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Baron von Steuben

[fon shtoy' bin] the man who transformed farmers into professional soldiers

Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben

Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus von Steuben was born at the Mageburg fortress, in Russia, on September 17, 1730; his father, Lt. Baron Wilhelm von Steuben, was at the time an engineer in the Prussian Army. He spent his early childhood in Russia, but returned to Germany with his father at age 10, and was schooled by Jesuits at Breslau.

Following his father into military service, Steuben was an officer in the Prussian Army by age 17. He served with distinction during the Seven Years War, and was eventually assigned to Frederick the Great's headquarters. He was discharged as a Captain in 1763, for reasons unknown. He became a Baron when he was made Chamberlain at the Petty Court of Hohenzollern-Hechingen the following year.

By 1775, Steuben was deeply in debt and trying to find employment in a foreign army. In the summer of 1777, he learned that Benjamin Franklin was in Paris, and he decided to try and find work with the Continental Army. When Steuben met Franklin he was carrying an endorsement from the French Minister of War, who thought an officer with Prussian miliary training could be of immense benefit to the Americans. Franklin was very impressed with Steuben and subsequently wrote a letter of introduction to General George Washington in which he described Steuben as a "Lieutenant General in the King of Prussia's service." Steuben was advanced travel funds, and he arrived at Portsmouth, New Hampshire on September 26, 1777. On February 5, 1778, the Continental Congress accepted his offer to volunteer, without pay, and he reported to Valley Forge on February 23, 1778.

When Steuben arrived at Valley Forge he found a ragtag collection of troops who could barely handle their weapons, had little discipline, and whose morale had been seriously compromised by a series of military losses, poor supplies, etc. Although he spoke no English, von Steuben, with Washington's blessing, immediately implemented an entirely new training regimen. He began by hand picking 100 men and forming them into a "model company." Each man in the "model company" then took each level of training outward into his respective brigade. Though he had to communicate by first giving orders in French and then having the French translated into English, Steuben's unusual method worked and he gained great respect from Washington's men, and from Washington himself. Although the soldiers lacked proper clothing themselves, Steuben always appeared before them in full military dress uniform. His swearing and cursing in both French and German seldom needed translation, but when it did he simply had his French-speaking aid curse at the men for him in English, which usually worked.

In addition to drilling and training existing troops, Steuben also changed the way in which new recruits were trained. Prior to his arrival, new recruits were usually placed into a unit before they had received training and frequently had to learn how to fight while on the battlefield. Steuben introduced a system of progressive training, beginning with basic soldiering and working up to training with weapons. Each company commander was made responsible for the training of new men, but the actual training was done by selected Sergeants. His system insured that by the time each recruit reached the battlefield he had been fully schooled in how to quickly load, fire, and reload his weapon, as well as in how to achieve the best result from each shot.

Steuben also introduced standards of camp layouts and sanitation that remained standard for over a century and a half. Instead of a haphazard arrangement of tents and huts, Steuben had the camp laid out in orderly rows for command, officers and enlisted men. To lower the risk of disease, he had the kitchens and latrines placed on opposite sides of the camp, with latrines downhill from water sources. This arrangement of company and regimental streets arranged around a central parade ground can still be seen on many military posts today.

By the time Washington's army left Valley Forge on June 19, 1778, it had been transformed from a ragtag collection of men into a well-ordered, well-trained, and well-disciplined army. That army's first test came at Monmouth Courthouse on June 28 and, thanks to Steuben, it passed with flying colors.

Washington recommended an appointment for Steuben as Inspector General on April 30, and Congress approved the recommendation on May 5. During the winter of 1778-1779, Steuben prepared Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States (also known as the "Blue Book"), which remains the basis of military training in the United States armed forces today. During the winter of 1779-1780, he represented Washington to Congress regarding reorganization of the army. He subsequently traveled with Nathanael Greene during the Southern campaign of 1781, commanded a division at Yorktown, and helped Washington demobilize the army in 1783. He was discharged from the army with honor on March 24, 1784.

Steuben became an American citizen by act of the Pennsylvania Legislature in March 1784; New York passed a similar act in July 1786. He established residency in New York after the war and became a prominent figure there, but soon found himself in dire financial straits. Although he had initially offered his services without pay, Steuben assumed that he would be compensated once the war ended and his initial post-war lifestyle reflected that assumption. His financial situation was finally eased when Alexander Hamilton and other friends helped him get a favorable mortgage on the 16,000 acres New York State had given him; the United States government finally awarded him an annual pension of $2,500 in 1790. He died a bachelor at his home in Remsen, Oneida County, New York, on November 28, 1794.


Historic Valley Forge

See Also

Benjamin Franklin
George Washington
Valley Forge
Monmouth Courthouse
Nathanael Greene
Alexander Hamilton

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The Robinson Library >> The Revolution, 1775-1783 >> Biography, A-Z

This page was last updated on September 17, 2018.