The only German officer in the Revolutionary War that normally comes to mind is Baron von Steuben, the Prussian officer who trained the Continental Army and later became Washington’s Chief of Staff. But we should also be aware of Johann von Kalb, a German soldier from Bavaria who learned to speak English and French and served in the Loewendal German Regiment of the French Army during the Seven Year War. He also played a significant role in the American Revolution, but is usually referred to as the French military officer Baron deKalb.
Probably his most significant accomplishment was helping to get French support for the American Revolutionary War. In 1768, Johann von Kalb traveled to America on a covert French mission to determine the level of discontent among colonists. He reported back a respect for the colonists and their “spirit of independence”. He thus encouraged a sentiment to support the colonists and also wrote letters of introduction for John Adams to the French court.
In 1777, as a private civilian, he voluntarily returned to America with his protégé, the Marquis de Lafayette, and joined the Continental Army as a high ranking officer… a Major General. He was at Valley Forge for most of the 1777–78 winter and was a leader in the Continental Army until his death in combat at the Battle of Camden in 1780.
Gen. George Washington stands with Johann De Kalb, Baron von Steuben, Kazimierz Pulaski, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the Marquis de Lafayette, John Muhlenberg, and other officers during the Revolutionary War. Engraving by Frederick Girsch.
Johann von Kalb killed in combat at the Battle of Camden in 1780
The war continued and it was touch and go in 1781, but finally the French fully supported Washington’s siege of Yorktown with troops, cannons, ammunition, and most importantly a French fleet that bottled up British General Cornwallis in Yorktown. The crucial victory assured America’s independence. Without French support, which deKalb helped attain, Washington openly stated that the war would have been lost. It was the battle at Yorktown that was Washington’s last roll of the dice to determine America’s future.
Upon visiting Baron Johann deKalb’s grave several years later, George Washington is reported to have said: So, there lies the brave deKalb. The generous stranger, who came from a distant land to fight our battles and to water with his blood the tree of liberty. Would to God he had lived to share its fruits!
Some interesting notes:
… The siege of Yorktown is also known by some German historians as “die deutsche Schlacht” (“the German battle”), because Germans played significant roles in all three armies. German soldiers were roughly one third of all forces involved. According to one estimate more than 2,500 German soldiers served at Yorktown with the British, another 2500 with the French, and more than 3,000 German-Americans served in Washington’s army.
… deKalb was greatly revered by his contemporaries. Numerous towns and counties in the U.S. are named deKalb after him: in Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri,New York, Tennessee and Texas.
deKalb statue at Annapolis