If you live in or around Montgomery Township, chances are you’ve traveled up and down Dekalb Pike dozens–if not hundreds–of times, but probably have never given much thought to its name. Because the moniker sounds German, and the road is sprinkled with old stone houses, including the Knapp Farm, you may assume that it was named after an early settler. But you’d be wrong. The man–Baron de Kalb–whose name we routinely recite when giving directions to Norristown, was actually instrumental in assisting the American colonists win the Revolution. Yet, unlike his compatriots Washington and Lafayette, his name has mostly vanished from our textbooks and general understanding of that long ago war. So who was Johann von Robais, Baron de Kalb?
Johann Kalb was born in the Electorate of Bavaria (now part of Southern Germany) in 1721. He learned French, English, and the social skills to earn a substantial military commission in the Loewendal German Regiment of the French Army. He served with distinguished honor in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48) in Flanders. During the Seven Year’s War he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and made assistant quartermaster general in the Army of the Upper Rhine. He won the Order of Military Merit in 1763, and was elevated to the nobility with the title of baron.
In 1764, he resigned from the army and married Anna Elizabeth Emilie van Robais, an heiress to a fortune from cloth manufacturing. In 1768, he traveled to America on a covert mission on behalf of France to determine the level of discontent in the colonies. During the trip, he gained a respect for the colonists and their “spirit of independence.”
In 1777 he returned again to America with his protégé, the 19-year-old Marquis de Lafayette, and joined the Continental Army. When Baron de Kalb learned that he, unlike Lafayette, would not be made a major general, he was disappointed and angry. However with Lafayette’s influence, he was ultimately appointed to the rank he desired on September 5, 1777, (and heard the news just in time, as he was already on the road to return to France.)
De Kalb was at Valley Forge for most of the winter of 1777–78 winter, and commanded a division of Patterson’s and Learned’s Brigades. He wrote letters of introduction for John Adams to the French court.
De Kalb wrote of his experiences among his French colleagues in America:
“On the whole, I have annoyances to bear, of which you can hardly form a conception. One of them is the mutual jealousy of almost all the French officers, particularly against those of higher rank than the rest. These people think of nothing but their incessant intrigues and backbitings. They hate each other like the bitterest enemies, and endeavor to injure each other wherever an opportunity offers. I have given up their society, and very seldom see them. La Fayette is the sole exception; I always meet him with the same cordiality and the same pleasure. He is an excellent young man, and we are good friends…La Fayette is much liked, he is on the best of terms with Washington.”