Steuben, Friedrich Wilhelm von
Steuben, Friedrich Wilhelm von
Steuben, Friedrich Wilhelm von
STEUBEN, FRIEDRICH WILHELM VON. (1730–1794). Inspector General of the Continental Army. Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben was the grandson of Augustin Steube, a minister of the German Reformed Church. The grandfather inserted the "von" in the family name about 1708 as a sign of aristocratic status, although he technically had no right to do so. The man who became the foremost military instructor of the American Revolution was born in Magdeburg, Germany, while his father, Wilhelm Augustus von Steuben, an engineer lieutenant in the Prussian army, was stationed there. His early youth was spent in Russia. At the age of ten he returned to Germany with his parents, was schooled by Jesuits in Breslau, and at seventeen became a Prussian officer with the rank of ensign. During the Seven Years' War, from 1756 to 1763, he served first as a lieutenant in an infantry regiment and then as adjutant of a partisan corps. Later in the war he was promoted to captain and was made an assistant quartermaster at the general headquarters. Captured by the Russians in the fall of 1762, he was released a short time later, and the following spring he carried a diplomatic dispatch from Czar Peter III to Frederick the Great.
Although Steuben never held the high rank and influential positions in Prussian service that he later claimed, his early military training and experience should not be undervalued. As a junior officer, he mastered the rigorous Prussian drill system that was respected throughout Europe for its efficiency and effectiveness, and as an adjutant and an assistant quartermaster, he became proficient in every phrase of military administration from supply to battlefield organization and discipline. His skills and knowledge fitted him almost perfectly to become the sort of chief of staff that George Washington needed to help make the Continental army a more fully competent and stable professional force.
Steuben was discharged from the Prussian army in 1763, at the age of only 33, for reasons that are obscure. The next year he became chamberlain (hofmarschall) at the court of Hohenzollern-Hechingen, a small south German principality, where he subsequently assumed his title of baron (freiherr). When his prince closed the court in 1771 and went incognito to France, where he hoped to live more economically, Steuben accompanied him. In 1774 they were back in Germany, having failed to achieve solvency. One year later Steuben was beset by rumors that were never proven or subsequently revived of behaving inappropriately with young boys. He was forced to seek other employment.
After several unsuccessful attempts to enter European armies (France, Austria, Baden), Steuben met a friend of Benjamin Franklin who suggested to the latter, then one of the American commissioners in Paris, that Steuben could render valuable service in America. Having pursued this lead to Paris, where he arrived during the summer of 1777, Steuben had the good fortune of being endorsed by the French minister of war, Claude-Louis, comte de St. Germain, who recognized the value of his Prussian military training. Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, the French playwright who was secretly aiding the Americans, advanced travel funds from his company, Roderique Hortalez et Cie, and on 4 September 1778 the resourceful Franklin penned a letter introducing Steuben to Washington as "a Lieutenant General in the King of Prussia's Service." With all these bogus credentials, Lieutenant General Baron von Steuben left Marseilles on 26 September. He arrived at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on 1 December, and after spending several weeks at Boston being royally entertained, he reached York, Pennsylvania, where the Continental Congress was then sitting, on about 5 February 1778. Congress, he learned, had already accepted the offer made in his letter to Congress of 6 December to serve for the time being as an unpaid volunteer, and on 23 February 1778 he reported to Washington at Valley Forge.
At Washington's request, Steuben began a comprehensive new program of drill instruction for the Contintental army in late March 1778. Although he at first spoke only German and French, Steuben drafted a series of lessons that skillfully adapted Prussian methods to American needs and temperament, employing the assistance of his English-speaking, French aide-de-camp, Pierre Etienne Du Ponceau. He started with a model company of about 150 hand-picked men. and spread his instruction in a sort of geometric progression through the little army. An essential element of his successful formula was Steuben's picturesque personality. He stood before the ill-clad Continentals in a magnificent uniform, and put on a show worthy of paid admission. According to Du Ponceau, when Steuben could no longer curse his awkward pupils in German and French, he would call on both Du Ponceau and his French-speaking American aide, Captain Benjamin Walker, "to come and swear for me in English, these fellows won't do what I bid them." Ponceau went on to observe that "a good natured smile then went through the ranks, and at last the maneuver or the movement was properly perfomed."
The drill improvements that Stueben began introducing at Valley Forge did much more than simply make the Continentals look better on the parade ground. In the methodical brand of warfare that was practiced in the eighteenth century, the soldiers' ability to march in large formations on the battlefield with precision and discipline often made the difference between victory and defeat. Steuben's achievement was not in teaching the Continentals how to march—something that most of them already could do—but in enabling them to march together in brigades and divisions with greater efficiency by instituting a uniform and innovative, army-wide drill system. Although the stalemate that generally prevailed in the northern states after the spring of 1778 meant that the results of Steuben's work were never fully tested in open battle, they were partially displayed at Barren Hill on 20 May 1778, and at Monmouth, on 28 June 1778, where the troops' new training significantly aided Continental officers in maintaining control under dangerous circumstances. Washington was sufficiently pleased with the progress that had been made within a few weeks time that, on 30 April 1778, he recommended Steuben's appointment as inspector general of the army with the rank of major general, and on 5 May Congress confirmed the promotion.
During the Monmouth campaign, the new inspector general served in Washington's headquarters, and in the final phase of the battle of 28 June, he helped collect some of the disorganized American units. A few weeks later, during his court-martial for misconduct at Monmouth Court House, Charles Lee referred to Steuben as one of "the very distant spectators of the manoeuvres" on that day. The Prussian subsequently challenged Lee to a duel over his remarks, but was satisfied when Lee explained that he meant no offense.
After temporarily commanding the right wing of the Continental Army in July 1778, Steuben spent much of the rest of the year training troops and negotiating with Congress over the organization and powers of the inspector general's department. The next winter he prepared his Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, which became known as the "Blue Book." Serving as the principal military guide not only for the Continental army but also for the first generation of United States Army officers and soldiers, this manual contained both a revamped version of the drill system that Steuben had devised at Valley Forge and a compendium of the latest administrative practices used in European armies. Continuing his duties of training and instilling discipline in 1779 and 1780, Steuben began making regular inspections of the regiments, and he set up a badly needed system of property accountability. During the winter of 1779–1780 he was Washington's representative to Congress on matters of army reorganization.
When Nathanael Greene was given command of the Southern Department in the fall of 1780, Steuben went along, and since most of Greene's support—personnel as well as provisions—would come from Virginia, he stayed there. Bluntly insistent that democratic procedures be sacrificed to military expediency, Steuben was ill suited to deal with Governor Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia legislature. As the senior Continental officer in the Old Dominion during the winter and early spring of 1781, Steuben commanded the pitifully small Continental contingent and the hastily assembled militiamen who tried unsuccessfully to check Benedict Arnold's and William Phillips's raids in force up the James River.
When the Marquis de Lafayette arrived in Virginia at the end of April, Steuben yielded his command to the newcomer and focused on the job of gathering reinforcements and supplies for Greene's army in the Carolinas. Steuben encountered a firestorm of public criticism in June 1781 when, during General Charles Cornwallis's invasion of Virginia, he failed to save the supply depot at Point of Fork from enemy raiders and then began marching his detachment of about five hundred Continental recruits south to join Greene. Realizing his mistake only after several days, he reversed his march, delivered his recruits to Lafayette, and took an extended sick leave. Steuben rejoined the army for the Yorktown campaign, taking command of one of the three divisions of Washington's force and giving the benefit of his experience in siege warfare. This was the closest he came to realizing his long cherished desire for a prestigious field command suited to his rank.
Steuben continued serving as inspector general during the last two years of the war. In the spring of 1783 he assisted Washington in planning for the demobilization of the Continental army and the future defense of the United States. He also was actively involved in the creation of the Society of the Cincinnati, and warmly approved of its controversial provision for hereditary membership. In August 1783 he went to Canada to receive the surrender of British frontier posts, but found that Canadian governor, Frederick Haldimand, had no authority to treat with him. Steuben resigned his commission on 21 March 1784.
Having become an American citizen by an act of the Pennsylvania legislature in March 1783 and the New York legislature in July 1786, Steuben established residence at the "Louvre," a country estate on Manhattan Island, and became a prominent and popular social figure. He lived far beyond his means, however, and was soon in serious financial straits. In June 1790 the new federal government granted him a yearly pension of $2,500 instead of a lump sum settlement of his Revolutionary War claims, and it was only the following October, when Alexander Hamilton and other friends got him a "friendly mortgage" on the 16,000 acres given him by New York in 1786, that Steuben's financial affairs were straightened out. During his last years, the old bachelor spent summers on his Mohawk Valley property north of Utica (near modern Remsen), New York, and his winters in New York City. He willed his property to his former aides, William North and Benjamin Walker.
Steuben's legacy to the American people was the high standard of professional military discipline and efficiency that he managed to introduce within the larger framework of liberty and independence—a standard that sustained the Continental army through five years of war following Valley Forge and won it the respect of its French allies. Steuben never claimed to have worked miracles on the drill field. "I leave it to your other Correspondents," he wrote Benjamin Franklin on 28 September 1779, "to give you an Account of the present State of our Army; If they tell you that our Order & Discipline Equals that of the French and Prussian Armies, do not believe them, but do not believe them neither, if they compare our Troops to those of the Pope, & take a just medium between those two Extremes." Steuben knew, however, the practical value of what he accomplished, as did the Continental officers and soldiers who were his students. A master teacher by any measure, Steuben did not rely on rote leassons taken from an old drill book of his youth, but rather he borrowed freely from the newest sources of military knowledge available—Prussian, Austrian, French, and British—to create a strong but flexible system of command and control designed to enable Americans to deal effectively with the various military situations that they faced in winning their freedom and consolidating their hold over almost half a continent.
Chase, Philander D. "Baron von Steuben in the War of Independence." Ph.D. diss., Duke University, 1973.
Clary, David A., and Joseph W. A. Whitehorne. The Inspectors General of the United States Army, 1777–1903. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Inspector General and Center of Military History, United States Army, 1987.
Du Ponceau, Pierre Etienne. "The Autobiography of Peter Stephen Du Ponceau." Edited by James L. Whitehead. Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 63 (1939): 189-227, 311-343, 432-461; 64 (1940): 97-120, 243-269.
North, William. "Baron Steuben." Edited by William L. Stone. Magazine of American History with Notes and Queries, 8 (1882): 187-199.
Steuben, Friedrich Wilhelm von. The Papers of General Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, 1777–1794. Edited by Edith von Zemenszky and Robert J. Schulmann. Millwood, N.Y.: Kraus International Publications, 1984. Microfilm.
Wright, Robert K., Jr. The Continental Army. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 1983.
revised by Philander D. Chase