The air was stifling on the morning of August 16, 1780. It was made worse by the acrid smoke from the musket and artillery fire that hung low under the canopy of tall, Long Leaf pines that grew on either side of the Great Wagon Road leading to the small town of Camden, South Carolina. The battle fought on that morning between the forces of American Major General Horatio Gates and British Lieutenant General Charles, Earl Cornwallis was short; less than an hour.
Most of the militia troops on the American left flank fled from the field shortly after the first shots were fired but the hard-bitten Continentals on the right, men from Maryland and Delaware, stood fast and paid a severe price, holding against the British regular and loyalist infantry until cavalry forces under the dreaded Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton swept in on their rear. Then, for the American regulars, it became a game of escape and survival.
For the American commander, Horatio Gates, the loss at Camden would be a nightmare. Having been swept from the field early in the battle with the retreating militia, he would ultimately leave his Continental troops to fend for themselves as he made his escape. Thus, the reputation of the former “Hero of Saratoga” would be marred forever. One officer who would not make his escape from this field, however, was the commander of the American right wing, Major General Baron Johann de Kalb.
Baron de Kalb
He was a seasoned veteran of many European battlefields. Commanding the Maryland and Delaware Continental troops at Camden, the German-born 59 year-old de Kalb would continue leading his troops, fighting valiantly throughout the battle until wounds brought him down, forcing him out of action. He would be later found on the battlefield by the British, having suffered 11 wounds in the engagement. According to his Aide-De-Camp, le Chevalier de Buysson, the Baron “having had his horse killed under him, fell into the hands of the enemy, pierced with eight wounds of bayonets and three musket balls.” The two officers were taken to Camden where de Kalb was treated by Lord Cornwallis’ own surgeon; he died on August 19. Of their captivity, de Buysson would write: “Lord Cornwallis and Rawdon treated us with the greatest civility. The baron, dying of his wounds two days after the action, was buried with all the honors of war, and his funeral attended by all the officers of the British army.”
Reportedly buried alongside British officers likewise killed in the battle, Baron de Kalb’s original grave site was located in a field near Meeting Street, between Broad and Church Streets “in the southwestern part of the town.” On his tour of the southern states in 1791, President George Washington visited the grave of the gallant Baron de Kalb. Over time though, the exact location of this site was forgotten. In the early 1820’s, an extensive search was begun to locate the grave. Leading the way in the search were the Masons of South Carolina who were intent upon finding the original resting place of this brother in freemasonry.
Baron de Kalb had come to America from France in 1777 to help in the fight for independence. Having fought with the French Army in the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War, he’d had a distinguished military career in Europe. He traveled to America with the wealthy young French aristocrat, the 20-year-old Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette. These two men couldn’t have come from more different backgrounds. Lafayette was genteel and extremely well educated, having been born into a family known for their vast wealth. Johann de Kalb was a farmer’s son. But, along with his military accomplishments, he’d married well and amassed a fortune of his own. By all accounts, these two very different men had a mutual respect for one another and at least one thing in common; they were both Freemasons.
With the rediscovery of Baron de Kalb’s grave site in the early 1820’s, it was decided that his remains would be carefully removed to the yard of Bethesda Presbyterian Church in the center of Camden where a proper monument would be erected. The people of South Carolina contributed handsomely to the design of the monument and the accompanying dedication ceremony. The monument was designed by artist Robert Mills, who had likewise designed the church where it would be erected along with the United States Treasury Building and the Washington Monument in Washington City. The ceremony was planned and the cornerstone for the new monument to Baron de Kalb would be laid in March 1825. Laying the cornerstone would be none other than his brother Freemason, the Marquis de Lafayette.
Now in his late 60’s, the aged hero had made a triumphant return to the United States in August 1824 and begun a grand tour of the country. As part of his tour, the Marquis and his party arrived in Camden on March 8, 1825. On behalf of the Baron de Kalb Monument Committee, General Lafayette was invited to lay the cornerstone of the new monument to which he readily agreed. He was escorted into Camden with military honors; banquets and speeches would follow. On March 9, a procession bearing the remains of Baron de Kalb formed and marched to the monument site, in the yard of Bethesda Presbyterian Church. After an invocation, the remains were laid to rest in a vault. With members of the Kershaw Lodge offering appropriate Masonic honors, the Marquis de Lafayette laid the cornerstone. The final work on the marble monument that would be erected over the vault was completed in 1827. Inscribed on the monument are these words: “Here lie the remains of Baron De Kalb, German by birth, but in principle, citizen of the world”.
Grave of Baron de Kalb
After laying the cornerstone, nearly 50 years after the two men had first arrived together in America, Lafayette offered a few noble remarks about his friend. “His able conduct, undaunted valor, and glorious fall in the first battle of Camden, form one of the remarkable traits of our struggle for independence and freedom. He was cordially devoted to our American cause, and while his public and private qualities have endeared him to his contemporaries, here I remain to pay to his merits on this tomb, the tribute of an admiring witness, of an intimate companion, of a mourning friend.” It was certainly a fitting tribute.
In modern times, Baron de Kalb’s legacy continues. After nearly 200 years, a new statue bearing his likeness was unveiled in October 2021. Created by sculptor Maria J. Kirby-Smith, the new statue stands on the grounds of the Revolutionary War Visitor Center in Camden, SC. This will be one of the many stops along The Liberty Trail, a “unified path of preservation and interpretation across South Carolina” that will tell the story of the Revolutionary War in the South. The Liberty Trail is currently under development through a partnership between the American Battlefield Trust and the South Carolina Battleground Preservation Trust.
New Statue of Baron de Kalb