Major General Baron Jahann von DeKalb 1721 – 1780

Foreign Soldier in America’s Continental Army

It is April 20th, 1777.  The morning sun shimmers through the lifting fog as the fifty five year old battle scarred German warrior stands along the stone promenade of an ancient wharf in the small Spanish Port of Passage.  He gazes out at the French ship Victoire as she gently sways at anchor.  Though in Spain, the air is thick with Frenchmen conversing as they crowd the pier, eager to board the French sloop and be underway.

Major General Baron DeKalb

Born Johann Kalsbritt, this son of a Bavarian merchant of some means now goes by the title of Johann von Robais de Kalb, more commonly calling himself Baron de Kalb.  De Kalb is no stranger to the French.  He left home at age sixteen to join the French Army.  For nearly thirty years he fought for the French, reaching the rank of Lt. Colonel.  Though happy to retire in 1764, he soon learned his passion for the military left a void in his life.  Within three years of retirement, he jumped at the opportunity to travel to America.  He was a member of a covert mission to gather information and report back to the French government on the colonialist’s growing rebellion to their mother country.  When hostilities broke out in 1775 between the colonists and England, he eagerly sought a way to offer his services to the Americans as a soldier of fortune.

Marquis de Lafayette

He turns and looks upon the impressionable eighteen year old French aristocrat at his side, the Marquis de Lafayette.  He counts himself fortunate that the Count de Broglie introduced him to this wealthy youth who desires to be a soldier.  He soon became Lafayette’s mentor and close friend.  The young nobleman, like him, was eager to join the rebellious ‘rabble’ in their fight against the British.  So passionate, that he was determined to spare no expense.

He and de Kalb had an audience with the American ambassador to France, Silas Deane.  The crafty American negotiator was known to freely hand out commissions in the American army to those whose influence he deemed important.  With the promise of being made major generals upon landing in America, de Kalb and Lafayette sought a way to circumvent the French government’s restrictions on travel to the colonies.  Presently at peace with Britain, the French authorities were becoming apprehensive over the large number of Frenchmen offering their services to the Americans and denied de Kalb’s and Lafayette’s requests to charter a voyage.  Captain DuBois solved their problem.  He was presently a captain in the French infantry, but had been in the navy.  He offered to serve as agent if Lafayette wished to purchase a vessel.  Lafayette jumped at the chance agreeing to all expenses of the voyage.

Lafayette stares out over the subtle waves that glisten in the brightening sun.  For him it is but a youthful adventure, however for his friend, de Kalb, he knows it is a far greater risk.   This experienced officer, since retiring from the military, married a heiress who inherited a fortune from her parents’ cloth manufacturing business.  He has decided to forgo a settled life in a comfortable estate near Versailles and accept the hardships of campaigning for a fledgling new nation in a foreign land.

“Shall we board her now, or is there time for one last sup with the governor and his lovely daughters?” Lafayette asks in a mischievous tone.  “Perhaps one more turn upon land before testing our sea legs.”

De Kalb shakes his head slowly. “I believe, my young master that is best we weigh anchor with this tide.  We do not want to make open water only to heave-to before a man-of-war determined that we spend the next several years strolling the vineyards of Bordeaux.

Lafayette laughs.  He likes this frank and honest German.  “So be it.  We leave home this instant in hopes to return with the same health and enthusiasm in which we depart.”

De Kalb glances at the hard packed earthen pier.  ‘How I wished I shared the foresight of such youth,’ he thinks.  “Come, let me assist with your personal baggage.”

Prior to Arriving in America

Battle of Fontenoy in the War of Austrian Succession. Painting by Pierre L’Enfant.

Johann Kalb was born on June 19, 1721 in Huttendorf, a small villa near Erlanged, Bavaria.  He was the son of Johann Leonhard Kalb and Margarethe Seitz.  Though some texts describe his heritage as being of peasant parents while others state he was of noble blood, it is most likely that de Kalb’s youth was one of comfortable means.  His parents earned enough to provided him with an excellent education.  He learned French and English and the social skills that would later on earn him a substantial military commission in the French army.  He left home in 1737 to join as a cadet in the French army’s Loewendal German Regiment.  He served with distinction in the War of Austrian Succession in Flanders and soon rose in the ranks to captain.  He was a major at the start of the Seven Years’ War and by the end was promoted to lieutenant colonel.  Towards the end of the war he became assistant quartermaster general in the Army of the Upper Rhine, a division created after the disbanding of the Lowendal Regiment.  He was made a Knight of the Order of Military Merit and in 1763, he was elevated to nobility with the title of baron.

With the onset of peace, de Kalb retired in 1764.  He married a heiress of wealth, Anne  Elizabeth Emilie van Robais and settled down to a comfortable life in a small but lavish estate in the French countryside at Courbevoie, near Versailles.  However, when the Duke de Choiseul called upon him to travel to America and be a part of a covert mission to discover the abilities and commitment of the colonists in their growing rebellion towards England, he accepted.  This journey sealed his determination to return to America if war broke out and offer his services in the colonist’s cause.

Silas Deane

With the promise by Silas Deane, American ambassador to France, of a commission as major general, he boarded the ship Victorie on April 20th and set sail for America.  On board was the ship’s owner, Marquis de Lafayette along with six other French officers holding a promise of commission signed by Deane.

Arrival in America

The ship landed on June 13, 1777 at Winyaw Bay and an island off of South Carolina.  The French officers along with de Kalb arrived Charlestown, South Carolina shortly after and after a warm welcome by the local authorities, hired coaches and arrived Philadelphia on July 27th.

Lafayette and the others had expected a hearty welcome upon arrival in Philadelphia.  They were dismayed when Congress was anything but energetic towards their promised commissions.  Silas Deane had been overly generous with his promises to foreigners wishing to attain high ranking commissions in the Continental army.  Soon there was a glut that Congress could not only afford financially, but Washington did not have enough rank and file to justify all these ‘highly skilled’ professional soldiers showing up at his camp.  It soon became obvious that many of these ‘soldiers of fortunes’ claimed far more in personal abilities and past military accomplishments than they demonstrated.

Therefore the congressional body was justly suspicious when another half dozen European soldiers showed up waving commissions signed by Deane. They were at first denied commissions.  But Lafayette was not to be put off so easily.  When he offered to volunteer his services and pay for his own expenses, Congress acquiesced and made him a Major General.

De Kalb was beside himself.  His friend, this young aristocrat with absolutely no military experience, was granted a major position in the army while he, a proven officer with years of distinguished and active service, was offered nothing.  De Kalb wrote to Congress expressing his outrage.  He was blunt in demanding that they either follow through on Deane’s offer of offering him the title of major general, or they needed to pay for his expenses crossing the Atlantic including his return trip.  Congress decided to give in and offered de Kalb the commission he sought on September 5, 1777.  In early October De Kalb applied for active service.  He need now only wait until Washington had an opening available since the rank of major general commanded a division.

De Kalb’s first assignment in the Continental Army came in November of 1777.   General John Patterson’s and General Ebenezer Learned’s brigades, both from Massachusetts, had recently arrived in the Philadelphia area after their participation in the Battle of Saratoga which saw the defeat of Burgoyne’s army.  This influx of newly arrived troops provided an opening for a division command which was given to de Kalb.

1777 – Summer of 1778

Valley Forge. American army’s winter quarters, 1777-1778

De Kalb’s first act as divisional commander was siding with those voicing opposition to an attack against Philadelphia.  It was Nov. 25, 1777.  Washington wanted to capitalize on their near victory at Germantown the previous month.   He thought since the morale was high and most of his army was fit for duty, an attack against Howe’s forces now confined to Philadelphia had a chance of success.  As his habit throughout the war, he sought the advice of his generals in a Council of War.  De Kalb and most of those present thought the attempt was too dangerous.  An enemy spread out along the countryside was quite a different foe than one barricaded behind strong fortifications.  The proposal was dropped and the main bulk of the army went into winter quarters at Valley Forge.  This too De Kalb opposed as he thought the facilities and foraging opportunities were inadequate.

In February of 1778, Congress proposed an attack against Canada.  Never mind that the previous attempt had proven a dismal failure when the army was better manned and supplied than their current state.  Lafayette was put in overall command and he insisted on de Kalb being his second.  Lafayette and de Kalb traveled to Albany, but the condition of the American forces were is such a disarray that it was obvious that such an attempt would end in dismal failure.  Common sense prevailed and the attempt was called off.  Lafayette and de Kalb returned to Valley Forge with additional troops they could muster around Albany.

Training troops at Valley Forge

During the months at Valley Forge, Baron de Kalb, along with his fellow German comrade in arms, von Stueben, helped to train the American forces in military tactics and battlefield maneuvers.  When General Clinton, Howe’s replacement as commander-in-chief of British forces, was ordered to vacate Philadelphia and return to New York, the Americans believed themselves strong enough to draw him into battle.  Washington pursued Clinton across New Jersey, catching up with him at Monmouth on June 28th, 1778.  De Kalb’s division of Massachusetts regulars, along with Major Generals Lafayette and Stirling held the line after Washington halted the retreat initiated by General Charles Lee.  After the battle, de Kalb’s division was posted to Fredericksburg, New Jersey, present day Patterson.

Winters of 1778 -79 & 1779-80

Winter picket duty

De Kalb remained with the main northern army posted around New York City.  The winter of ’78 – ’79 proved mild in comparison with previous years.  His forces remained at Fredericksburg (present day Patterson) to guard against British foraging parties in northern New Jersey.  During the summer of 1779, Clinton moved a considerable force up the Hudson towards West Point.  He captured Stoney Point and garrisoned it with a strong detachment.  Washington moved de Kalb’s division to Pompton to guard against any further incursions north.

Washington kept his forces in the field throughout the fall of ’79 and early winter.  He was expecting a large French invasion force and fleet to arrive New York harbor under the command of Admiral D’Estaing.  With their assistance, he had hoped to force the British out of New York as he had done in Boston.  However, D’Estaing had other intentions in mind.  Without consulting Washington, he took his fleet south to Georgia and laid siege to Savannah.   After he was beaten off, some of his thirty seven ships with 4,000 troops and 2,000 guns went to the West Indies while the rest pulled anchor for France.  Washington did not learn of this until mid-December when the weather had turned extremely cold.

American division on the march; setting skirmishers.

Washington ordered much of his army to winter around Morristown, New Jersey as they had done in the winter of 1777 after the Battles of Trenton and Princeton.  The march to Morristown for de Kalb’s division, now made up of two brigades from Maryland and Delaware; 2,030 men in all, lasted six days and was horrendous.  Their supplies had already been depleted and their want of proper tenting and clothing was desperate.  De Kalb wrote: “Our march lasted six days and traversed a country almost entirely unpeopled; it proved fatal to many of the soldiers, in consequence of the cold, the bad weather, the horrid roads, the necessity of spending the night in the open air and our want of protection from snow and rain.”

The winter proved to be far worse than Valley Forge or any previous winter for that matter.  Snow fell continuously until over four feet was on the ground.  Roads disappeared under enormous drifts and the cold was so severe that New York harbor froze over.  Also the food supply dwindled so that troops were starving.   Washington wrote desperately to Congress to no avail.  Finally, he took matters in his own hands and authorized his officers to comb the countryside and take what foods were necessary leaving promisory notes in return.  This helped alleviate the problem for a while, but by March starvation returned.

De Kalb wrote in February:  “It is so cold that the ink freezes on my pen, while I am sitting close to the fire.  The roads are piled with snow until, at some places they are elevated twelve feet above their ordinary level.”  Even in March De Kalb lamented that “an immense body of snow lay on the ground.”

To add to their woes, the American currency had devalued to the point of nonexistence; the dollar having lost nearly all its value.  De Kalb wrote in May, 1780, that for “a bed, supper, and grog” plus a night’s lodging for himself, three others and three servants, he paid $850 American dollars.  He wrote: “An ordinary horse is worth $20,000 dollars; I say twenty thousand dollars!”

Battle of Camden, August 16, 1780

Delaware ‘Blues’ in action at Long Island

In Nov. of 1779, Washington sent the North Carolina and Virginia Continentals to reinforce General Lincoln at Charlestown.  In April of 1780, he learned that British Colonel Rawdon was to take 2,500 men to join General Clinton then in South Carolina.   Washington sent the Maryland Line and the Delaware regiment along with the 1st artillery of 18 pieces south.  Baron de Kalb was in command.

Nicholas Rogers of Baltimore, de Kalb’s aide de camp, described him as “a perfect Ariovistus, more than six feet tall.”    Historian Christopher Ward best described de Kalb when he wrote:  ‘He had a high forehead, keen hazel eyes, aquiline nose, strong chin, and an expression of good nature mixed with shrewdness.  He could walk twenty to thirty miles a day on foot, preferring that to riding.   He never drank spirits and had a Spartan existence in both food and entertainment.   Normal day:  he would rise early and eat some dried bread with water (his only drink).  After morning duties, he would eat a bit of meat with soup and wash it down with water.  His dinner was just as frugal.  He would endure the hardships of the road with his men.  In the evening, he would wrap his great horseman’s cloak around him and stretch before the fire and sleep soundly.   All considered him honest, energetic and enterprising.  He would temper his actions with caution and common sense.  Brave beyond a doubt, he was considered an ideal leader of a combat force in action.’

General William Smallwood by Robert Edge Pine.

With de Kalb at their lead, 1,400 men left Morristown on April 16th  1780 on their long journey south.  They were given little provisions for the march, but somehow made due.  The first brigade was composed of the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th Maryland under the command of Brigadier General William Smallwood.  The 2nd, 4th, and 6th Marylander and the regiment of Delaware were under General Mordecai Gist.  Their march was through Philadelphia, Head of Elk in Maryland and then by water to Petersburg Va. From which they marched the rest by land.  De Kalb got enough wagons in Philadelphia to carry their tent and utensils.  The men had to carry their own baggage in the unrelenting summer’s heat marching fifteen to eighteen miles per day.

General Mordecai Gist by Charles Wilson P:eale.

While in route, they got word of the fall of Charlestown.  This left de Kalb in limbo.  He held his troops in ready at the plantation of General Parsons in Granville County, NC.

After some days, they broke camp and continued on their march through North Carolina.   They suffered severely from the heat and lack of food to the point of starvation.  Yet day after day, mile upon mile, they trudged the dusty roads and forded the swampy rivers.  Their food stocks were completely depleted forcing them to forge off the land.  But there was little to be had, at times they survived entirely off of green apples and peaches.  By early July, they got as far as Buffalo Ford on the Deep River.  They could go no further and camped for two weeks.

De Kalb learned of a large militia of North Carolinians under Major General Richard Caswell.  He enticed Caswell to join him, but Caswell held aloof.  He did not care to share his adequate food supplies and preferred an independent command to harass the Tories.

General Horatio Gates by Gilbert Stuart

De Kalb learned while in camp on the Deep River that Congress’ preferred general, Horatio Gates, the ‘victor’ at Saratoga, was given command of all southern forces.  De Kalb put on a positive front claiming he was “happy to hear of Gates coming.”  By then he had only eight of the original eighteen cannon left; the rest were left behind for want of horses.  He decided to move up the Deep River in hopes of joining Caswell’s militia.

Gates arrived on July 25th.  He was polite as was De Kalb courteous and cheerful.   Gates left de Kalb in command of his own division who was, upon Gates’ arrival, in the act of moving cautiously toward Camden through fertile lands inhabited by Scotch-Irish patriots.   Gates would have none of that.  He ordered they move on Camden immediately by the most direct route.  Gate’s course proved to be through thinly peopled land of barren pine, extensive swamps, deep sand, numerous rivers, and most importantly, the Cross Creek country, a hot bed for Tories.

The march was a nightmare.  Men starved.  The officers thickened soups with hair powder.  The swamps and sands quickly became quagmires that men forced their way through with every last ounce of energy – all this in temperatures of extreme heat beyond endurance.

August 3rd, Lt. Colonel Charles Porterfield joined Gates troops with a small contingency of much needed Virginian troops.   A week later, General Edward Stevens added his 700 Virginia militia.  Also, General Caswell joined Gates swelling his troops with the addition of 2,000 North Carolina militiamen.  By then they were before Camden.  Gates rested two days with British Colonel Rawdon in his front.

On August 15th, the eve before the battle, Gates ordered an all-night march through the hot, sultry moonless night.  These fatigued, sick, half-starved men under his command who could barely stand with weapons in hand marched blindly into the night.  Of all of Gates’s four thousand men, only the nine hundred Marylanders and the Delaware regiment who were under de Kalb’s command were experienced veterans to be counted on.  The rest were untested militia.

Francis Lord Rawdon

Unknown to both sides, the British also decided to approach their enemy in a night maneuver.  The British force of  well fed, well rested troops numbered a thousand less than the forces under Gates, however they proved far better prepared for battle.  The two armies ran into each other in the night and after a heated fifteen minute encounter, both sides decided not to fight in the dark and withdrew.  An early setback for the Americans was the death of Virginian Colonel Porterfield who had proved to be an outstanding officer.

With British General Cornwallis and Rawdon, along with a considerable number of North Carolina Tories at his front, Gates called a council of war.  Though de Kalb and most of the officers present thought it best to retreat, none wanted to be the first to say so.  When General Stevens of Virginia spoke up saying they must fight, no other officer offered comment.  Gates then faced his officers, stating they would hold their ground and offer battle in the morning.

Sketch of the Battle of Camden

Both armies lined up from each other in a field of cleared pine that was flanked on both sides by swamps.  De Kalb division of approximately 600 men was posted on the American right.  The center was held by 2,000 North Carolina militiamen and the left was anchored by Virginia militiamen under Stevens with Col. Armand’s 120 horse and foot flanking the far left.  The rest of de Kalb’s division, Smallwood’s Marylanders, were held in reserve.  The British left was composed of Rawdon’s troops along with the Tory regiments of Royal N.C., Royal Legions, and the Irish Volunteers.  The British right was commanded by Cornwallis including the 33rd, 23rd and light infantry battalion.  Cornwallis held the 71st highlanders in reserve along with Tarleton’s cavalry.

Cornwallis orders the advance

The one and only order Gates gave that morning, which proved to be his last ever spoken in command of American forces, was for Stevens’ Virginians to move forward to attack.  The Virginians did so with great hesitation.  Cornwallis saw this and ordered an immediate advance followed by a volley and charge by bayonet.  As soon as the British charged, the entire Virginia line threw aside their muskets and ran.  Their rout panicked the North Carolina militia who, without firing a shot, turned and ran.  This left just de Kalb’s Maryland brigade and Delaware regiment including one company of North Carolina militia who stood beside the Delaware regiment on the field of battle.

Rawdon attacks

At this time Rawdon also charged, however de Kalb’s troops in front of him, all veteran regulars, held firm.  The fight carried on for over an hour.  In the dust and smoke, de Kalb thought the Americans were faring well.  He was holding his own and assumed the rest of the army was doing so.  He had heard nothing from Gates so he kept on absorbing attack after attack while at times driving back his enemy.   All this time, Tarelton’s cavalry was riding down the North Carolina militiamen and capturing large numbers of them.  The rest of the militia escaped through the swamps.

With no opposition before him, Cornwallis turned on the Maryland and Delaware troops.  De Kalb ordered Smallwood’s brigade forward.  Smallwood had already left the field, however his second, Lt. Colonel Williams brought the brigade forward.  Unfortunately, Cornwallis’s forces were between him and de Kalb’s men.  Though try as they might, the Marylanders could not break through to de Kalb.  Tareleton’s cavalry eventually returned after chasing down the militia and drove into William’s flank thereby forcing the Maryland brigade to retreat.

Dekalb unhorsed, fights on foot

Historian Christopher Ward best describes the stand made by de Kalb and his six hundred men against over three times their number:  ‘De Kalb’s horse was shot under him.  Long after the battle was lost in every other quarter, the gigantic form of de Kalb, unhorsed and fighting on foot, was seen directing the movements of his brave Maryland and Delaware troops.  His head had been laid open by a saber stroke.  Captain Peter Jaquett, adjutant of the Delawares, fighting by his side, hastily bandaged the wound and begged him to retire.  But no orders had come from Gates, now miles away in full flight.  De Kalb still thought victory was in sight.  He refused to leave the field.

‘Death of Dekalb’ painted by Alonzo Chappel, 1828-1887.

The fighting was hand-to-hand, terrific in its fierceness.  Sabers flashed and struck, bayonets lunged and found flesh, and clubbed muskets fell on cracked skulls.  Overwhelmed by numbers that almost entirely surrounded him, de Kalb called for the bayonet again.  All together his men answered.  With De Kalb at their head, they crashed through the enemy’s ranks, wheeled, and attacked them from the rear.  But ball after ball had struck their leader.  Blood poured from several wounds, yet still he cut down a British soldier, whose bayonet was at his chest.  That was his last stroke.  Bleeding from eleven wounds, he fell.  Still bayonets plunged upon his body.  Only when Chevalier de Buysson, his aide, threw himself on de Kalb’s body, suffering several bayonet wounds while crying out de Kalb’s name and his rank, did the troops finally hold their blades.

Illustration of Dekalb wounded.

De Kalb was carried from the field to a wagon and propped up beside one of its wheels.  He lay there grasping the wheel in horrific pain while soldiers gawked at his golden laced uniform.  It is said that when General Cornwallis rode up and saw the dying general, he ordered his personal surgeon, Dr. Isaac Alexander, to see to his wounds.  De Kalb died three days later.  Many historical texts state that de Kalb told a British officer by his side that he thanked him for his generous sympathy.  That:  “I die the death I always prayed for; the death of a soldier fighting for the rights of man.”  This smacks of nineteenth century romanticism in its purist form.  A man far from home and his family, suffering from many horrendous and extremely painful wounds in an age of no anesthetics save for a bottle of ‘spirits’, may thank his surgeon, but it is farfetched that he would be thankful for a soldier’s death, praying it would happen for the sake of mankind. However, behind every legend, lays some factual perchance.

Dekalb gravesite & memorial. Bethesda Presbyterian Churchyard, Camden, S. Carolina.

De Kalb died on August 19th, 1780 at Camden, Kershaw County, South Carolina.   He was buried in a nearby cemetery.  In March of 1825, de Kalb’s remains were exhumed and re-interred in the Bethesda Presbyterian Churchyard in Camden, South Carolina.  Robert Mills, the designer of the Washington Monument, also designed de Kalb’s monument.  General Lafayette laid its cornerstone.  The epitaph reads:  ‘Here lies the remains of Baron de Kalb – A German by birth, but in principle, a citizen of the world.’  Six counties in the United States are named for de Kalb, making it the third most popular name for a county in the nation. The city of Dekalb, Illinois, originally named Huntley’s Grove, became a city in 1877 and was renamed for General de Kalb.

Read the first installment of A Black Man’s Destiny (Shades of Liberty) here.

Baron de Kalb Memorial
Baron de Kalb Memorial

Resources:

Landers, Lt. Colonel H. L.  The Battle of Camden, South Carolina, August 16th, 1780.  1929: War Department, April 29th, United States Government Printing Office, Washington D. C.

Piecuch, Jim.  The Battle of Camden: A Documentary History.  2006:  The History Press, Charleston, South Carolina.

Rogers, Thomas J.  A New American Biographical Dictionary Of America, Third Edition.  1824: Printed and published by Thomas J. Rogers, Easton, PA.

Smith, J. Spear.  Memoir of the Baron De Kalb, Read at the Meeting of the Maryland Historical Society, 7th January, 1858.  1858:  Printed by John D. Toy, Baltimore, Maryland.

Ward, Christopher.  The War of the Revolution.  1941:  The Historical Society of Delaware. 2011:  Skyhorse Publishing, New York, NY.

www.findagrave.com  Baron de Kalb

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