A Prussian captain’s discipline and vast military experience have had a lasting influence on the army of the United States.
On February 24, 1778, Capt. Gen. George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental Army, rode out from the fortified camp at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, to greet the latest in a long line of foreign officers whose services had been thrust upon him by the amateur war-makers in Congress. Some of these European soldiers, like Maj. Gen. Baron Johann de Kalb, had proven to be competent professionals, but many of them—perhaps most—had been haughty, uncooperative, and shrill in their demands for pay and honors. Washington had complained vociferously about the flood of questionable foreign volunteers, and in general Congress had echoed his sentiment.
This newcomer was different. Washington already knew him by reputation. Admittedly, the general’s reception of the recent arrival outside Valley Forge was a bit stiff and perfunctory, but privately the reserved Washington was pleased to see this man who had received glowing accolades from Congress. He would fill a niche in the army’s high command that desperately needed to be filled. The army was all but falling apart at the seams and Washington’s leadership was under close scrutiny in Congress. The general hoped his new acquaintance would be able to transform poorly organized, poorly supplied men into a disciplined fighting force—and salvage Washington’s own military reputation.
Intentionally using English names and a French title, the man styled himself Frederick William Augustus, Baron de Steuben, lately major general and quartermaster general in the Prussian army, one-time aide-decamp to the legendary warrior-king Frederick the Great. Steuben’s credentials were largely falsified—he had indeed served under the great Frederick, though technically he had never risen above the rank of captain—but the abilities suggested by his exaggerated titles were anything but imaginary.
The Baron de Steuben, then 47 years old, brought to the Continental Army the trained eye of a career soldier and a wealth of experience in the command and administration of field armies, experience that none of his future comrades in the American military could match. His partnership with Washington would be an inestimable boon to Washington himself, to the Continental Army, and to the cause of American independence.
The image of the Prussian martinet stomping through the snow at Valley Forge, putting Washington’s dispirited citizen-soldiers through their paces in drill, cursing at them jovially in an awkward blend of English, French, and German profanities, has become an indelible icon of the American Revolution. That is unfortunate, for it caricatures the baron. He was far more than a well-meaning and possibly gifted fraud who helped transform the Continental Army into a tactically proficient, professional fighting force in the winter of 1778. What is so often forgotten is the nature and depth of his military experience in Europe, and, as important, the extent of Steuben’s contributions to the Continental Army after Valley Forge. For Baron de Steuben, more than any other individual, was responsible for transmitting European military thought and practice to the army of the fledgling United States. He gave form to America’s first true army—and to those that followed.
Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben was born in the Prussian garrison town of Magdeburg on September 17, 1730, the first of a large brood of children produced by the union of Wilhelm August von Steuben and his wife, Maria Justina Dorothea von Jagow. The conventional wisdom is that, on coming to America many years later, Friedrich von Steuben laid claim to a noble pedigree that he did not actually possess. This is wrong. Steuben did indeed belong to the lesser nobility of Brandenburg-Prussia—the so-called Junker class—and, from his paternal grandmother, he even inherited a trace of truly aristocratic blood.
The Junker were ubiquitous in 18th-century Prussia. Often poor, they were not distinguished by their possession of vast landed estates but rather by their intimate ties to the house of Hohenzollern, the ruling dynasty of Prussia.
They existed to serve the dynasty and the state, either in the civil service or within the army’s officer corps, most usually the latter. As the son of an officer, young Friedrich von Steuben was all but destined to lead a soldier’s life, but not necessarily bound to the same kind of career path that would await most of his fellow Junker.
For although they were indigent, the Steuben family stood high in the king’s favor. Wilhelm von Steuben was a captain of engineers, and would ultimately be promoted to major—no minor accomplishment given the minuscule size of the Prussian army’s engineering arm. The elder Steuben was a close personal comrade of the army’s chief engineer, Gerhard Cornelius von Walrave, and through him, with the sovereign himself, King Friedrich Wilhelm I. Both Walrave and the king stood as godparents at Friedrich’s christening, though the king by proxy.
Still, prominence in the Prussian officer corps did not make life easy for Friedrich’s father and his family. His skills as an engineer put him in high demand and he was transferred from garrison to garrison and siege to siege as needed. King Friedrich sent him to Russia in 1731 to help train the lackluster army of Czarina Anna. In 1740, less than a year after his return from Russia, Wilhelm von Steuben was called again into active duty when the new king, Friedrich II, embarked upon the first of his wars against Austria that would earn him the sobriquet Frederick the Great.
The peripatetic nature of Friedrich von Steuben’s childhood and adolescence precluded a truly structured education. That he would receive a thorough practical education in the art of war was a foregone conclusion. At age 14, he was at his father’s side when Frederick the Great’s army besieged Prague, and only two years later he enlisted as an officer cadet in the Infantry Regiment von Lestwitz.
As was the custom in the Prussian service, Steuben learned his craft from the bottom up, for officer cadets were little more than noncommissioned officers with less authority. He practiced drill and tactics with the other enlisted men, absorbing the duties of a commissioned officer by observing his superiors at work. His promotion through the ranks to commissioned status was characteristically slow: first to ensign at age 18, to lieutenant five years later. A lieutenancy, however, did not guarantee anything. The pay was poor and the labor hard, and in the infantry the lieutenants shouldered most of the mundane burdens of training, inspecting, disciplining, and caring for a full company of men.
What little of Steuben’s correspondence exists from this period reveals him to be a sensitive, intelligent, promising, but not altogether practical officer. His commanding colonel noted that Lieutenant von Steuben was “clever, but not capable as a manager”—a statement that was most likely directed at Steuben’s ineptitude at managing his personal finances.
Despite the rigors and monotony of his service as a company officer—or, perhaps, because of these adversities—Steuben came to the firm conviction that officers existed to serve the men, and not the other way around; that officers should lead by example, share in the privations of their men, and that military discipline must be tempered with loving concern for the welfare of the common soldier.
When his company was ordered to dig trenches through a cemetery outside the city walls of Breslau in the summer of 1754, young Steuben fretted over the health of his men: “I fear for my poor soldiers…. In order not to alarm them, I am continually at work, notwithstanding my disgust for this abominable occupation.”
What is perhaps most surprising about Friedrich von Steuben’s early career, however, is the extent to which the young Junker made himself a literate and cultured man. He had no formal education before enlisting in the Lestwitz Regiment. While living in Breslau, he had received some basic schooling from Jesuits, and he taught himself French—a must for aspiring officers in the Prussian army, since it was the lingua franca at the court and headquarters of Frederick the Great. While most of his fellow junior officers idled away their precious off-duty hours gambling, drinking, and frequenting brothels, Steuben spent his limited cash and time at the theater or on books.
He was a voracious reader, and his tastes were quite broad for a lowly infantry officer. He steeped himself in tactical theory, a habit that he would sustain for the rest of his life. By the time he came to America in 1777, he was well versed in the tactical debates then raging among the French military-intellectual elite. Foremost among them were the arguments in favor of deep, phalanx-like infantry formations put forward by François-Jean de Mesnil-Durand, and the revolutionary new ideas of Jacques Antoine Hippolyte, comte de Guibert, advocating tactical flexibility, open formations, and individual initiative. But Steuben also read Miguel de Cervantes (his favorite book was Don Quixote), Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, and Voltaire, developing a deep reverence for republican political thought, tempered by his respect for the efficiency of the Prussian monarchy. Friedrich von Steuben was, in short, a child of the French Enlightenment, a political progressive by the standards of his day, having more in common with Thomas Jefferson than with his fellow officers.
Yet Steuben was a soldier, not a philosophe, and soon he would be called upon to practice his principal craft. In the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), he would find his chance, not only to gain the combat experience he so craved but also to attain a level of glory to which few officers of his rank could aspire. As an infantry lieutenant, he led his company into action in King Frederick’s assault on the Austrian lines outside Prague in May 1757, where he—like so many of his men—was wounded. Promoted to the post of adjutant in one of the impromptu Prussian light infantry units called the “free battalions,” Lieutenant von Steuben took part in Frederick the Great’s brilliant victory over superior French and Austrian imperial forces at Rossbach in November 1757, and shortly thereafter took a position on the personal staff of Lt. Gen. Johann Dietrich von Hülsen.
Steuben fought at Hülsen’s side in the twin debacles at Kay and Kunersdorf in 1759, where the Prussian army first defeated Russian forces but was then mauled by well-positioned Austrians. He battled the Austrians at Liegnitz and Torgau, both in 1760. His physical courage and coolness under fire, and his obvious talents as a staff officer, earned him the admiration of Prince Henry, younger brother of Frederick the Great. Soon, with Henry’s assistance, Steuben transferred to a position in the so-called Royal Suite, the personal command staff of the king himself.
The post did not remove Steuben from the action, however, and in the autumn of 1761 he was once again in combat. Russian forces captured him in October of that year, and he served a brief captivity on Russian soil. Even as a prisoner, Steuben could not stay out of the limelight. He struck up a friendship with the Russian heir-apparent, Karl Peter Ulrich of Holstein-Gottorp, and when his new acquaintance ascended to the throne of the czars as Peter III in January 1762, Steuben helped negotiate Russia’s precipitous exit from the war—a diplomatic reversal that perhaps did more than anything else to save Prussia from defeat and dismemberment by its many foes.
King Frederick, in gratitude, promoted Steuben to captain. That in itself was a major step in a Prussian officer’s career, but the king did not stop there. He selected the newly minted Captain von Steuben to join his Special Class on the Art of War, a small group of young, promising officers who would learn the craft of generalship under the king’s personal tutelage. Though only in his early 30s, Steuben was being groomed for a general’s rank. His future could not have appeared brighter.
His hopes were dashed just as quickly. Running afoul of a jealous superior in Frederick’s entourage—probably Wilhelm von Anhalt, the king’s unpleasant and vindictive confidant— at war’s end Steuben found himself demoted to a company command in a mediocre garrison regiment, and shortly after the conclusion of peace in 1763, he was dismissed from the Prussian service altogether.
In the Prussian army, he had acquired a depth of military experience that few soldiers of his age could match, but from his perspective his professional life was over. At age 33, he was a has-been, a retired infantry captain in a Europe that was at peace and demobilizing.
For months thereafter, Steuben traveled Europe in search of honorable employment, military or otherwise, for he owned no land and was virtually penniless. Before too long he stumbled upon a disappointing but respectable job: chamberlain to the prince of Hohenzollern-Hechingen, an insignificant principality within the Holy Roman Empire. Steuben, a gregarious man, enjoyed the parties and fashionable social gatherings at the Hechingen court, and the position afforded him a steady, albeit paltry, income. But he quickly became disenchanted with his new lifestyle and his new duties—supervising the prince’s household accounts and overseeing the education of the prince’s young daughter—and he yearned for martial glory.
Yet his career as a courtier was not without its rewards. He built up a network of influential friends at neighboring courts and—even more important—of high-ranking officers among several European armies, most notably the French. It was while he was at Hechingen, moreover, that the ruler of nearby Baden-Durlach inducted him into the chivalric Order of Fidelity (Hausorden der Treue). The distinction was purely honorary, but it brought a significant boost in social status, for with his induction into the order came the title of freiherr.
Despite the glittering attractions of life at court, Steuben was tiring of administrative work, and in 1775 the impoverished freiherr bade farewell to his friends at Hechingen and set out to resurrect his long-stalled military career. He called upon his soldier friends in France, Austria, and the duchy of Baden— he even approached an agent of the British East India Company—hoping for any kind of military employment. Though his credentials were impressive, earning him tentative offers from both France and Austria, they were not enough to win him a commission. Europe was still at peace, and unemployed, middle-aged infantry captains were hardly in high demand. All of his efforts were in vain…until he ran, quite by accident, across a wholly unexpected opportunity.
In the spring of 1777, Steuben was visiting Karlsrühe, the capital of the duchy of Baden, where he had many high- ranking friends at court. He was, in fact, petitioning the duke of Baden—formerly the margrave of Baden-Durlach, the very man who had given Steuben his honorific title—for a position, any position, in the duke’s army or administration. This, too, appeared to be a professional dead end. But while dining one evening in a Karlsrühe tavern, Steuben struck up an acquaintance with one Peter P. Burdett, an Englishman who, unbeknownst to the Prussian, was an agent working secretly for the new American commissioner in Paris, Benjamin Franklin.
Burdett told his rapt dinner partner about the revolution some of Britain’s North American colonies had undertaken. He laid out the Continental Army’s misfortunes and desperate need for qualified military leaders, and entranced Steuben with the opportunities that might await a talented, experienced foreign officer. Steuben knew a good prospect when he saw one, and at his request Burdett penned Ben Franklin a brief note, introducing Steuben as a person who might be of interest to Congress.
As promising as the opportunity sounded, it was still a big gamble for Steuben: He would have to travel overland to Paris with virtually no money, meet with complete strangers, and ask for a commission in what by all accounts appeared to be not an army but hardly more than an armed rabble. Yet Steuben was desperate. After meeting with Burdett he set out immediately for Paris in June 1777, pausing only once, briefly, to have a new suit of clothing made for his grand entrance.
Steuben’s arrival in Paris that June was poorly timed. It was not that the unemployed freiherr was unprepared for his meeting with Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane, the American commissioners at the court of King Louis XVI. Steuben had been a supplicant before, and knew well the routine of seeking a position. He knew, too, that his erudition and charm could open many doors. And although he had never before visited Paris, he had important connections there— not least of them being Claude Louis, comte de St. Germain, the king’s minister of war. It was the Americans who were unprepared.
Franklin and especially Deane had handed out testimonials and officer’s commissions to French soldiers with reckless abandon in previous months. Both men were overwhelmed by the hordes of professional soldiers who now swarmed around them in hopes of launching a military career in America. “I am well nigh harrassed to death,” Deane griped to Congress, “with applications of officers to go to America.” Congress, much to the commissioners’ relief, pointedly ordered them to halt the practice.
Steuben came to Franklin’s residence at Passy, on the outskirts of Paris, in late June 1777. Steuben’s friends in Paris, both new and old, had arranged the meeting. These same friends provided him with reams of glowing testimonials: from Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes, Louis XVI’s foreign minister; and from the controversial and avidly pro-American playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. While their visitor had much to offer, neither Franklin nor Deane was in a position to offer much, if anything, in return. They could not give Steuben a commission in the Continental Army, nor could they give him any kind of guarantee that Congress would. Ultimately, the commissioners could give Steuben nothing more than encouragement: He could journey to the colonies at his own expense, and the commissioners could provide him with written references. To Steuben, who owned nothing, this was no better than an outright rejection. He left Paris in a huff for Karlsrühe, there to resume pressing his application for a job in Baden.
But the Americans—or, perhaps more accurately, the French— were not finished with him. At Karlsrühe, the freiherr was confronted with an ugly accusation, spread by an unknown enemy at Hechingen: While in the service of the prince of Hohenzollern-Hechingen, Steuben allegedly had molested young boys in his charge. Historians have occasionally suggested that Steuben, a lifelong bachelor, was homosexual, although there is not much evidence to prove or disprove the notion. Likewise, this rumor of pederasty is unsubstantiated, but even the slightest hint of suspicion that Steuben could have committed so foul an act was enough to preclude any chance of employment in his old German haunts.
Once again, his military career seemed to be beyond redemption—until a welcome message arrived from Paris. St. Germain and Beaumarchais had found a way to get their friend to America at no cost to him. It wasn’t much of an offer, but with no other way out of his humiliating predicament, Steuben returned once again to Paris in August 1777.
The plan for covering the costs of Steuben’s travel to the New World was simple. He would be sent as a guest of Roderigue Hortalez et Compagnie, a shadowy private firm Beaumarchais headed, which funneled French royal funds and military supplies to the American upstarts without compromising the crown’s official neutrality.
That was still no guarantee of a commission in the Continental Army. The plan only got Steuben to the United States; it did not necessarily follow that the American rebels would accept his services, much less give him the shot at glory for which he longed. St. Germain, Vergennes, Beaumarchais, Deane, and Franklin all saw something of value in Steuben’s character and abilities, something that would profit the Revolution greatly, but they also recognized that the man’s paper credentials were not all that impressive. All that Steuben could document was that he had once been an infantry captain in the Prussian army. And so began the process of selling Steuben to Congress as an undiscovered military savior.
Writing on his behalf to General Washington and Congress, Deane and Franklin fashioned an entirely new persona for Steuben. By the stroke of a pen, the retired captain was miraculously transformed into a former lieutenant general in the Prussian army, who had served the king for 20 years, partly as “Quarter Master General” and partly as personal aide-de-camp to King Frederick.
He was sacrificing the income from extensive estates throughout Germany—estates, of course, which he did not really own—and gave up a high-ranking post at one of the larger German courts, all because of his “true Zeal for our Cause”— another outright lie. For though Steuben had republican sympathies, he knew next to nothing of America.
Nevertheless, there was no need to exaggerate Steuben’s talents. These, as his friends in Paris recognized, would be apparent to any military man who took the time to talk with him, and if it took a touch of gilding around the rough edges to excite the interest of Congress, then Deane and Franklin were not above a bit of innocent fabrication.
So Captain von Steuben, recently promoted to generalship and acclaimed as the indispensable aide to the greatest soldier of the age, would set out for America with an identity that was almost entirely false, crafted for him by the cunning American commissioners. Curiously, the only parts of Steuben’s refashioned identity that were not fabricated are the very ones that American historians almost universally deny: that Steuben was nobly born, and that he held the title of baron.
When he came to Paris in 1777, the washed-up Prussian soldier began to refer to himself no longer by his legitimate German title, freiherr, but by its French equivalent, baron. Rendering his name in French would have the advantage of being more familiar to French- and English-speaking audiences alike. So it was only a matter of translation, and not of self-promotion, when he chose to be called “the Baron de Steuben,” the name by which he would be known in America.
With Beaumarchais’ eager assistance, the baron hurriedly made preparations for his impending departure. He assembled a makeshift staff, consisting of three young French officers, a German manservant, his translator and personal secretary Pierre Étienne Duponceau—the only one of the group who could speak English—and the baron’s dog, Azor. After purchasing uniforms for his staff—he procured uniforms of a brilliant scarlet cloth, having been mistakenly informed that this was the color of Continental Army clothing—the baron and his entourage left Paris for Marseilles. There they embarked on the French frigate L’Heureux, masquerading as Beaumarchais’ company ship Flamand, and set sail for America on September 26, 1777.
After a typically tortured crossing of the tempestuous North Atlantic in autumn, made even more dramatic by two major storms and three fires aboard ship, Flamand dropped anchor off Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on December 1, 1777.
Steuben’s journey to America had ended, but the process of selling himself to the Americans had just begun. He would still have to persuade both Congress and Gen. George Washington that he was a man worthy of defending the Colonial cause. Inadvertently, the baron had chosen the worst possible moment to do so. Congress and the Continental officer corps were fed up with foreign military upstarts who had been flooding in thanks to Deane’s generous recruiting efforts. While some, like the Baron de Kalb and the Marquis de Lafayette, had proven themselves competent and agreeable commanders, others—notably the insufferably arrogant Philippe Charles Tronson de Coudray, a French artillerist whom Deane had commissioned a major general—were either incompetent or uncooperative. American-born officers resented seeing such foreigners promoted over themselves.
Meanwhile, Washington’s military reputation seemed to have reached its nadir. The Virginian’s conduct of the failed campaign around Philadelphia in the autumn of 1777 contrasted poorly with Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates’s stunning victories at Saratoga that same season. Washington had many enemies, both in the high command and in Congress, who were quite sure that Gates—and not Washington—deserved the highest military rank in the land. Proponents of the Revolution were divided as never before, and Steuben would have to tread very carefully to avoid alienating one faction or the other.
Yet the baron’s courtliness and well-honed social skills allowed him to navigate the troubled waters of American politics with remarkable ease. A good-humored extrovert and skilled raconteur, Steuben made friends with virtually everyone he met, unhindered by the barriers imposed by his very limited knowledge of American customs and the English language. It did not hurt him, moreover, that he was nothing like other foreign officers the rebels had encountered since the beginning of the rebellion.
Shortly after his party’s arrival at Portsmouth, word spread quickly that Steuben had fought at the side of Frederick the Great. And despite some initial trepidation caused by the red uniforms that he and his staff had donned, curiosity quickly turned to adulation. Steuben remarked to a friend in Europe that the citizens of Portsmouth, “crowded together as if to look at a rhinoceros.” At Boston, where the baron and his traveling companions journeyed after a brief stay in Portsmouth, they attracted even more cordial attention. Steuben was irrepressibly charming, and the group’s appearance was just so novel: as Duponceau recounted years later, “an old German Baron, with a large brilliant star on his breast, three French aides-de-camp and a large, spoiled Italian dog, [and] none of all that company could speak a word of English.”
But it was more than affability and wit that made Steuben an instant celebrity in what would be his adopted homeland. His vast martial experience came through in his conversations with American civil and military leaders; well before he arrived at Valley Forge, the baron had established himself as a genuine font of wisdom on the art of war and the organization of armies in Europe. Steuben, moreover, displayed great political acumen in his early dealings with the leading figures of the Revolutionary cause.
From the moment he set foot on American soil, he showed an unerring knack for making contact with just the right people. He wrote to Congress and to General Washington immediately after arriving at Portsmouth; once in Boston, he did not hesitate to seek out John Hancock and Samuel Adams. While en route from Boston to York, Pennsylvania, where Congress had fled after the British captured Philadelphia, he called upon Robert Morris, the great financier whose word carried so much weight among the congressional delegates.
The baron even made a point of writing to Horatio Gates, probably George Washington’s most earnest rival and enemy in the officer corps. He flattered the notoriously vain Gates, coyly congratulating him on his epic victories at Saratoga, “which earn you the admiration of all those who practice the profession of arms.” To the end of the war, Gates considered Steuben—regardless of the baron’s close, personal relationship with Washington—a good and respected friend.
Franklin and Deane must have coached the baron well, for he said all the right things. He did not demand rank or pay, as so many other foreign officers had done before him. To his American audiences, he expressed only the desire to serve as a volunteer at the side of the great Washington.
So long as his expenses in the field were remunerated, he humbly noted, the privilege of serving so glorious a cause as American independence was reward enough. When Steuben finally met with Congress at York on February 6, 1778, he reiterated this same ambition, with only one condition: If, at war’s end, Congress adjudged his services to have contributed substantially to American victory, then he would accept payment of a substantial salary, retroactive to his departure from Europe.
Congress, delighted to gain such an asset without having to make any firm financial commitment, was more than happy to pledge its support to the man that the current president of the Congress, Henry Laurens of South Carolina, called “this Illustrious Stranger.”
After heaping praise upon him and toasting his good fortune, Congress sent Steuben straightaway to Valley Forge and the army that so desperately needed a soldier of his particular talents. True, the sufferings at the encampment came mostly from lack of materiel—primarily food and adequate winter clothing—but the army’s sagging morale and lack of tactics or organization were equally crippling to its effectiveness as a fighting force.
Steuben was amazed that the army could exist at all under such conditions: “no European army,” he later remarked to an aide, “could have been kept together under such dreadful deprivations.” The defeats Washington suffered while attempting to defend Philadelphia in the autumn of 1777 had not only sapped the fighting spirit of the Continental Army but also had cast light on the real shortcomings in its organization and training.
Steuben was well equipped to remedy these deficiencies. That was precisely the task Washington assigned him within days of his arrival in the bleak winter encampment. He began retraining the army, using a universal system of drill and tactics. There was no time to plan, and precious little to act, so the baron had to hastily improvise the retraining program he instituted. Starting with a “model company” of 150 handpicked veterans, he personally taught the fundamentals of drill and small-unit tactics, using a system—a blend of Prussian and French military practice—that he made up as he went along.
The baron’s daily drill sessions with the model company quickly became the center of attention at Valley Forge, a welcome diversion from the drudgery of camp life. Soldiers flocked to see the eccentric, gregarious German at work, to witness his theatrical explosions of feigned rage when the model company balked at a command or fell apart in the midst of a complicated maneuver. Within a matter of weeks, however, the training program ceased to be a spectacle.
The model company, having learned the basics, was disbanded. He sent its members back to their respective units, where they would serve as the baron’s drill instructors. Then the labor began in earnest, and soon the entire Continental Army was engaged in daily maneuvers. Life at Valley Forge became “a continual drill,” Joseph Plumb Martin, a Connecticut private, later recalled.
By the beginning of May 1778, after a mere six weeks of intensive training, the army proudly showed off its newfound abilities in a Grand Review held to celebrate the recently concluded alliance with France. Characteristically, Steuben believed that he had not accomplished much of note in the intervening weeks.
“We have not in fact yet taught the Soldiers the Elementary Principles,” he lamented later that month in a report to the Continental Congress. “Indeed, the Discipline as yet is but just touched upon.” But others—American officers, civilian observers, members of Congress, and the soldiers themselves—saw something much different: the Continental Army that months ago had fallen into despair was now brimming with confidence and maneuvering with just as much precision and regularity as its foes.
In the campaigns yet to come, the Continental Army demonstrated again and again that its metamorphosis at Valley Forge was no temporary phenomenon. At Monmouth at the end of June 1778, the Continentals were able to regroup, reform, and hold their ground (with reinforcements) after a failed initial assault on Lt. Gen. Sir Henry Clinton’s army as it retreated from Philadelphia.
Ultimately, they held the field, and the British retreated. Young Alexander Hamilton, then one of General Washington’s aides-de-camp, remarked after observing Steuben rallying the retreating Continentals at Monmouth, noted that the Americans “behaved with more spirit & moved with greater order than the British troops.”
At Stony Point the following summer, Continentals under the command of Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne were able to take that formidable Hudson River stronghold from its British garrison with a daring night bayonet assault. At Cowpens, Guilford Courthouse, and in the climax of the siege of Yorktown, American troops displayed a level of discipline, tactical proficiency, and confidence that they had lacked before Valley Forge, and Steuben deservedly received much of the credit for it.
The transformation of the army at Valley Forge, however, was not Steuben’s last, or even, arguably, his greatest achievement. As the baron himself pointed out to Henry Laurens, “the few things that I have hitherto shewn [at Valley Forge], are (tho Essential) so simple that each Major could perhaps have introduced them.”
As inspector general of the Continental Army—an office he was given by Congress in May 1778—Steuben tended constantly to the training and organization of the troops until the final demobilization at war’s end in 1783. His was the mind that drafted the first official regulations of the U.S. Army in 1779— the so-called Blue Book—that not only made the tactical system he devised at Valley Forge available in print but also instituted standard procedures for the day-to-day routines of army life. Although he would hold temporary field commands, including the defense of Virginia in 1780–1781 and at the siege of Yorktown in the autumn of 1781, it was with his continuing administration of the army throughout the war, and then with his plan for the creation of a flexible, well-led army after the war that he would leave his permanent mark.
When the war was over and independence gained, Steuben continued to serve his adopted country, devising a practical scheme for a postwar military establishment based on the Swiss model: a small standing army in peacetime, supplemented by trained militia and volunteers in wartime. Reliance on such a force would, he recognized, require a large, professional officer corps, and to that end he recommended that the United States found a series of military academies.
The most important of these, the military academy at West Point, would not open its doors until nearly a decade after Steuben’s death. But it was the baron who drafted its basic curriculum—a classical liberal arts education, supplemented with instruction in mathematics, engineering, and the military arts, reflecting his conviction that effective officers must be intellectually well-rounded, cultured gentlemen.
Remarkably, while there were many political figures in the fledgling republic that understood and appreciated the extent of the baron’s contributions to the birth of the new nation, he received little reward for his efforts. He spent much of the last decade of his life lobbying Congress, trying in vain to secure some financial compensation for his services. Since that proved to be a largely fruitless endeavor, Steuben entered one get-rich-quick scheme after another, mostly involving land speculation, living hand to mouth because of his own improvidence.
Ultimately, he settled on his estate in the Mohawk Valley of upstate New York, a land grant given to him by the state in recognition of his service. Like all his plans to amass wealth, his attempts to farm the estate ended in financial failure. It was there that he died, impoverished and nearly alone, on November 28, 1794.
It was an anticlimactic end, to be sure, but it did not diminish the significance of his contributions to the Revolutionary cause or to the development of the U.S. Army. They were not the contributions of a mere drill sergeant, or even of a simple combat soldier, but of an intelligent, reflective mind.
Although no single individual can be credited with the greater share of the responsibility for the American victory, Baron de Steuben clearly ranks among those whose efforts were indispensable to that success, and to the success of the American armies that followed.
Originally published in the Winter 2010 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.