'Baron' Dekalb Helped On The Road To Independence

Posted: July 09, 2000

Of the many soldiers of fortune who served the patriot cause during the American Revolution, "Baron" John DeKalb may be among the least remembered.

Today, those who daily use DeKalb Street in Norristown and DeKalb Pike in Upper Merion may know nothing of the baron's exploits. Yet his service contributed in significant ways to the colonies' fight for freedom.

On a South Carolina monument erected to DeKalb, a native of Alsace, now a part of France, are written these words: "His love of liberty induced him to leave the old world to aid the citizens of the new in their struggle for independence."

The first record of DeKalb's service turns up in an orderly book kept by one of Gen. George Washington's aides during the Valley Forge period, 1777-78, according to historian Charles Heathcote, writing in the Picket Post journal of the Valley Forge Historical Society (1978). The book recorded an order that two brigades be formed into a division with Maj. Gen. Baron DeKalb in command.

DeKalb also carried out administrative duties for the Valley Forge encampment between December 1777 and June 1778. According to Heathcote, DeKalb made provision for new uniforms by determining how many tailors were in the Army, issued orders to establish sick bays for each brigade, and directed that the officers in charge of rifle units examine each soldier's ammunition daily.

In the early spring of 1778, he was given command of the second line on the Army's left as it practiced battle drills it had learned during the winter encampment.

DeKalb was born in the province of Alsace in 1721, the son of a German peasant. When he joined the French Army in roughly 1741, he claimed to be from the aristocracy and gave himself the title of "Baron," according to historian Benson Bobrick in his book Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution (1997).

During the French and Indian War (1754-63), when France was on the verge of losing the battle for North America, DeKalb was sent as a spy to the British American colonies. His mission was to determine the attitude of the Americans to their British rulers. He reported that there was ". . . much dissatisfaction in the colonies at the autocratic attitude of the English government," Heathcote writes.

Upon return to France, DeKalb was assigned to the French army quartermaster corps.

When the American Revolution began, the young Marquis de Lafayette, also a soldier in the French army, cast his lot with the American colonists and took DeKalb with him. When they arrived in America in 1777, they reported to Philadelphia, seeking military employment.

Bobrick writes that the Continental Congress gave DeKalb a commission as a major general in September 1777 and he was appointed to serve on Washington's staff.

Although they served in separate sections of the Continental Army, LaFayette and DeKalb remained close comrades.

After the American Army left Valley Forge in June 1778, DeKalb was placed in command of the American line between Elizabethtown and Amboy in New Jersey to keep an eye on the British garrison in New York City. After conferring with Washington at Morristown, he ordered patrols of Newark Bay in small boats to warn of any British movements by water.

After the British focused their attention on the southern colonies, Washington dispatched DeKalb to South Carolina with a division of Maryland and Delaware troops. And until the arrival of Gen. Horatio Gates, the victor at the Battle of Saratoga, DeKalb was in command of the American Southern Army.

During the Battle of Camden in South Carolina, DeKalb was second in command of the American Army while retaining command of his division of Maryland and Delaware troops. The British concentrated their attack on DeKalb's troops, and he was badly outnumbered.

Into the thick of the firefight, DeKalb rode to the front line to rally his troops. After being wounded 11 times, according to Heathcote, he fell from his horse and died of his wounds Aug. 19, 1780.

Joseph S. Kennedy's e-mail address is kennedj@phillynews.com

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