Beakes, John H. De Kalb: One of the Revoliutionary War’s Bravest Generals. First. Rocky Mount: Heritage Books, 2019.
There have been hundreds of biographies written on Benedict Arnold, Nathanael Greene, and most other Revolutionary War Major Generals. John Beakes, in his new book, fills in a significant gap with the little-told life story of German-born Johann de Kalb. Only two full-length biographies precede Beakes’ work, with the last one written in the mid-20th century. Penned eighty years after his 1780 battlefield death, a German author, Friedrich Kapp, wrote the first biography in Stuttgart, Germany. Over twenty years passed before Henry Holt published an English translation in New York. A. E. Zucker, a German-language scholar, published the second biography in 1966. Beakes fills a critical need to expand the de Kalb scholarship and utilize modern research tools to completely portray his contributions to Europe and America.
Both an accomplished soldier and a fascinating historical figure, de Kalb deserves more press. A French army officer, De Kalb, came to America in 1777 with arguably the most substantial warrior resume. On European battlefields, he fought in twenty-six documented battles and won numerous medals for leadership and bravery. After an inhospitable start, de Kalb quickly gained George Washington’s and the other Continental Army generals’ confidence. Washington assigned him to lead the Maryland and Delaware lines, arguably the most effective of the Continental Army forces. In 1780, Washington, with the Continental Congress’s concurrence, named de Kalb to independently march his troops from New Jersey to relieve the Southern Army under siege in Charleston, SC. In North Carolina, De Kalb learned of the Southern Continental Army’s surrender and paused his march to receive orders. Congress named Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates as the successor Southern Commander and de Kalb became subservient to his authority. Tragedically, Gates moved his Army south too fast and unexpectedly clashed with the British at Camden, South Carolina.
Beakes provides a vivid depiction of the run-up to the Camden battle aided by excellent, well constructed, easy to read maps depicting the opposing armies’ lines of march. Beakes does an outstanding job of linking 18th-century place-names and their 21st-century counterparts. The maps help readers understand the controversies over route selection, such as the Continental Army’s best road to traverse North Carolina.
At the battle’s outset, the state militia shirked from fighting the well-disciplined British and fled the battlefield, many without firing a shot. This cowardly retreat left de Kalb and his Continentals to be overwhelmed by the superior British numbers. Valiantly, de Kalb attempted to hold the line receiving eleven wounds disabling him on the battlefield. Three days later, he succumbed to the bullet and bayonet injuries.
Contemporaries lauded his battlefield performance and bravery. So why is he not better known, and why are there not more biographies? Beakes provides answers to these questions. Part of the reason is that de Kalb left such few readily available letters and records, especially those in the English language. Biographer Kapp did locate portions of de Kalb’s correspondence with his wife and reproduced selected family records in his biography. De Kalb’s letters and military papers in America were captured by the British and disappeared in the Camden battle’s chaotic aftermath. The dearth of easily accessible primary sources has deterred many historians. Further, most historical interest has focused on Gates’ performance and his hurried flight from the battlefield.
Beakes uncovered a few additional primary sources not considered by Kapp and Zucker to elucidate de Kalb’s contributions further. He adds context from founders’ writings in the National Archives and utilizes first-hand accounts from transcribed pension records. However, in spots, Beakes’ version reads like a compilation of the two previous biographies. The reader comes away with a historiographical view of de Kalb’s life rather than an engaging narrative. There are several interesting primary source questions that Beakes could have provided a point of view. For example, would inquiry into German and French archives yield more information on de Kalb’s early life and what happened to the de Kalb family papers? Are these papers available only through the Kapp book, or are they readable by historians today? Beakes notes that de Kalb’s personal and military letters and papers disappeared in Camden’s chaotic battle aftermath. Over the next year, European and American newspaper reports indicate that the British gleaned actionable intelligence from the captured documents, and perhaps future biographers will locate them in British archives.
Fascinating aspects of Beakes’ works are his portrayals of the interpersonal relationships between de Kalb and other senior Continental Army officers. Col. Otho Holland Williams praises de Kalb for his leadership and his courageous leadership on the Camden battlefield in his memoirs. On the other hand, Beakes hints at interpersonal discord between de Kalb and Generals Gates and Smallwood. Similar to other battle historians, Beakes faults Gates for offering battle and believed he should have retreated. He praises de Kalb’s military prowess but gives him a pass for not confronting Gates when he most likely thought the best course of action was to retreat and not fight at Camden. It would be more compelling if archival evidence would substantiate the command conflicts. Further, Beakes sometimes appears to be de Kalb’s uncritical booster and gloss over mistakes.
Perhaps a future biographer will find new sources elucidating de Kalb’s life in German, French, British, and a broader range of American archives. While there is no certainty of finding further information, increasingly Revolutionary War historians are uncovering new sources on both sides of the Atlantic. Navigating distant archives is a no small task, as language and cultural barriers can be significant constraints.
Making the most of his sources, Beakes does an excellent job providing modern readers with a coherent account of a fulsome life in the interim. From an American perspective, de Kalb made significant contributions to achieving independence and most assuredly deserved the commemorative statue in Annapolis and the honor of dozens of place-names throughout the nation. For those looking to probe more deeply into underappreciated Revolutionary War generals, I heartily recommend Beakes’ biography of de Kalb.