Baron von Steuben

by Esther Pavao

Baron von Steuben was a German-born officer in the Prussian army who volunteered his services in the Continental army. His "blue book" and training methods revolutionized the American army's methods.

Early Life & Military Background

Baron Friedrich Wilholm von Steuben, by Charles Wilson PealeBaron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, by Charles Wilson Peale
public domain image.

Frederick Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben (known simply as Baron Von Steuben) was born September 17, 1730 in Germany to a Prussian Army officer. He was educated in a Jesuit school. His military training began at the age of 14, when he volunteered in the Austrian Succession War alongside his father. He officially joined the Prussian army at 16.

He served with distinction through the Seven Years War, suffered two injuries, and eventually was promoted to first lieutenant. He was taken prisoner of war, and upon his release, was promoted to quartermaster general and adjutant general. In this capacity, he was an aide-de-camp to Frederick the Great, the military genius of his time. In 1763, he was discharged as a captain from the army; he blamed his discharge on "an inconsiderate step and an implacable personal enemy," though most likely, it was because he was homosexual, which was frowned upon at best, and a crime at worst.

He became Grand Marshall at the court of Hohenzollern-Hechingen, a post he held for almost 10 years. In 1771, he was made a baron. He tried to find employment in several foreign armies, but had no luck, presumably due to the circumstances surrounding his discharge from the Prussian army. He heard that Benjamin Franklin was in France and he might have a chance to join the American Continental Army.

In Paris during the summer of 1777, Baron von Steuben was introduced to Benjamin Franklin by the French Minister of War. At first, Franklin was hesitant to accept von Steuben's services. America was tired of foreign officers volunteering their services and demanding high ranking positions in the army and high pay. If von Steuben wanted a position in the Continental Army, Franklin told him, he'd have to volunteer for little or no pay.

Von Steuben left these talks and went back to Prussia, however, his reputation was under fire following his discharge from the army, and whether the allegations against him were true or not, his reputation was irrevocably destroyed. After a few more discussions, Silas Deane and Benjamin Franklin vouched for Steuben with the American Congress and sent him with a letter of introduction to America.

American Revolution

Major General Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus Baron von Steuben by Ralph EarlMajor General Baron von Steuben by Ralph Earl | Public domain image.

He arrived in Portsmouth in December of 1777. He volunteered himself to Congress, agreeing to serve without rank or command, asking only for reimbursement for his expenses and to be paid at the end of the war however much Congress felt his contribution was worth. "The object of my greatest ambition is to render your country all the service in my power, and to deserve the title of a citizen of America by fighting for the cause of liberty," he told them. Congress readily accepted and sent him to General Washington in Valley Forge.

He didn't speak any English, so General Nathanael Greene and Washington's aide's John Laurens, and Alexander Hamilton served as translators. Because of his military background, Washington assigned Baron von Steuben the task of overseeing training of troops. The soldiers didn't have any any official uniforms, but Baron von Steuben marched up and down in his full military dress uniform, swearing and yelling in both German and French (and having swear words translated to English). With the help of Washington's aides, he wrote a training outline, called "The Blue Book" which stayed in use through the Mexican war in the 1800's.

He began with marching exercises, then he taught them to carry arms, load, aim, fire by platoon, and charge bayonets, a tool that no one knew how to use previously. He formed an honor guard for General Washington that he personally drilled twice a day, and that also served as a demonstrative group for the rest of the soldiers. Within two weeks, they were admirably in sync, knew how to march, wheel, and form a column. They, in turn, trained other smaller groups, until he had created an entire division.

Congress appointed Steuben Inspector General of the army. He began to enforce keeping exact records and strict inspections. His record-keeping saved the army thousands of muskets and dollars. He also enforced camp sanitation. Formerly, men simply relieved themselves wherever they wished, tents were set up in no apparent order, and animal carcases leftover from meals were left to rot in the middle of camp. Steuben arranged to have rows of tents, an officers' row, and downhill latrines on the opposite side of the camp from the kitchen. His camp layout and sanitation plans were still in effect over 100 years later.

The success of his training became apparent at the Battle of Monmouth, when General Charles Lee's haphazardly retreating troops were brought to a halt by Steuben. He turned their retreat into an orderly line. Furthermore, at the Battle of Stony Point, thanks to Steuben's training, General Wayne's troops were able to take Stony Brook without firing a shot, using only their bayonets.

After the War

After the war, Baron von Steuben resigned from the army with a pension from the army and an honorable discharge in 1784. In his retirement, he drew up plans for a future military academy. Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York offered him property, and he stayed in the states and became a citizen. He never married. He died in 1794.

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