In 1777, Baron Johann de Kalb sailed to America from Bordeaux with the Marquis de Lafayette and a number of French officers who all expected to receive high ranking positions with the Continental Army. A veteran of many several European conflicts, the Baron served under Marshall Saxe in the War of the Austrian Succession and later rose to high rank with the French in the Seven Years’ War. By the time of the American Revolution, de Kalb was a venerated old soldier much beloved in his retirement, yet still restless for action.
Unfortunately for the group sailing for America, Congress rejected all of their appointments other than the one for Lafayette and tried to send the officers home. In spite of Lafayette’s strong arguments in his favor, Baron de Kalb found himself among those dismissed. According to one of the other officers involved, if Lafayette “had had his way, de Kalb would have been Major General.”
Baron de Kalb did not take the dismissal kindly. He petitioned Congress in strong language chastising them for how “ridiculous it seems to me to make people leave their homes, families, and affairs to cross the sea under a thousand different dangers, to be received and to be looked at with contempt by those from whom you were to expect but warm thanks.” The petition placed Congress in a difficult position since the Baron also suggested his dismissal might cause political problems with the French.
The Continental Congress tried to soften the Baron’s wounded pride with a resolution of thanks and an award of expenses for the trip and return home. At first the 56 year old soldier started the journey back to France, but before he actually traveled outside the State of Pennsylvania a dispatch from Congress arrived announcing his appointment as a Major General dated the same as the Marquis de Lafayette. Encouraged by the appointment, Major General de Kalb served alongside Lafayette with Washington’s army for the next two years. By April 1780 Washington’s confidence in de Kalb’s ability to command had risen to the point of him being placed in command of regiments from Maryland and Delaware intended to relieve Charleston, which was under siege by the British.
Typical of the times, General de Kalb spent several weeks in Virginia waiting for his regiments to arrive. Spending his time gathering horses and supplies, the general quickly grew weary of dealing with his supply problems. Even though Governor Jefferson willingly gave de Kalb permission to secure horses for all of his men, the general quickly discovered how completely impractical the idea of mounting them truly was. Not only did Virginia not have sufficient horses but they also lacked “Saddles, Bridles, and forage.” The men finally arrived just after the first of June but Baron de Kalb was still in Petersburg a few days later when news of Charleston’s surrender arrived. At that point the Baron reported plans to march his regiments into North Carolina in search of Governor Rutledge of South Carolina for a report on militia forces remaining in the southern district.
The general moved his small army into North Carolina at a slow pace but the rumors of his presence raced into the backcountry ahead of him. It looked like the stories were having their desired effect. By the end of June, Lord Cornwallis reported information concerning “2,000 Maryland and Delawarre troops at Hilsborough under Major General de Calbe.” Even though de Kalb’s true strength was less than 1,000 continentals, the inflated rumors not only had the British overestimating his strength but were also being used to help raise the South Carolina backcountry militia regiments needed so badly to keep the revolutionary fires burning.
When originally given command, de Kalb intended to relieve the besieged southern army at Charleston where he would be under the overall command of Benjamin Lincoln. Now that Lincoln (with all the other officers of the Southern Deptartment) had surrendered his army, the column of men with de Kalb represented the entire Continental Army in the southern states. As a result of losing Lincoln, Congress resolved to give Horatio Gates command of the Southern Department. As the hero of Saratoga and recent rival to Washington for overall command of the Continental Army, Gates accepted the position and sent word south to General de Kalb.
The Baron accepted his position as second in command very graciously, sending word to Gates, “I am happy by your arrival.” He went on to explain that supply headaches had been so bad as to restrict operations for the army. General de Kalb wanted to “move near the Enemy, to drive them from Peedee river, a plentiful country” but there were “no immediate supplies to be depended on” and living off the land proved impossible.
Once General Gates took command he started the army toward Camden in South Carolina. Patriot militia had been active in the area and the British withdrew from their outer posts into a consolidated position near Camden. General Gates planned to connect up with militia forces from Virginia and North Carolina before assuming a strong defensive position in the vicinity, from which he could apply pressure to push the British back toward Charleston. Unfortunately for Gates and the Patriot army, the British did not sit back in their redoubts and wait. Indeed, General Cornwallis moved out in force to meet the Continentals. The two armies bumped into each other during a night march on the 15th of August resulting in a sharp skirmish. They formed battle lines and waited for morning.
General Gates called a Council of war around 2:30 on the morning of the 16th to discuss their situation. The Adjutant left a detailed account of the meeting in which Gates opened things up with the question at hand, “Gentlemen, what is best to be done?” After a moment of silence, General Stevens of the Virginia Militia challenged the group, “Gentlemen, is it not too late now to do any thing but fight?” Unfortunately, “no other advice was offered” and Gates dismissed the meeting without further discussion.
However, the adjutant described de Kalb’s reaction. “The Baron De Kalb’s opinion may be inferred from the following fact: When the deputy adjutant general went to call him to council, he first told him” that Cornwallis himself was present on the field with 2,000 British regulars. De Kalb reacted with “Well, and has the general given you orders to retreat the army?” Unfortunately, de Kalb did not speak up at the officers’ meeting and, instead of retreating, “every measure that ensued, was preparatory for action.”
Just like the experienced old soldier he was, General de Kalb accepted the battle plan presented and took his position in front of the Continental regiments on the right side of the Patriot line. Just as the battle commenced, Gates sent word to de Kalb for an advance against the Loyalist regiments positioned on the British left flank.
While the Virginia and North Carolina militia regiments lined up on the American right flank, Baron de Kalb started his regiments against the British left under Lord Rawdon. The militia regiments famously collapsed into a quick and complete panic but the Continental soldiers with General de Kalb fought with great courage. De Kalb’s aide described the action. “The Baron DeKalb. . . withstood with the greatest bravery, coolness and intrepidity, with the brave Marylanders alone, the furious charge of the whole British army; but superior bravery was obliged at length to yield to superior numbers, and the baron, having had his horse killed under him, fell into the hands of the enemy, pierced with eight wounds of bayonets and three musket balls.”
At the end of the day, the British won an easy victory over Gates and the Americans at Camden. The militia (and many of the Continentals) scattered in a panic but managed to escape with their lives. General Gates and most of the militia officers had been swept from the field in vain attempts to rally their retreating men. On the one bright note that day, the Maryland and Delaware regiments under de Kalb fought hard and prevented the British from concentrating on rounding up the defeated army. Most of the Americans managed to escape the area, finding their way back to North Carolina in pieces.
But the retreat came at a major cost to the American arms. “The Baron DeKalb, taken by the British and mortally wounded” would not survive to fight again. His career ended in South Carolina as the General “languished with eleven wounds, which proved mortal on the third day.”
As to the British, they showed great respect for the Baron. De Kalb’s aide later said, “Lord Cornwallis and Rawdon treated us with the greatest civility. The baron, dying of his wounds two days after the action, was buried with all the honors of war, and his funeral attended by all the officers of the British army.” The Americans lost the battle but General Johann de Kalb left the world in a most noble and glorious fashion.[FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: Engraving showing the wounded Baron de Kalb. Source: New York Public Library]
 Charlemagne Tower, The Marquis de Lafayette in the American Revolution, (Philadelphia: Lippincott Company, 1895), 186, quoting Chevalier du Buysson.  Tower, The Marquis de Lafayette, 187, quoting Baron Johann de Kalb’s petition to Congress.  Baron de Kalb to Gen Horatio Gates, 6 June 1780, in Walter Clark, The State Records of North Carolina, Volume XIV, (Winston, NC: Published under supervision of the Trustees of the Public Library, 1896), 499.  Baron de Kalb to Gen Horatio Gates, evening 6 June 1780, in Clark, The State Records of North Carolina, 500.  Cornwallis to Clinton, 30 June 1780, in Ian Saberton, The Cornwallis Papers, Volume I, (Uckfield, East Sussex: Naval & Military Press Ltd, 2010), 163.  James Williams to his wife, 4 July 1780, in William T. Graves, Backcountry Revolutionary, (Lugoff, SC: Woodward Corporation, 2012), 194, reporting some 3,000 Continentals with an added force of 2,500 men from Virginia moving south with de Kalb.  Baron De Kalb to Major General Gates, 16 July 1780, in Clark, The State Records of North Carolina, 503.  Otho Holland Williams, narrative, in James Piecuch, The Battle of Camden, a Documentary History, (Charleston, SC: History Press, 2006), 30.  Thomas Pinckney, 1822, in Piecuch, The Battle of Camden, 41.  Du Buysson to unknown , 2 September 1780, in Piecuch, The Battle of Camden, 45.  DuBuysson to Smallwood and Gist, 26 August 1780, in Piecuch, The Battle of Camden, 45.  Dubysson to unknown, 2 September 1780, in Piecuch, The Battle of Camden, 46.
Johann de Kalb’s service to France, and subsequently the American colonies, also apparently had another side, that of an intelligence collector. In 1768 he was sent to America by the French Government to report on the building tensions between the colonies and the British Government. There is suspicion that while serving in the Continental Army he privately reported his views on the military and political situation back to the French Government, much as a U.S. Military Attaché or U.S. Military Liaison Officer would do today to assist that government in understanding the “ground truth” in the war.
This is fascinating! Deep waters….deep and rather dirty. I’m eager to learn more.
Thanks for an interesting article on this colorful, brave general. I hadn’t realized that Congress acted to prevent his and other commissions as the French began to support the Americans. I still have to shake my head about the management of the war by Congress. Nothing’s changed.
Hugh, the 1768 info comes from Samuel Flagg Bemis, “The Diplomacy of the American revolution”, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957, 17, and is mentioned in my book. Bemis cites a primary source. The suspicions on his “private” reporting comes from correspondence of some of his fellow officers while he served in the Southern Army. I do not recall specifics and am away from my research notes.
I would love to hear more about it. I must confess to knowing nothing about a connection between de Kalb and intelligence back to France.
One reason that de Kalb could fight so well at the age of 59 was that he was a fitness buff, marching rather than riding (30-40 miles a day), avoiding alcohol and maintaining a spartan style of living.
The Kalbs were known to be fitness buffs! Always were, and we still are!
Very informative, thank you! My hometown is named for De Kalb, and we weren’t really taught much about who he was. He doesn’t seem to have any connection to Illinois, which makes me wonder how our town came to be named. So interesting, to learn history, and all the various interpretations. Again, thank you.
Thanks Rebecca. In the early westward expansions, particularly before crossing the Mississippi, we have a number of instances where towns are named for heroes even though no connection exists. We have Pulaski, TN, Pulaski, FL, Pulaski, ARK, Pulaski, ILL, Indiana, Kentucky, etc. As far as I can tell, the only one with a connection to Pulaski might be Pulaski, Georgia.
We also have De Kalb, TX and De Kalb, Missouri. Also De Kalb counties in Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee, and Missouri.
Thank you. My ancestor
Major Peter Jaquett fought in this battle, and many others, and was one of only two officers left standing in the Deleware line. He died at a good old age on his farm along the Delaware, but like today, found it difficult to have congress repay the soldiers for their financial losses according to his letters. He was friends with Lafayette I believe.
It is always fascinating finding out that our ancestors were friends or have at least personally met the founding fathers of our great country! I have done tons of research into my family ancestry to find out if Baron (Johann) De Kalb was a direct relative or just a long distance uncle or cousin! How ever, with the lack of information, even used the best Ancestry Membership account and they do not even have the information I need in order to find the connection between my family line, and Baron De Kalb’s family line! But I do know that my family and his are both from the same township in Germany, so that tells me we must of been closely related at some point!!
He is buried in an elaborate grave in Camden, SC in front of a Presbyterian church designed by Robert Mills, the architect of the Washington Monument and numerous other early structures. The grave is a re-bury done when Lafayette visited Camden late in his life.