The first official record of DeKalb found in Weedon’s Valley Forge Orderly Book, is dated November 22, 1777, when Washington ordered that “The Brigades commanded by Generals Patterson and Learned are to form one division under Major Genl. and Baron DeKalb.” From December 19, 1777, until June 28, 1778, DeKalb served as Major-General for the day nineteen times as Washington had confidence in his integrity and responsibility.
Baron DeKalb was born in Alsace on June 29, 1721. After a good basic education, he was trained in the military service of the French. He eventually became a Knight of the Royal Military Order of Merit. In 1747 he became brigadier-general under Marshall Broglie. During the French and Indian War (1754-1763), he was sent to the colonies as a secret agent to determine the attitude of the colonists toward the British. He traveled extensively throughout the colonies, in careful disguise, but once was arrested for spying. Because of a lack of sufficient proof, he was released and he returned home to Paris. His report to the French government told of the dissatisfaction of the colonies with British rule. Thus, a good background was laid for Benjamin Franklin as the envoy of the Continental Congress with France. When Lafayette decided to aid the American cause, he persuaded Baron DeKalb to accompany him, who was involved with the quartermaster general’s department of the French army. Thus, Lafayette and DeKalb arrived in the colonies in the spring of 1777.
Lafayette and DeKalb were welcomed by Charleston, South Carolina and later on, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. By September 11, 1777, Lafayette was a member of Washington’s staff at the Battle of Brandywine. During the battle, Lafayette was wounded. At the same time, the committee of the Congress examined the credentials of DeKalb and were pleased with the recommendations. On September 15, 1777, he was commissioned a Major-general. He joined Washington and served on his staff until his appointment to a command.
At Valley Forge, the troops were becoming an army. Washington liked to maintain control and order within his camp, as can be seen in the Orderly Books of the encampment. On May 6, Washington issued orders that the army should assemble to celebrated the news of the alliance with France. DeKalb commanded the “second line on the left” in the arrangement of the troops on the Grand Parade.
After the defeat of Burgoyne in the fall of 1777 and his surrender to Gates, a number of Congressmen were opposed to Washington’s command. General Gates was placed in high esteem after the surrender and General Conway stepped in with his hostile attitude. Conway thought he could advance some of his personal interest and supported Gates in opposition to Washington. Gates remained passive and Conway actively pursued the removal of Washington from the army. When Washington opposed the proposal to promote Conway to major-general, Conway was angered and wrote letters to Gates and others censuring Washington.
At the same time, Congress was authorized to establish a Board of War which was granted unusual powers which should have belonged to Washington. One of the first recommendations was the invasion of Canada. Washington’s enemies sought to draw Lafayette to their side and placed him in command. Washington learned of the plan when the Board of War sent him a letter with the proposed appointment of Lafayette. Lafayette told Washington he did not want the commission, but rather he wanted to stay and serve with Washington. Washington told Lafayette to accept and he removed to York and Congress. DeKalb was to be second in command for the proposed Canadian Campaign under command of Lafayette. He was to be a replacement of General Conway whom Lafayette suggested should be third in command as DeKalb was senior in rank to Conway. Lafayette was convinced after much planning, that the scheme of invasion was insincere. Lafayette went to Albany to organize the army and gather supplies, once the skeleton organization was established. He spent three months waiting for soldiers and supplies which never arrived. In April of 1778, Lafayette was ordered to return to Valley Forge and the Canadian episode was ended.
DeKalb was later placed in command of the American line between Elizabethtown and Amboy. He wanted to set up a system of guard boats to travel up and down the coast, but Washington advised against it. He was asked rather to “keep a small party stationed with the alarm-guns stationed below Chatham”.
The southern campaign of the war under command of General Lincoln was under a hard seige. Washington called DeKalb from his New Jersey position to head south. Washington wrote DeKalb from Headquarters, Morristown April 4, 1780: “I have in consequence of the opinion of the last Council of War, left it with Congress finally to determine upon the march of the Maryland divisions to the southland. That no time may be lost in the transportation of the troops, should Congress agree in sentiment with the Council of War I desire you to proceed immediately to Philadelphia, and, if you find upon your arrival there, that they are to move concert with the Board of War, and the commissary and quarter-master-general make the necessary arrangements for their provision and accommodation. But should it be determined, that the march of the body of men alluded to is at this time either inexpedient or unnecessary, you will be pleased, after completing your private business, to return to your command in the army. If you proceed to the southward, I wish you safe and expeditious march and every success that you can possibly desire.” DeKalb proceeded to organize his forces for the trip south.
General DeKalb was in command of the Maryland and Delaware Continentals and they moved to the head of Elk in the beginning of May; arrived in St. Petersburg in June, marched through Hillsborough and established a camp at Deep River in North Carolina on July 6. At the same time, Charleston was captured by the enemy and General Lincoln was paroled a prisoner. DeKalb now was virtually the supreme commander of the southern American forces.
Congress recalled Gates to active service and placed him in command of the southern campaign when they found out. Congress did not lack faith in the ability of DeKalb, but rather they felt Gates was better known and could successfully bring things to an end more quickly than DeKalb would. DeKalb accepted the situation in a aided Gates in the situation. He became second in command and retained his division of the Maryland and Delaware troops. Gates gathered his men and they headed for Camden, South Carolina. When Cornwallis learned of the move, he led his British troops to strengthen the soldiers already at Camden. The British were held back, and when they finally did reach Camden, many of the British soldiers were ill. He found himself in a serious situation but determined to attack rather than retreat to Charleston. August 16, the battle was underway and the Americans suffered difficulties, however, DeKalb maintained a firm stand and ordered a bayonet charge that drove the enemy back in confusion. Cornwallis concentrated his efforts on DeKalb’s troops. They were outnumbered and after several terrific charges on the Maryland and Delaware troops, they were driven back. DeKalb made every effort to rally his men, with himself in the hottest part of the struggle. He fell, after being wounded 11 times. He died from his wounds at Camden, South Carolina on August 19, 1780.
Cornwallis, on the other hand, believed the South Carolina conquest was over and he started to move northward into North Carolina. General Nathanael Greene was appointed to take the place of Gates in the south and he was eventually able to bring order out of chaos. Greenes’ leadership brought about the defeat of segments of British troops at King’s Mountain and Cowpens. He met Cornwallis in battle at Guilford, and although he suffered defeat, the British were compelled to retreat until they were bottled up at Yorktown, Virginia, where Cornwallis surrendered in October, 1781.
In 1825, a monument was erected in honor of Baron DeKalb and the cornerstone was laid by Lafayette on his visit to the United States. On one side of the marker is carved:
“His love of Liberty induced him to leave the old world
to aid the citizens of the new
in their struggle for independence”.