Baron von Steuben

Portrait of Baron von Steuben
TitleMajor General
War & AffiliationRevolutionary War / Patriot
Date of Birth - DeathSeptember 17, 1730 - November 28, 1794

Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus von Steuben was born on September 17, 1730, in the fortress town of Magdeburg in Prussia but spent most of the first decade of his life in Russia with his father. At age 10 he returned to Germany and attended more formal schooling. In 1747, at 17, von Steuben enlisted in the Prussian army as a lance-corporal. Von Steuben was a second lieutenant in 1756 when The Seven Years War began, and he served throughout the conflict with distinction. Von Steuben was discharged from the Prussian army at the rank of captain on April 29, 1763, shortly after the Treaties of Paris and Hubertusburg ended the war.

That same year, 1763, von Steuben met the Frenchman Louis de St. Germain in the northern German town of Hamburg. Fourteen years later, St. Germain was serving as France’s Minister of War and helped pave the way for von Steuben’s trip across the Atlantic to serve the American cause. In those intervening years, von Steuben served as Grand Marshall, a lofty title for administrative director of the court, of the Prince of Hollenzollern-Hechingen. The same prince bestowed the title “baron” to von Steuben in 1771.

In 1775, von Steuben began looking for a government appointment to support himself and pay off his many debts. He searched for positions in the British, French, and Austrian armies to no avail. In 1777, he traveled to France where he caught wind of the riches that could be earned in the American Revolution. Von Steuben had connections with the French Minister of War and through him, the Baron met the American ambassadors to France, Silas Deane and Benjamin Franklin. Unfortunately, Deane and Franklin could not promise von Steuben rank or pay. He could only be a volunteer in the Continental Army, which made von Steuben furious enough to decline. Without any luck of finding another job, von Steuben decided to accept and set out to the British colonies.

Von Steuben met with Congress, which arranged for von Steuben to be paid based upon the outcome of the war and his contributions. With a letter of introduction tucked in his pocket and a Russian wolfhound strolling alongside, von Steuben headed toward the Continental Army winter encampment at Valley Forge. He reported to General George Washington at his headquarters in  Valley Forge and arrived there in February, 1778.

Due to the intricacies and intrigues between George Washington and the Continental Congress’s appointed Board of War, von Steuben was appointed as the temporary Inspector General. His mission was to observe the American soldiers, equipment, skills, and living conditions. Von Steuben was extremely discouraged by the state of the Continental Army, yet the men that would soon fall under his tutelage were impressed. One stated  that “he seemed to me to be the personification of Mars,” the Roman God of War.

Von Steuben’s first job was to create a standard method of drills for the entire army. He wrote the drills in French since he could not speak English and had his military secretary translate the drills into English. Copies of the drills were given to each company and officer. Von Steuben established a “model company” of 100 men from each brigade in addition to the 50 Virginians that came from Washington’s Life Guard company to demonstrate new drills for the rest of the army. He worked with the troops directly and delivered the drills in a quick and simple manner. The American soldiers appreciated von Steuben’s willingness to personally work with them. They also appreciated his use of colorful words in several different languages, including relying on an aide to curse at the soldiers in English when warranted.

In a common tongue, he would say, “My dear Duponceau, come and swear for me in English, these fellows won’t do what I bid them.” However, von Steuben quickly caught on to the swear word vernacular of the English language and his booming voice with these new additions soon echoed around the training field. In approximately two months, a complete transformation in the army took place, with the army tackling the basic drills, from firearm control to line and marching formations. Von Steuben’s ability to condense and present the military doctrines in a digestible fashion for the men under his charge was a big reason the concepts sunk in so quickly.

In the winter of 1778-1779, the Baron wrote, “Regulation for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States”. This “Blue Book” of military regulations would be approved by Congress in March 1779 and used by the United States Army until 1814. In April 1779, von Steuben returned to the Continental Army and served throughout the remainder of the war as General Nathanael Greene’s instructor and supply officer. He was present in the final campaign at Yorktown resulted in the American victory of the American Revolution. He died in New York on November 28, 1794.