Who Was Baron von Steuben? A German-born American Patriot
In 1783, in his final letter as Commander of the American forces, George Washington thanked General von Steuben for his “faithful and meritorious Services“. Who was Baron von Steuben? And how did a Prussian Baron end up crossing the ocean, and essentially turn around the American forces to help them win the Revolutionary war? Von Steuben was a talented military strategist who used luck, a bit of exaggeration, and a great deal of skill to create America’s first professional army. He was a strong advocate of American Liberty, and a true American Hero.
Who was Baron von Steuben?
Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand von Steuben was born in Magdeburg Prussia in 1730, the son of a Prussian military officer. His early childhood was spent in Russia, but he returned to Germany at 10, and entered a Jesuit academy in Breslau. At age 17, Friederich followed his father’s footsteps, and joined the military. Young von Steuben fought in the Seven Years war, was wounded in battle, and eventually captured by Russians. After his release he was assigned to serve in the headquarters of Frederick the Great. It was here that he participated in a training program for leadership and the art of war. These skills would serve him well in the future.
When the war ended in 1763, von Steuben found himself out of a job. The military “downsized” to pre-war levels. Also, there were rumors about his lifestyle that made his service less welcome. By fudging his lineage a bit, he found work at the court of Hohenzollern-Hechingen, and received the title of Baron. At this point, he basically became an officer for hire, and worked in Austria, Baden, and finally France. There his life turned around.
In 1777, Baron von Steuben met Benjamin Franklin in France. Franklin knew his background, but also saw the potential. Since Franklin was well aware that the continental army was awash in European Mercenaries who wanted high rank and high PAY. He sent a letter to General Washington introducing him as Lieutenant General von Steuben in the King of Prussia’s service (a nice promotion). He also suggested to von Steuben that he offer up his services as a volunteer. The Continental Congress came to an agreement with von Steuben. The Baron would get neither rank or payment, for serving in the Army; should the Americans win the war, he would be rewarded for his services, if they lost, he would get nothing (quite an incentive!). Then, with travel funds advanced by friend and French playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, Baron von Steuben headed to America with his dog Azor, and his four French Aides.
Baron von Steuben at Valley Forge
“He seemed the perfect personification of Mars “(the legendary god of war). “The trapping of his horse, the enormous holsters of his pistols, his large size, and his strikingly martial aspect, all seemed to favor the idea. He turned the volunteers into a great Army” – quote from a young soldier at Valley Forge.
When Baron von Steuben arrived at Valley Forge in February of 1778, the Revolutionary War was almost 3 years old, and the army was looking rather ragtag. They were short of everything but enthusiasm. The camp was unsanitary (by European standards), troop training was haphazard, and profiteering was rampant.
His first task (and this is where his German shows) rearrange the camp so that it was orderly. Now the Kitchens would be uphill and the latrines downhill, on the opposite side of the tents from the kitchen. (A new and incredibly important concept in hygiene). Within two weeks of his arrival, General Washington made him the Inspector General of the Continental Army.
Then he went to work on the troops.
Until his arrival, continental troops considered themselves volunteers who could come and go as they wished (even leaving the battle whenever they felt like it!). They didn’t always have uniforms, many had no weapons, and few understood the concepts of discipline.
Inspector General von Steuben wrote up officer’s duties, and introduced progressive training (taught men to be soldiers in a logical and specific order). He set up companies of 100 men each, had the men practice marching and precise compact drills. Von Steuben showed the soldiers how to use their bayonets as weapons, and not merely cooking tools. And he taught an efficient method of firing and reloading their rifles that worked more efficiently in battle. He also made sure that soldiers were issued rifles, and that they weren’t sold off by unscrupulous profiteers.
Because von Steuben knew only a little English (mostly a few curse words, which made him wildly popular with the men), every evening, he would write his drills and recommendations in German. His secretary would translate from German to French, then Washington’s secretary would translate from French to English. The orders were then copied and given to each Brigade and regiment. Unlike the British, who felt it was “ungentlemanly” for officers to work with enlisted men, von Steuben was out there every day working with the Commander in Chief’s personal guard unit and men from each state to demonstrate the lessons so they could be passed through the entire army quickly and efficiently.
All of the information was collected, and with the help of Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette, then turned into an official drill manual called “Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States” (or Blue Book) that would be used by the Army until 1812. Some of the orders regarding marching and drilling are still used today.
After Valley Forge
After his success training the Troops at Valley Forge, General Washington made von Steuben a Major General, and sent him south to assist Nathaniel Green the commander of the Southern Campaign. Later he rejoined the army as a commander of one of Washington’s three battalions for the final battle in 1783 at Yorktown.
With the war over, Major General von Steuben helped General Washington demobilize the army and worked for a while as Washington’s Chief of Staff. Together they set up a defense plan for the new nation. In 1784, he was discharged from the military with honor, and became an American citizen. He was an honored guest at President Washington’s inauguration in 1789.
After the War
After the War was over, von Steuben moved to New York City where he drew up plans for the fortification of the city, and later for the Military Academy that would become West Point. He joined, and became a prominent elder in the German Reformed Church. Then from 1785 until his death in 1794, he was President of the German Society of New York, which was instrumental in helping German Immigrants get their start in the new country.
Throughout the Revolutionary War, von Steuben had to petition the Continental Congress to pay his expenses, and after the war, he asked repeatedly for compensation for his services (after all, they won). Congress finally paid some, but not all that he expected (or needed). He was gifted land in Pennsylvania, Virginia and New York, but he needed cash. Finally in 1790, he was granted a $2500 yearly pension.
Over the remaining years of his life, he had to sell off most of his land. Major General von Steuben may have been a military genius, but as a businessman, he fell a bit short. As money got tighter, he moved from New York City to his 16,000 acre farm in Mohawk Valley New York, where he died of heart attack in November 1794. He never married, and his land was left to his former aides-de-camp, William North and Benjamin Walker, whom he had adopted after the war. While von Steuben was close with both men, it has long been understood that he was in a relationship with North.
New York has since created the Steuben Memorial State Historical Park on the land where he lived, including a replica of his cabin.
MPHaas / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
Baron von Steuben and the German Community
In May 1919, after World War I ended, the Steuben Society was formed. ” The purpose of The Steuben Society of America is to educate the public about matters of interest to American citizens of German descent and their families, to encourage their participation in civic affairs, and to perpetuate and enhance the understanding of the contributions made by such citizens to the development of the United States of America.” The Steuben Society is still active today, hosting events to support the German-American community, and every September since 1958, there have been Steuben parades in New York and Chicago, highlighting prominent German Americans.
The Legacy of Friederich von Steuben
Friederich von Steuben was certainly looking for work when he met Benjamin Franklin, but he absolutely became an advocate of American Liberty. He believed in his new country. And though he may have lived out his days in what would have been considered a very unconventional lifestyle, he was still respected, admired and lauded as a hero.
In his will, von Steuben, he asked to be buried in an unmarked grave, but in 1804, his remains were transferred to the “Sacred Grove” near the site of his cabin. The plaque on the Steuben monument says it all…
“His Services were Indispensable to the Achievement of American Independence”
I’d like to give special thanks to my friend Daniel Shippey for his help writing this post about Baron von Steuben. Dan is an expert on George Washington and the Revolutionary War.
Read More about General von Steuben Here-
The Drillmaster of Valley Forge: The Baron de Steuben and the Making of the American ArmyBaron von Steuben: The Life and Legacy of the Prussian General Who Drilled the Continental Army at Valley Forge during the Revolutionary WarRegulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States