“De Kalb has died, as he has lived, the unconquered friend of liberty”

Johann de Kalb (Charles Willson Peale)

On this date in 1780, Johann von Robias, Baron de Kalb, died of wounds received three days earlier during the Battle of Camden, South Carolina.

de Kalb, born on June 19, 1721 in the Principality of Bayreuth, was in charge of the American right wing during the engagement at Camden, leading the premier units, the Delawareans and Marylanders, of General Horatio Gates’ Southern Army.

When the left and center of the American line disintegrated, de Kalb’s force had to beat a hasty retreat before becoming completely surrounded. During this juncture of the fighting, the Baron’s horse was shot out from under him and the German was thrown to the ground. Before he could gain his feet, he was hit with three musket balls and bayoneted multiple times by approaching British soldiers. The wounds would prove mortal.

Captured shortly thereafter by the British, the mortally wounded general was brought by General Lord Charles Cornwallis on his way to the rear. The British general, upon seeing de Kalb said the following: “I am sorry, sir, to see you, not sorry that you are vanquished, but sorry to see you so badly wounded.” Showing respect to the Baron though, Cornwallis, reportedly, oversaw the dressing of the German’s wounds by instructing his own surgeons to do it.

Inscription at the first resting place for de Kalb (author’s collection)

Until the end, he showed the true soldier that he was. de Kalb was remembered to have uttered to a British officer as he lay dying:

          “I thank you sir for your generous
sympathy, but I die the death, I always
prayed for: the death of a soldier fighting
for the rights of man.”

Furthermore, he was remembered by such luminaries of the American Revolution as, Benjamin Franklin, who is credited with the quote that this post is titled with and George Washington. The latter, during his Southern tour in the early 1790s, was quoted as saying:

          “So, there lies the brave de Kalb. 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 fruit!”

Whether the various quotes above were actually said by the men they are attributed to cannot be verified completely, one aspect certainly can. That de Kalb’s death was a blow to the leadership of the Continental army, especially in the Southern campaigns to follow. Yet, he died a soldier’s death, from wounds received on the battlefield and for a cause that he believed in, as captured for posterity years later. Etched on the side of the monument placed in his memory in 1825 reads the following:

           “His love of Liberty induced him to leave the old world to aid the citizens of the new                in their struggle for independence.”

(The cornerstone of the de Kalb monument was laid by another international luminary of the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette during his tour of the United States in the 1820s)

IMG_5393 (1)
Baron de Kalb Monument, Camden, South Carolina (author collection)

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