Part One Four of the major streets in the neighborhood – DeKalb, Lafayette, Greene, and Gates – may not be close together by chance. As it turns out, the fates of the people they were named after also were linked together.
Johann DeKalb had one of the more colorful stories. Born to a poor family in Bavaria in 1721, Johann left home to join the French Army when he was 20. When Johann learned the French army only gave officers’ positions to noblemen, he started claiming to be a Baron. The French were skeptical at first, but after the young soldier distinguished himself in battle, they chose to let him get away with it, and promoted him to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel during the Seven Year’s War in the 1750’s. DeKalb was officially made a Baron in 1763, and retired from military service to raise a family. But after only a few years, DeKalb became very interested in the whispers of rebellion in the thirteen American colonies. He came out of retirement and visited the colonies on a covert fact-finding operation for the French in 1768, reporting that he was impressed with the colonists’ “spirit of independence.” That “spirit of independence” turned into outright Revolution in 1776, and DeKalb was eager to return and join the Continental Army; he came over in 1777, accompanied by a young officer named Lafayette.
Lafayette actually WAS nobility, from a military family who had been fighting for France since the days of Joan of Arc. He had joined the military when he was only eighteen, where his commanding officer took him on as a protégé. The two spoke often of affairs in the colonies, and young Lafayette also became eager to join the fight – so much so that he actually paid for the ship that brought he and DeKalb to South Carolina in 1777.
However, they weren’t the only Frenchmen who’d been coming to join the fight – the Continental army was dealing with hundreds of other French “glory-seekers," mercenaries, or other soldiers will little more than just zeal to recommend them. Congress dragged its feet about assigning DeKalb and Lafayette roles at first. Lafayette was finally made George Washington’s aide-de-camp in August of 1777. DeKalb, however, was holding out for a role as Major-General, a position the Continental Army was reluctant to bestow upon a foreign officer. DeKalb very nearly gave up and returned to France before the Continental Congress made him a Major General that September.
At about this time, another ambitious general was on the rise – but we’ll meet him, and our fourth soldier, next week.