De Kalb, Johann

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De Kalb, Johann

DE KALB, JOHANN. (1721–1780). Continental general. Born in Hüttendorf, Bavaria, on 19 June 1721, de Kalb, the son of Bavarian peasants, became known in America as "Baron de Kalb." He appeared as a lieutenant (1 September 1743) in a French infantry regiment under the name of Jean de Kalb. He subsequently fought in the army of the great Marshal Saxe (Hermann Maurice, comte de Saxe), served through the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748), was promoted to major in 1756, and distinguished himself in the Seven Years' War (1756–1763). Meanwhile he had become an assiduous student of languages and mathematics in addition to strictly military subjects. In 1764 he married a wealthy heiress whose fortune enabled him to retire from the army and settle near Paris. During the first four months of 1768 he traveled in America as a secret agent for the French Secretary of State (Etienne François, Duke of Choiseul) to report on the colonists' feelings toward Great Britain. Upon his return, de Kalb found that Choiseul no longer cared about America, and his mission proved useless.

The accession of Louis XVI brought the comte de Broglie (Charles François) back into influence and de Kalb, who had served in the latter's corps, returned to the army. He served under Broglie in the Metz garrison, and on 6 November 1776 was commissioned brigadier general. By this time he had decided to seek his military fortune in America, and he received permission to go as a volunteer. Silas Deane drew up one of his contracts, and de Kalb sailed on 20 April 1777 with the Marquis de Lafayette (Marie-Joseph-Paul-Roche-Yves-Gilbert-du-Motier). Although Congress made satisfactory arrangements for the wealthy and influential young marquis, they saw no way of accommodating the bogus baron. De Kalb threatened a civil suit for breach of contract and was about to return to France when, on 15 September, he was voted a commission as major general. After some hesitation about accepting it, he joined General George Washington early in November and spent the winter at Valley Forge. In the spring of 1778 he was named as Lafayette's second in command for the proposed invasion of Canada.

Not until two years later did de Kalb finally receive an assignment commensurate with his rank. On 3 April 1780 he was ordered to the relief of Charleston with the Maryland and Delaware Continentals. On 25 July he surrendered command to General Horatio Gates, but remained with the southern army at the head of his division. Gates ignored the professionally sound advice of de Kalb, leading the army to annihilation in the Camden campaign. In the battle of 16 August, de Kalb fell bleeding from 11 wounds, dying three days later.

SEE ALSO Camden Campaign; Canada Invasion; Southern Theater, Military Operations in.


Kapp, Friedrich. The Life of John Kalb, Major General in the Revolutionary Army. New York: H. Holt, 1884.

Zucker, A. E. General De Kalb, Lafayette's Mentor. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966.

                             revised by Michael Bellesiles