|Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, 1730-1794.|
Steuben inherited the title of Baron (the lowest level of German nobility, signified by the "von") from his father. The "von" should be dropped when referring to him as an American citizen,which he became.
Steuben is an important figure in U.S. military history because he helped shape up George Washington's army in the long struggle for American independence.
While General George Washington earned the title “father of the American Army” as well as father of his country, Steuben -- who was General Washington's chief of staff in the final years of the war and had the rank of General -- is given the title of “father of the modern American army.”
Steuben was a one-man West Point, teaching the Continental Army what were then the world's most advanced military drills and tactics. He wrote the drill manual that served the American Army until the War of 1812.
Steuben studied in Breslau with Jesuits and was a Prussian military officer at 17. In the Seven Years War (what Americans know as the French and Indian wars), he was in a Prussian infantry unit and a staff officer when the Prussians and their allies, notably Britain under its monarch George II, were defending themselves against the Austrian-French alliance. Steuben gained great experience during these years, becoming a member of the headquarters of the General Staff of the Prussian King Frederick II, a k a Frederick the Great.
In a word, he learned about military strategy and tactics from the world's best military leader of his time. Napoleon described Frederick the Great as the greatest military genius in history.
Two examples of Frederick the Great's strategies that had great importance for the training of George Washington's army, and contributed to the success of the Continental Army, are:
- Maneuver to keep enemy forces divided, constantly looking for ways to divert them from recombining, and
- Use a smaller force to attack a larger one via the tactic of "oblique order", i.e., attacking an opposing force from the flank, thereby cutting off a segment from the main force and defeating it. (Admiral Nelson applied this principle at the Battle of Trafalgar, barging through the enemy line of ships to defeat the larger combination of Spanish and French navies. The French navy lost all of its officers in the French Revolution, because to be an officer in the ancien regime, all four of your grandparents had to be noblesse. The officers fled the country, were killed or went into hiding in some way.)
However, the trip was not futile for von Steuben. During his time in France, he met the French Minister of War, Claude Louis, Comte de Saint-Germain. The Comte wanted to help George Washington fight against the British, but in such a way that the British would not know that France was violating its claim of neutrality.
Having been on the losing end of encounters with Frederick's army, the Comte saw the value to General Washington of an officer with Prussian-general-staff training. So he introduced Steuben to Benjamin Franklin, who promptly sent a clever letter to Washington introducing Baron Steuben as "Lieutenant General in the King of Prussia's service". The French then loaned Baron von Steuben travel funds for the trip from Marseilles to Portsmouth, N.H. so that Steuben could present himself to Washington as a volunteer.
On September 26, 1777, the Baron disembarked at Portsmouth with his Italian greyhound Azor and four companions including his young aide-de-camp Louis de Pontière and his military secretary Pierre Etienne Duponceau. Congress was then meeting in York, Pennsylvania, after having been pushed out of Philadelphia by the advancing redcoats. By February 23, 1778, von Steuben had engineered his way to reporting for duty to Washington at Valley Forge.
Once on staff, von Steuben went right to work. With the help of Colonel Alexander Hamilton and General Nathanael Greene, Steuben drafted a training program (and later a manual) for the Army, and had it it approved by Washington:
- The program began with a "model company" -- 120 chosen men who were trained first without, and then with, arms. This turned out to be a much better approach than simply assigning personnel to regiments to train them. Steuben was looking for a change in the attitude of the soldiers and this was easier to achieve in a smaller group.
- With this model company at its core, the program went on to train larger groups, at the Regimental and Brigade levels.
- Each company commander was made responsible for the training of new men, but instruction was done by sergeants selected for this purpose.
- Crucially, Steuben trained men in the use of the bayonet. Throughout the early course of the Revolutionary war, Americans used the bayonet mostly as a skewer for cooking meat. Steuben introduced the concept of bayonet charges, and in the Battle of Stony Point, American soldiers attacked with unloaded muskets.
- Steuben laid out a plan to have rows for command, officers and enlisted men, with company and regimental streets.
- Previously, men relieved themselves where they wished. Kitchens and latrines were created on opposite sides of the camp, with latrines on the downhill side.
In the end it was all of great value to Washington. Steuben's training helped win the Battle of Barren Hill, 20 May 1778 and the Battle of Monmouth in June 1778. Steuben, who was by then serving in Washington's headquarters, was the first to figure out that the redcoats were on their way to Monmouth. His early alert made Washington's troops better prepared for battle.
Washington recommended appointment of Steuben as inspector general on April 30, 1778. Congress approved this on May 5. Steuben was given the rank and title of Major General. During the winter of 1778–1779, Steuben prepared Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States (the "Blue Book"), based on the plan he devised at Valley Forge. At the final campaign at Yorktown, Steuben commanded one of the three divisions of Washington's troops. Steuben gave assistance to Washington in demobilization in 1783 as well as preparing a defense plan of the new nation (the British would be back within 20 years and would occupy New York and burn Washington). He was discharged from the military with honor on March 24, 1783.
Steuben became an American citizen by act of the Pennsylvania legislature in March 1784, and later by New York State in July 1786. Since the United States forswore titles, the "von" should be dropped from his name once he became a U.S. citizen; however, usage varies. With the war over, Steuben resigned from service and first lived in Manhattan. In December 1783, the State of New Jersey presented him with an estate now known as Zabriskie-Steuben House, confiscated from Jan Zabriskie in 1781 for his siding with George III in the Revolution. Steuben eventually sold the estate. In 1790, Congress gave Steuben him a pension of $2,500 a year for life.
Steuben settled ultimately on a small estate in the vicinity of Rome, New York, on land granted to him for his military service. He later helped found the Society of the Cincinnati and was appointed a regent for what became the State University of New York. He never married and had no children. He left his estate to his aides-de-camp General Benjamin Walker and Captain William North. He is said to have had an "extraordinarily intense emotional relationship" with them. He is buried at what is now the Steuben Memorial State Historic Site.
Since 1958, von Steuben Day has been celebrated in New York City, Chicago and Philadelphia every September, the month he was born. It is the German-American event of the year. The Steuben Society was founded in 1919. A warship, a submarine, and an ocean liner later pressed into military service were named in Steuben's honor. Steuben is one of four European military leaders assisting the American rebels who are honored with a statue in Lafayette Square just north of the White House in Washington.
Von Steuben's sexuality was an issue in Germany, and a topic of discussion in the colonies. He left Baden involuntary, having been threatened with prosecution for homosexuality. When he joined Washington's army at Valley Forge in February 1778, it was observed:
- He was accompanied by two young (one was 17) European aides.
- Their late-night parties were the subject of gossip.
Hershberger, Kevin (Director), Von Steuben's Continentals: The First American Army, 60-minute DVD, LionHeart FilmWorks (2007). Details the life, uniforms, camp life, food, weapons, equipment and drill of the Continental soldier (1775-1781).
Lockhart, Paul (Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio), The Drillmaster of Valley Forge. This is the first major biography of General von Steuben in more than 80 years.