History Highlights

There is a German-American link to US independence…The crucial victory at Yorktown

It was the battle at Yorktown in 1781 that was Washington’s last roll of the dice to determine America’s future. Victory at Yorktown would be the battle that could finally assure America’s independence or doom the revolution to failure.

But without French support, Washington openly stated that the war would have been lost. Not so well known is that a German officer from Bavaria, Johann Kalb, helped attain this French support. Also not well known is that Germans played significant roles in all three armies, making up roughly one third of all forces involved.

Kalb had served in the Bavarian Army of the Upper Rhine which was allied with France and won the French Order of Military Merit in 1763, which elevated him to the nobility with the title of Baron. Five years later Baron de Kalb traveled to America on a covert mission for the Foreign Minister of France to determine the level of discontent among colonists. He was to analyze the situation and report back on whether the Americans should receive French support. During the trip DeKalb gained a respect for the colonists and their spirit of independence. It was DeKalb’s report that convinced the King to assist George Washington and the American cause.

Johann DeKalb later returned to America and served as a Major General in the American Army until his death in combat. 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!

Johann Kalb, a Bavarian Officer who was awarded the French title of Baron de Kalb…He returned to America and served as a Major General until his death in combat.

Along with the French naval forces, French and Germans soldiers were participants in the ground battle at Yorktown. In fact, Germans played significant roles in all three armies, making up roughly one third of all forces involved.

More than 2,500 German soldiers served at Yorktown with the British, but a larger number of 5,500 served the Americans…. 2500 fought with the French, and more than 3,000 German-Americans served in Washington’s army. And of course, Prussian-German Baron von Steuben served as Washington’s Chief of Staff. The Baron also led the reorganization of the U.S. Army earlier during the War and this also helped make the victory at Yorktown possible. 

Portrait of Major General von Steuben wearing the badge of the Society of the Cincinnati, painting by Ralph Earl
United States 1930 postage honoring Baron von Steuben, one of the fathers of the Continental Army, teaching them the essentials of military drills, tactics, and discipline
Monument to Major General Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben “erected by the Congress of the United States”…1910, by German American sculptor Albert Jaegers, Lafayette Park, Washington, D.C.
German 1994 postage stamp honoring Baron von Steuben

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