On August 19, 1780 the United States lost one of the most influential foreign officers that fought for the new nation during the American Revolution. Johann von Robais, Baron de Kalb migrated to the United States along with the Marquis de La Fayette in 1777. A Prussian born solider who fought in the Seven Years War, de Kalb quickly became a respected leader. In the summer of 1780, de Kalb was commanding the Maryland and Delaware Continental Line in Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates’ southern army. One of the best trained and disciplined units in the Continental Army, de Kalb commanded the left of Gates’ line at the Battle of Camden on August 16, 1780. The battle was more of a rout, as the British rolled up the Virginia and North Carolina militia on the field, leaving the Continentals in a desperate fight for survival. After being shot three times and bayoneted several times, de Kalb was taken from the battlefield to Camden. His wounds were mortal and he died three days later.
The reaction to his death was immediate and the respect everyone had for him was evident. Cornwallis and other British officers showed great respect for de Kalb and gave him a proper military burial. Washington, Gates and other Continental officers mourned the loss of the Prussian officer. Soon after the war a movement began to move de Kalb’s remains to another place in Camden with a larger monument. In 1825, Lafayette laid the cornerstone for a new monument above his new interment in front of the Bethesda Presbyterian Church. This memorial was designed by Robert Mills, a noted architect of the time.
Maryland especially took an interest in remembering de Kalb. His command of the Maryland Line and his bravery leading the men at Camden were important to Marylanders after the war. In 1780, Congress authorized a monument to be built in Annapolis to honor de Kalb, but it was not until 1886 that it was finally constructed on the grounds of the Maryland state house. In the early 20th century, the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a memorial stone on the Camden battlefield marking de Kalb’s death (supposedly marking the spot but this is still debated today). Recently in 2021, Camden unveiled a new statue to de Kalb at the new Revolutionary War Visitor Center.
The memory of de Kalb extended beyond memorials and monuments. In the late 18th century and early 19th century, states started to honor de Kalb naming counties and towns after him. A total of six counties in the United States are named after Baron de Kalb, located in Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Tennessee. There are six towns/cities in the United States named for de Kalb located in Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Texas and West Virginia.
But one of the most recognizable memorials to de Kalb and his Maryland Continentals is one that most people don’t even know as a memorial. In southern Baltimore where the large railroad yards were located, many of the streets were named after battles and individuals in the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution. Streets such as Washington, Lee, Howard, Eutaw and Camden. The large rail yard in this area was known as Camden Yards. In 1992, the Baltimore Orioles opened their new baseball stadium in the area of the old railyards next to the old B and O Railroad warehouse. The name was hotly debated, but then Maryland Governor William Donald Schaefer wanted to keep “Camden Yards” in the stadium name and eventually won out. The stadium today is called Oriole Park at Camden Yards, but most people now refer to it as “Camden Yards.” Though de Kalb would not recognize the game being played, he would recognize the name of the stadium and the state that was the home of so many of the men that followed him into battle at Camden. So next time you watch a baseball game at Camden Yards, think of de Kalb and those men at the Battle of Camden.
Opportunity knocked for Horatio Gates with the fall of Charleston, South Carlina in May 1780. A devastating loss for the Americans, with nearly 6,000 men of the Southern Army under Benjamin Lincoln surrendered to Sir Henry Clinton. Unless something wasn’t done soon, the entire southern colonies could fall and the revolution along with it. Congress needed someone who could inspire men to join the war effort and a trusted leader with a positive record. Washington put Nathaniel Greene’s name forward, but Congress in a rare move went against Washington’s wishes and appointed Horatio Gates as commander of the Southern Department on June 13th.
The road from his victory at Saratoga to the Southern Department wasn’t an easy one for Gates. He sought independent field command and many believe he wanted Washington’s position as commander in chief. His allies in Congress and the Continental Army lobbied heavily on Gates’ behalf and were able to have Gates appointed to the powerful Board of War (the defacto Department of Defense). Though an important role (and serving as Washington’s civilian superior), Gates believed he belonged in the field. Though his role in the famous “Conway Cabal” is still debated today, he was implicated via letters in criticizing Washington’s leadership. Whether his involvement was real or not, the relationship between him and Washington (and Washington’s inner circle) was seriously damaged. Due to the situation, Gates resigned from the Board of War and accepted appointment as department commander of the Northern Department. In this role he was responsible to look after the New York Highlands and watch from British incursions from Canada or New York city. Gates was unhappy in this role and proposed another American invasion of Canada. Washington and Congress disagreed and rejected his plans. He disliked his task of dealing with enemy native tribes in the region and dragged his feet in following orders. Finally, that fall, Gates took command of American forces in New England with his headquarters in Boston. Though excited by this appointment, he quickly realized that this post was not where the action would be. The British left Boston in 1776 and since the city was peaceful and not a welcome place for a man seeking glory and military action. Finally, after much frustration, Gates asked to return to his farm in Virginia and arrived there by December 1779. Gates found himself a hero without an army and continued to brood over his situation.
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. Continue reading ““De Kalb has died, as he has lived, the unconquered friend of liberty””→
Picking up the story of Camden from Thursday morning, we continue with Col. Otho
Holland Williams comments on the events on the evening of August 15th. As Gates’ army moved southward at night, a dangerous undertaking even with a professional army, notwithstanding an army mostly comprised of militia that had never fought as a cohesive unit. Williams documents the meals that the Americans ate that night before their march. When reading American accounts of Camden, most mention the impact on the evening August 15th meal had on the men and the army as a whole. Williams also mentions there is much criticisms of Gates’ plan, but no official opposition was brought to Gates. Reading Williams’ account gives us insight today into the events leading up to the disaster at Camden. When reading Williams’ narrative, it is not hard to believe that the Americans were marching to a defeat.
“Although there had been no dissenting voice in the council, the orders were no sooner promulgated than they became the subject of animadversion. Even those who had been dumb in council, said that there had been no consultation –that the orders were read to them, and all opinion seemed suppressed by the very positive and decisive terms in which they were expressed. Others could not imagine how it could be conceived, that an army, consisting of more than two -thirds militia, and which had never been once exercised in arms together, could form columns, and perform other manoeuvres in the night, and in the face of an enemy. But, of all the officers, Colonel Armand took the greatest exception. He seemed to think the positive orders respecting himself, implied a doubt of his courage –declared that cavalry had never before been put in the front of a line of battle in the dark–and that the disposition, as it respected his corps, proceeded from resentment in the general, on account of a previous altercation between them about horses, which the general had ordered to be taken from the officers of the army, to expedite the movement of the artillery though the wilderness. A great deal was said upon the occasion; but, the time was short, and the officers and soldiers, generally, not knowing, or believing any more than the general, that any considerable body of the enemy were to be met with out of Camden, acquiesced with their usual cheerfulness, and were ready to march at the hour appointed. As there were no spirits yet arrived in camp; and as, until lately, it was unusual for the troops to make a forced march, or prepare to meet an enemy without some extraordinary allowance, it was unluckily conceived that molasses, would, for once, be an acceptable substitute; accordingly the hospital stores were broached, and one gill of molasses per man, and a full ration of corn meal and meat, were issued to the army previous to their march, which commenced, according to orders, at about ten o’clock at night of the 15th. …. The troops of general Gates’ army, had frequently felt the bad consequences of eating bad provisions; but, at this time, a hasty meal of quick baked bread and fresh beef, with a desert of molasses, mixed with mush, or dumplings, operated so cathartically, as to disorder very many of the men, who were breaking the ranks all night, and were certainly much debilitated before the action commenced in the morning. …. “Continue reading ““Gentlemen, what is best to be done?” Gates Moves Towards Camden and Makes a Fateful Decision”→
Two hundred and thirty nine years ago today from his camp at Rugeley’s Mill, SC, American General Horatio Gates issued the following orders to his Southern Army to move on to the British post of Camden, SC.
“The sick, the extra artillery stores, the heavy baggage, and such quartermaster’s stores, as are not immediately wanted, to march this evening, under a guard, to Waxaws. To this order the general requests the brigadier generals, to see that those under their command, pay the most exact and scrupulous obedience. Lieutenant Colonel Edmonds, with the remaining guns of the park, will take post and march with the Virginia brigade, under General Stevens; he will direct, as any deficiency happens in the artillery affixed to the other brigades, to supply it immediately; his military staff, and a proportion of his officers, with forty of his men, are to attend him and await his orders. The troops will be ready to march precisely at ten o’clock, in the following order, Continue reading ““troops will observe the profoundest silence upon the march…” Gen. Gates’ Orders on August 15, 1780″→
From our friends at American Battlefield Trust (ABT). To learn more about the ABT, click here.
At stake are 31 acres associated with two Southern Campaign Revolutionary War battlefields, Hanging Rock in South Carolina and Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina.
At Hanging Rock, generous battlefield preservationists like you have already secured 141 acres. These 30 acres in the part of the battlefield where the initial Patriot attack began will add significantly to the land we have saved there already.
At Guilford Courthouse, the half-acre tract at stake may be small, but it’s part of a larger strategy to deal with the modern development crowding in on this battlefield from all points of the compass. Our plan is to buy up plots of battlefield land – including small ones and those with non-historic structures on them like this one – remove all non-historic structures and restore the battlefield. The Guilford Courthouse National Military Park has generously agreed to take responsibility for demolishing and removing the house on this plot, a considerable cost that we would typically need to cover. Continue reading “Rise and Fight Again for Southern Revolutionary History”→
A reflection on the previous month’s exploration in South Carolina.
August 16, 1780 would prove to be a devastating day for the American Army in the south, known as the “Grand Army” by its commander, Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates, the Hero of Saratoga. The battle between this army and that of Lt. Gen. Charles, Earl Cornwallis, in the Pine Barrens near the South Carolina town of Camden, would end in the total rout of the Americans and the destruction of the reputation of its commander. It would also temporarily leave the southern colonies without a central army to oppose the British.
On November 1, members of the Emerging Revolutionary War Era staff took a road trip to Camden, SC to research the battle, walk the battlefield and meet with local historians in preparation for an upcoming addition to our book series, on the Battle of Camden. On the way down, we took the opportunity of visiting other sites of combat, actions that occurred prior to and after the fight at Camden. Continue reading “Visiting the Scene of Action: Battle of Camden”→
Emerging Revolutionary War is pleased to welcome back historian Bert Dunkerly, who is the co-author (with Irene B. Boland) of the upcoming book; “Eutaw Springs; The Final Battle of the American Revolution’s Southern Campaign” slated to be released this month.
The weather was warm and the men had been marching for days, but their morale was high. They had been through a lot recently: caught off guard and defeated at Hobkirk’s Hill, a month of grueling siege work – and for naught, at Ninety Six. Not to mention the engagements that many of them had fought in previously: Kings Mountain, Cowpens, Guilford Courthouse, and dozens of smaller battles.
Yet the army that General Nathanael Greene led forward on the morning of September 8, 1781, was confident and ready to come to grips with its adversary. Everyone from the private in the ranks on up to the commanding general knew that ahead lay an opportunity.
Battles in the Revolution were, in fact, rare opportunities for commanders. Engagements were the short, pulse-pounding events that broke up the monotony of marching and maneuvering. An army spent most of its time in garrison, in camp, or on the road. In battle the infrequent opportunity came to crush an opponent and influence the outcome of a campaign, or the war. These chances were few and far between.
Both commanders at Eutaw Springs appreciated this fact. General Nathanael Greene’s forces had experienced a series of close calls at Guilford Courthouse, Ninety Six, and Hobkirk’s Hill. The American army fought well in all of these engagements, save Hobkirk’s Hill, yet they met defeat in every one. Greene hoped Eutaw Springs would put the finishing touches on his South Carolina campaign, and end it with a clear cut victory.[i]
Eutaw Springs was a rare chance for Greene to pick the time and place of engagement, array his forces to his choosing, and initiate the battle, and control its \tempo. It was the only set engagement of the campaign, other than Guilford Courthouse, in which Greene chose the ground and initiated the battle. Commanders do not often have this luxury, and Greene earnestly hoped to make the most of it. Continue reading “Eutaw Springs”→
For the next year and a half, until he was exchanged for a British officer captured in the Battle of Saratoga, Williams faced an ordeal that would continue to haunt him for the rest of his life. Initially treated as a gentleman because of his officer status, the first few months of his imprisonment passed in relative ease. The ease of the beginning months of his captivity was the norm for officers taken in civilized 18th century viewed warfare. Williams’ early imprisonment showed the gentleman status he had attained through his rise in the military ranks. During this time, an anecdote reinforces this point.
While in prison in New York, he became acquainted with a Major Ackland of the British military. The two became fast friends. Williams, under the auspices of his imprisonment, was able to move freely through the city of New York with this new friend.The friendship was confirmed when after dining with Major Ackland he was invited to attend an assembly. This was the term used to describe a fashionable ball of the period. When arriving at the ball, the reception that Major Williams received was so contemptuous and full of scorn that it attracted the attention of Major Ackland who replied: “Come, Williams, this society is to ill-bred for you and me; let us go home.” The account shows the personable demeanor and gentlemanly qualities that Williams espoused. This quote only tells half the story. The other half of the account transpired after Major Ackland returned to England that makes this story so worthy.
Upon Ackland’s return to England attended a mass dinner and one of the topics broached was the questionable courage of the American military. The major defended Americans so vehemently that he was issued a duel by a fellow British officer. This led to his demise, with a fatal gunshot wound to the head. To defend the abilities of Americans to such an extreme depicted the immense respect and valued friendship that blossomed between the two officers. Along with showing the respect and admiration that constituted the friendship was the fact that Williams reached a level where he could fraternize with gentlemen of pre-war higher social classes. In addition he was an amiable companion and a worthy military adversary in the views of British counterparts.
The imprisonment of Williams took a drastic turn to the worse when an accusation of espionage surfaced against him. According to the General Phillips, the commandant of New York, Major Williams was in the habit of communicating to General Washington all the information to be collected from the British camp by means of emissaries employed for that purpose. Williams was seized as soon as the accusation was leveled against him and was denied a chance to provide a defense or refutation of the charges. He was placed in the provost jail in New York, in a room about sixteen square feet. The prison cell had poor ventilation and was best described as “disgustingly filthy.”Here Williams languished for approximately eight months; the last of the fifteen months he was a prisoner of war. Although the spying was never verified and for all intents probably a false accusation, Williams’ “naturally fair constitution…was much impaired” by this ordeal.
After his exchange in January 1778, Williams took command of the 6th Maryland Regiment and Williams would see action at Monmouth Court House in the summer of that same year.
Williams headed south with the Maryland Continentals to aid the Southern Department and relieve the American garrison at Charleston, South Carolina. Unfortunately, the American reinforcements arrived too late to lift the siege.
The reinforcements did make it in time for another American military disaster; the Battle of Camden. Plucked as adjutant general for Horatio Gates, the American commander, Williams was powerless to stop the route of march that Gates chose to move the American army from North Carolina to South Carolina.
The condition of the troops, fatigued from the march along with other difficulties, mixed with very limited rations would prove fatal tomorrow to the American effort at Camden. What ensued the following day was the death of General Kalb, the lost of over 1,000 American soldiers, and the ruin of Gates military career as a field commander. The way the battle unfolded would haunt Williams for the rest of his life, which was recorded in a written component for the Papers of Nathanael Greene. He remembered how the “great majority of the militia fled without firing a shot.” This was a significant issue because the militia comprised two-thirds of the total force of Gates! Williams, along with the survivors were left to question the reasons behind the campaign, the strenuous marching, and the condition they were led into battle with.
Williams took part in the strategic move north across the Dan River in Southern Virginia, part of Nathanael Greene’s strategic maneuvering in the face of British Lord Charles Cornwallis’ British forces. Able to recuperate and refit his army across the watery boundary from the British, Greene planned the strategy that would lead Williams and the rest of the Americans back to North Carolina and to a place called Guilford Court House.
After serving a stint as a commander of light infantry, Williams played a pivotal role in the March 15, 1781 Battle of Guilford Court House. Serving in the last line, where other Marylanders of the 1st Maryland Continentals played a decisive role in saving Nathanael Greene’s American army, Williams helped lead the rear-guard away from Guilford Court House.
Williams would continue to serve admirable in future engagements at Hobkirk’s Hill and Eutaw Springs. In the later stages of 1781 Williams was given command of the 1st Maryland Regiment, the same unit that the famous painting below depicted at the Battle of Guilford Court House.
In January 1783, Williams received notice that Congress had approved his promotion to brigadier general on account of his merit and service in the Southern Theater Campaigns.
Approimately halfway through that same month, on the 16th, Williams retired from the army.
After almost eight years of arduous service, Williams, like the nation he helped create by his service was a changed being. The changes were numerous, first being the obvious, that he had shown tremendous progress in climbing the officer ranks, from lieutenant in 1775 to brigadier general in 1783. Secondly, and possibly the most important he had endured through numerous campaigns and some of the bloodiest battles of the war, from Fort Washington in New York to Camden in South Carolina.
Williams return to civilian life saw him appointed as commissioner of the Port of Baltimore and he was active in the Society of Cincinnati, the society created to preserve the fellowship of former officers of the American army during the Revolution.
In 1786 Williams married Mary Smith and became a father to four sons, settling on the banks of the Potomac River where he tried his hand at farming.
With his friendship to George Washington, Williams had his appointment as commissioner of the Port of Baltimore renewed and then in 1792 was approached by Henry Knox, Secretary of War in Washington’s administration (and at the behest of Washington) to see whether he would accept a commission as brigadier general in the regular army.
Although the position would have made Williams the second highest ranking officer in the military, he declined the position because he had no ambition for the position and also his health was poor.
Williams died on July 15, 1794. He was 45 years old. His health never recovered from the strains of imprisonment and the fatigues of war.
The town of Williamsport, Maryland, which would play a prominent role in the Gettysburg Campaign of 1863 was named after him and where he was laid to rest.
Baron Frederich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand Steuben or Frederich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben or more simply Baron von Steuben, may be the most recognizable German to serve with the American army during the American Revolution.*
His merits, pedigree, and how he came to America has been questioned and studied by many scholars and historians.
Another German has not fared so well in terms of recognition of his invaluable services to the American cause.
This post is about that other German-speaking military officer. He did something von Steuben did not.
Baron Johann von Robais de Kalb not only offered his services to the fledgling American Continental Army, he also gallantly gave his life for his adopted-cause.
Born June 19, 1721 in Huttendorf, near Erlangen in Bavaria, de Kalb led a life of privilege, learning multiple languages before earning a commission in the French army in the Loewendal Regiment. He served admirably in the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War, in the later, he won the Order of Military Merit and gained his baronetcy.