Jean de Kalb (1721-1780)

Oil painting replica [ca.1782] of Jean, baron de Kalb by Charles W. Peale. Peale was commissioned to paint his initial portrait of de Kalb in 1780, prior to the general deploying to join the American army in the south. This posthumous copy (held by Independence National Historical Park) was probably executed for a Philadelphia portrait gallery intended to commemorate Revolutionary War heroes. De Kalb wears the uniform of an American major general, and the light blue sash of the French Order of Military Merit.

Johann Kalb was born 29 June 1721 at Hüttendorf, near Bamberg, in Bavaria -- a German-speaking duchy traditionally allied to France. Contrary to some biographical summaries, DeKalb never served in an army of a German-speaking community, and there was no �Germany' at the time. His only military career prior to his service in the American Continental Army was in the Royal French Army, where he acquired extensive experience in European wars. Contemporary references to him are as 'Jean de Kalb'. De Kalb entered military service in the Loewendal German-speaking Regiment 1 of the French Army and served with distinction during the War of Austrian Succession in Flanders and in the Seven Years' War. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel and appointed assistant quartermaster general in the Army of the Upper Rhine, a division created by the disbanding of the Loewendal Regiment. In 1763, after the battle of Wilhelmstahl, DeKalb was awarded the Ordre du M�rite militaire [founded in 1759 by Louis XV for Protestant officers not eligible for the Ordre Royal et Militaire de Saint-Louis]; and it appears that at this time he added the title of �baron' to his name.
He was a French military officer -- hence contemporary references to him are as 'Jean de Kalb' -- with extensive experience in European wars. De Kalb was one of many 'foreign' officers 'mustered out' of the French forces following the Seven Years' War. Fluent in seven different languages, including English, he belonged from 1760 to 1774 to the Secret du Roi, King Louis XV's secret diplomatic services whose chief was comte Charles de Broglie, who was also de Kalb's chief in the Army. In 1767, duc de Choiseul, French minister for Foreign Affairs, discreetly dispatched de Kalb to America in order to probe the colonists' attitude towards the British crown. After travelling through all the colonies from January to September 1768, de Kalb's report back to the French authorities warned the French about being too aggressive in assisting the Americans in any rebellion from British rule. He foresaw that such a confrontation would probably come about of its own accord. When the American Revolution did come, de Kalb was probably more prepared than any professional military man in France to understand the fundamentals and the colonists.
De Kalb was introduced to the Marquis de Lafayette by the Comte Charles de Broglie 2 -- a well known and high ranking French officer who organized the famous diner in Metz (August 1775) that exposed Lafayette to sympathic views towards the insurgents' revolt in America as expressed by the visiting Duke of Gloucester, brother of the English king George III. The comte de Brogile also introduced De Kalb to Lafayette, and assisted the two French volunteers to cross the ocean together and enter service in the American Continental Army. De Kalb played a key roll in instructing Lafayette on conditions in the American colonies and in learning English.
Though deKalb and Lafayette entered into their contract to served in the American Army as major generals at the same time (in Paris, in December 1776), de Kalb was at first refused the rank by the US Congress. Whereas, Lafayette was granted the �honorary' rank by virtue of serving at his own expense, de Kalb did not have the personal financial means to do the same. However, deKalb persisted � even threatening to sue Congress � until he was finally made major general with the same date of rank as that held by Lafayette. DeKalb's obvious military qualifications were quickly recognized and he was eventually given command of an American division made up of Maryland and Delaware Continental troops. He died from wounds received while leading an heroic counter-attack at the Battle of Camden (16 Aug 1780). His grave is near by the site of this American disaster.
De Steuben 3 and De Kalb are among the more famous volunteers from German-speaking regions in Europe to have served in the ranks of the American Continental Army. However, in contrast to many accounts of Steuben, there appears to be only one sound study on de Kalb; it is A.E. Zucker's General de Kalb, Lafayette's Mentor (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1997). Several European officers, and 'rank-and-file', from German-speaking regions in Europe [there was no German state until 1870] played an important role in the American forces. A brief overview is given by Dr. Robert A. Selig in an article "Germans and German-Americans in the Continental Army, 1775-1783," German Life, October-November, 2001, pp.42-45. A major work on the subject is Henry J. Retzer's The German Regiment of Maryland and Pennsylvania in the Continental Army, 1776-1781 (Willow Bend Books, Westminster, MD, 2nd ed. 1996).


1. This Royal French Army regiment was named after its commander: the comte de Lowendal (1700-1755) (Ulrich Frédéric Valdemar) who was born 6 April 1700, at Hamburg, into a Danish family. Lowendal's early military career � rising from a private to colonel � was in service under Auguste de Saxe, king of Poland. In 1743, Maréchal Maurice de Saxe introduced Lowendal into the French Army and suggested his promotion as Lieutenant General. Lowendal obtained letters of "naturality" (became French) and abandoned Lutheranism. He was authorized to create a German-speaking regiment. Commanding his regiment, Lowendal distinguished himself at Fontenoy (1745), took Bergen op Zoom (1747) and was created mar�chal on 17 September 1747. He retired after the peace of Aix la Chapelle and was made a Member of Academie des Sciences in 1754. Lowendal died on 27 May 1755, in Paris.

2. Comte Charles de Broglie -- a well known and high ranking French officer who organized the famous diner in Metz (August 1775) that exposed Lafayette the to views of the visiting Duke of Gloucester, the brother of the English George III. The English duke expressed sympathy with the insurgents' revolt in America. This meeting sparked the young marquis' imagine and awakened a path for possible glory in pursuit of a noble cause. Initially, comte Broglie-Ruffec, nursed the idea to lead the Insurgent' armies in North America and he envisioned DeKalb and Lafayette being 'an advance' team to support such a scheme in America. DeKalb was aware of Broglie's motives, but Lafayette was not. Soon after he arrived with Lafayette in American, DeKalb had to inform Broglie that his plan was not viable. [See "The Broglie 'French Connection' ..."]

3. Interestingly, as with the Polish military volunteers in the American army, Steuben's service was sponsored by the French government and contemporary references to him in the American war are as 'de Steuben'. Steuben was born in the kingdom of Prussia, and reportedly his father inserted the �von' in his name at birth, though his family was not of the nobility. His served on the Prussian General Staff -- which was an advanced military innovation at the time --, achieving the rank of captain befor being discharged in 1763. He sought re-employment in other German-speaking communities such as Austria and Baden. Eventually, he sought to serve in a German-speaking French unit in 1777. He was fortunate to be recognized by the French Minister of War (Count de St. Germain) who appreciated the ex-Prussian officer's unique military staff experience and its value to assist the newly formed American Continental Army. With travel funds advance by the French, and letter of introduction from Franklin -- refering to the Prussian volunteer having been a "Lieutenant General in the King of Prussia's service" � , Steuben reported to General Washington at Valley Forge in February 1778. Steuben did not yet speak English, but his French was sufficient so as to communicate with the assistance of French English-speaking volunteers and several French-speaking American officers. He is famous for injecting into the Continental Army the essentials of battlefield troop formation maneuvers, competence in the combat use of the bayonet, and camp sanitation -- all of which transformed the American army after the 1778-1779 Winter of Valley Forge.

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Page created 27 July 2009, last revised 29 July 2009 from text previouly part of earlier created page.