Battle of Vertières

Haiti - Scott #C39 (1946)
Haiti – Scott #C39 (1946)

On November 18, 1803, the Battle of Vertières (Batay Vètyè in Haitian Creole), the last major battle of the Second War of Haitian Independence and the final part of the Haitian Revolution under Jean Jacques Dessalines, was fought, leading to the establishment of the Republic of Haiti, the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere. It was fought between forces made up mainly of legally liberated former enslaved people, and Napoleon’s French expeditionary forces, who were openly committed to re-enslave the former enslaved people and regain control of the island. Vertières is situated just south of Cap-Haïtien (known then as Cap-Français), in the Départment du Nord, Haiti. By the end of October 1803, the forces fighting the expeditionary troops had already taken over most of the territory of St. Domingue. The only places controlled by the French forces were Môle St. Nicolas, held by Noailles, and Cap-Français, where, with 5,000 troops, Rochambeau was at bay.

In 1802, the revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouveture was captured by Napoleon’s troops. From the ship that would lead him to his prison cell, and eventual death, L’Ouverture said: “In overthrowing me, you have done no more than cut down the trunk of the tree of black liberty in St. Domingue. It will spring back from the roots, for they are numerous and deep.” After L’Ouverture’s death, Jean Jacques Dessalines continued the fight for liberty by leading the resistance to the French.

Dessalines defeated the French army numerous times before the battle of Vertières. During the night of November 17-18, 1803, the Haitians positioned their few guns to blast Fort Bréda, located on the habitation where Louverture had worked as a coachman under François Capois. As the French trumpets sounded the alarm, Clervaux, a Haitian rebel, fired the first shot. Capois, mounted on a great horse, led his demi-brigade forward despite storms of bullets from the forts on his left. The approach to Charrier ran up a long ravine under the guns of Vertières. French fire killed a number of soldiers in the Haitian columns, but the soldiers closed ranks and clambered past their dead, singing. Capois’ horse was shot, faltered and fell, tossing Capois off his saddle. Capois picked himself up, drew his sword; brandished it over his head and ran onwards shouting: “Forward! Forward!” (En avant! En avant!). Mesmerized by his valiant courage, the French soldiers temporarily ceased fire as they all applauded Capois.

François Capois
François Capois

Rochambeau was watching from the rampart of Vertières. As Capois charged forth, the French drums rolled a sudden cease-fire. Suddenly, the battle stopped. A French staff officer mounted his horse and rode toward the intrepid Capois-la-Mort (Capois-the-Death). With a loud voice he shouted: “General Rochambeau sends compliments to the general who has just covered himself with such glory!” Then he saluted the Haitian warriors, returned to his position, and the fighting resumed.

General Dessalines sent his reserves under Gabart, the youngest of the generals, while Jean-Philippe Daut, Rochambeau’s guard of grenadiers, formed for a final charge. But Gabart, Capois, and Clervaux, the last fighting with a French musket in hand and with one epaulette shot away, repulsed the desperate counterattack.

A sudden downpour with thunder and lightning drenched the battlefield. Under cover of the storm, Rochambeau pulled back from Vertières, knowing he was defeated and that Saint-Domingue was lost to France.

By the next morning, the general Rochambeau sent Duveyrier to negotiate with Dessalines. At the end of the day, the terms of the French surrender were settled. Rochambeau got ten days to embark the remainder of his army and leave Saint-Domingue. The wounded French soldiers were left behind under lock and key until they could be returned to France, but they were drowned a few days later. The battle occurred less than two months before Dessalines’ proclamation of the independent Republic of Haiti on January 1, 1804. November 18 has been widely celebrated since then as a Day of Victory in Haiti.

On July 18, 1946, Haiti released a set of 17 stamps portraying François Capois at the Battle of Vertières (Scott #370-378, Scott #C35-C42). The 1-gourde gray-black stamp (Scott #C39) was recess printed by the American Bank Note Company.

The first purely Haitian flag was adopted on May 18, 1803, on the last day of the Congress of Arcahaie, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Port-au-Prince. Haitian lore holds that the newly appointed revolutionary leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines created the flag by taking a French tricolor and ripping out the white center, which he discarded. He then asked Catherine Flon, his god-daughter, to sew the remaining bands together. The white pale removed, the blue was taken to represent Haiti’s black citizens and the red the gens de couleur. The story is widely known in Haiti: the anniversary of the date is celebrated as the Haitian Flag Day and images of Catherine Flon have appeared on Haitian currency and stamps.

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