of the Reign of Terror, Dumas casually defied orders that he thought were dumb. The Jacobins forgave him, presumably because they figured the guillotine that could get through his neck hadn't been invented yet.
His finest hour came in 1797, when the Austrians seized a key bridge over the Tyrol and General Dumas personally led some dragoons to take it back. When the Austrians counterattacked, the dragoons fled, leaving Dumas and his loyal aide Dermoncourt to hold the bridge against an entire cavalry squadron. As Dermoncourt collapsed from his wounds, he recalled: "I managed to turn toward the general; he was standing at the head of the bridge of the Clausen and holding it alone against the whole squadron; and as the bridge was narrow and the men could only get at him two or three abreast, he cut down as many as came at him."
Dumas held the bridge single-handedly until reinforcements arrived, earning him fame across Europe.
So why hasn't France been renamed Dumasistan? Well, the French Revolution was eventually hijacked by Napoleon, an open racist who feared Dumas as a potential rival. When Dumas was shipwrecked in enemy territory, Napoleon refused to pony up the ransom to rescue him, leaving him to rot in a dungeon for years. His achievements were ignored by Napoleons propagandists and he was forced into obscurity when he returned to France and quickly died, because years of being mistreated in a dungeon has that sort of effect on people. But at least his son Alexandre wrote many of his exploits into bestselling novels like The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. So that's nice.
When Charles Young was … young, his father escaped slavery to fight for the Union in the American Civil War. Charles grew up determined to follow in his father's footsteps by joining the U.S. Army, and in 1884 he became one of the first African-Americans admitted to West Point. Unfortunately, everyone at West Point quickly remembered, "Oh yeah! We're horribly racist!" and Young had to face horrendous bullying. He stubbornly endured everything and graduated anyway, because suck it, discrimination.
"Hey, remember all that hazing? Follow me. I have some bathroom work for you."
After West Point, Young was commissioned a lieutenant and was the Army's only African-American officer for most of his career. He served in numerous campaigns, always with distinction. While hunting Pancho Villa, he led a daring cavalry charge and directed the first American combat machine gun fire. He later rescued a group of U.S. cavalry from an attack by the Mexican army. When the relieved cavalry commander exclaimed, "I could kiss every one of you!" Young replied, "Hello, Tompkins! You can start in on me right now," which is definitely the most appropriate reply possible in that moment.
And there were even crazier action hero moments. In 1901, American troops in the Philippines had repeatedly failed at a deadly expedition up the Gandara River. Captain Young was ordered to lead one last attempt, which succeeded. While leading a scouting party, he was ambushed, but charged and fought off the attackers. Afterward, it came to light that that he "had fired his revolver so fast that the sight was blown off."
When America joined World War I (fashionably late, as always), the Army brass knew that they'd need some experienced new generals, and that Young was just the man to slap the Kaiser out of Belgium. In 1917, General Pershing formally recommended that Colonel Young be promoted to become America's first black general. Unfortunately, famed racist Woodrow Wilson didn't want Young commanding white troops in Europe. So Young was forced into medical retirement, which outraged him so much that he rode his horse 500 miles to Washington to prove he was fit and should be reinstated.
Marshal Willie Kennard
In 1874, the violent Colorado mining town of Yankee Hill was being terrorized by bandits, hornswogglers and varmints, not to mention desperadoes. The townsfolk knew that they needed a town marshal to stand up to all the rustlers and outlaws, but there was a bit of a problem: the previous marshal had been straight-up murdered by rapist and gunslinger Barney Casewit. Understandably, nobody else wanted to take his place, since being shot in the face isn't a job hazard most people care to risk.
The desperate citizens eventually put out a newspaper ad promising $100 a month to anyone who could clean up the town. And it worked, because back in the 1870s, $100 would actually buy you more than a tenth of an iPhone. To the town's surprise, however, the man who answered the call was African-American. Not thrilled with the idea of a black man serving as the town's savior, they told him he could only have the job if he arrested Casewit, which was generally assumed to be a death sentence. And since watching someone get murdered was a spectator sport in the 1800s, they tagged along for the show.
One time, he shot a dude so hard, this is all that was left.
To their surprise, Kennard marched straight up to Casewit, shot the guns off his hips, and placed him under arrest, then mowed down two of Casewit's cronies when they went for their Colts. As it turned out, Kennard was a retired shooting instructor from the African-American 9th Cavalry. Thanks to his deadly sharpshooting skills, Kennard won multiple gunfights and succeeded in bringing the town under control. In fact, he was so confident in his abilities that he lured a gang of deadly rustlers into town by putting up posters that offered an insultingly low reward. When the offended, murderous fugitives showed up to settle the score, Kennard took them on right there in the street, taking out two of them with a single shotgun blast and placing everyone else under arrest.
Along with other African-American marshals like Bass Reeves, Kennard sadly didn't become an American icon like Wyatt Earp or Pat Garrett, even though his story was just as crazy.
Khudadad Khan was one of 1.5 million soldiers from the Indian subcontinent who served in the British Army during World War I. In 1914, Khan was sent to Europe as a humble machine-gunner in the Duke of Connaught's Own Baluchis, which was a real thing, because the British Army named all regiments after only the fanciest lads in the extended royal family.
Khan became the first Muslim soldier to win the Victoria Cross in October 1914, when he was the only survivor of a daring last stand that helped stop a massive German push. The Germans were trying to reach the sea and seize crucial ports when they hit the Baluchis, and although most of the regiment was pushed back, two machine gun crews held out despite taking withering fire from the German gundams.
When one crew was wiped out by a shell, Khan's gun was left to hold the line alone. Although severely wounded, Khan kept firing even after the rest of the crew was dead. He was hit again when the Germans decided to charge him, which is when he faked being dead, waited for the Germans to clear out, then crawled all the way back to his regiment that night. Yeah, it takes a special kind of person to make the ol' sneaky possum maneuver cool.
Pictured: Khan, silently judging us all.
The people of India made huge sacrifices during the war, and the British promised they would receive self-rule in return. After the war, the British totally reneged on that promise, and as relations soured, neither the British nor Indian nationalists wanted to celebrate the Indian soldiers who had risked their lives during the war. As a result, the Indian soldiers who fought in Europe were almost entirely forgotten.
James Beckwourth was an African-American mountain man. He lived among the Crow tribe for many years, fought with them in a number of battles, and even claimed to have become a chief. He was gruff, ornery, grizzled, cantankerous, and deadly with a tomahawk. This guy didn't even scout new passes -- he just glared at the mountains until they moved. Time travel is real and we'll never be able to prove it, because everyone who invents a time machine just uses it to go back and admire the badassery of James Beckwourth.
There's no way that guy isn't related to Snoop Dogg.
Take, for instance, the 1833 battle with a Blackfoot raiding party that had retreated to a formidable, nearly impenetrable mountain stronghold. The Crow were reluctant to assault such a fortress, but Beckwourth made a famous speech, declaring, "If we get killed ... those in the spirit land will sing and rejoice to welcome us there ...," and then just charged straight ahead. A deadly battle ensued, and later Beckwourth was horrified to realize that the rock floor was concave, and a large pool of blood had formed in the middle.
Sure, 19th century mountain men were fans of tall tales, so how do we know that actually happened? And that's fair, especially since Beckwourth's autobiography is absolutely full of over-the-top exaggerations. But the battle with the Blackfoot was witnessed by a trapper named Zenas Leonard, who wrote his own account. Leonard didn't know Beckwourth at all, referring to him only as "a Negro," but his recounting of the story matches the one in Beckwourth's book, including his dramatic speech.
Beckwourth was ignored by 19th century writers, who insisted that his autobiography was full of crazy lies. Which it was, but so was every other mountain man biography, and nobody wrote Kit Carson or Hugh Glass out of history over it. Plenty of independent sources confirmed Beckwourth's daring feats and high standing among the Crow. It seems as though the historians were just really angry that Beckwourth's autobiography never once mentioned that he wasn't white, allowing it to become a 19th century bestseller. Of course, once they found that out, the book's availability suddenly took a sharp decline.
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