The Prussian Nobleman Who Helped Save the American Revolution
When American troops faltered, Baron von Steuben helped whip them into shape
The baron wore an eight-pointed silver star on his chest, etched with the word Fidelitas. “Squad, halt!” he shouted—some of the few English words he knew. He walked among the 100 men in formation at Valley Forge, adjusting their muskets. He showed them how to march at 75 steps a minute, then 120. When their discipline broke down, he swore at them in German and French, and with his only English curse: “Goddamn!”
It was March 19, 1778, almost three years into the Revolutionary War. The Continental Army had just endured a punishing winter at Valley Forge. And a stranger—former Prussian army officer Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben—was on the scene to restore morale, introduce discipline and whip the tattered soldiers into fighting shape.
To one awestruck 16-year-old private, the tall, portly baron in the long blue cloak was as intimidating as the Roman god of war. “He seemed to me the perfect personification of Mars,” recalled Ashbel Green years later. “The trappings of his horse, the enormous holsters of his pistols, his large size, and his strikingly martial aspect, all seemed to favor the idea.”
Some of the baron’s aura was artifice. Von Steuben had never been a general, despite the claim of the supporters who recommended him. A decade past his service as a captain in the Prussian army, von Steuben, 47, filled his letters home with tall tales about his glorious reception in America. But the baron’s skills were real. His keen military mind and charismatic leadership led George Washington to name him the Continental Army’s acting inspector general soon after his arrival at its camp in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. In less than two months in spring 1778, von Steuben rallied the battered, ill-clothed, near-starving army.
“They went from a ragtag collection of militias to a professional force,” says Larrie Ferreiro, whose recent book, Brothers at Arms, tells the story of foreign support for the American Revolution. Ferreiro considers von Steuben the most important of all the volunteers from overseas who flocked to America to join the Revolution. “[It was] Steuben’s ability to bring this army the kind of training and understanding of tactics that made them able to stand toe to toe with the British,” he says.
Born into a military family in 1730—at first, his last name was the non-noble Steuben—he was 14 when he watched his father direct Prussian engineers in the 1744 siege of Prague. Enlisting around age 16, von Steuben rose to the rank of lieutenant and learned the discipline that made the Prussian army the best in Europe. “Its greatness came from its professionalism, its hardiness, and the machine-like precision with which it could maneuver on the battlefield,” wrote Paul Lockhart in his 2008 biography of von Steuben, The Drillmaster of Valley Forge.
Von Steuben spent 17 years in the Prussian army, fought in battles against Austria and Russia during the Seven Years’ War, became a captain, and attended Prussian king Frederick the Great’s elite staff school. But a vindictive rival schemed against him, and he was dismissed from the army during a 1763 peacetime downsizing. Forced to reinvent himself, von Steuben spent 11 years as court chamberlain in Hohenzollern-Hechingen, a tiny German principality. In 1769, the prince of nearby Baden named him to the chivalric Order of Fidelity. Membership came with a title: Freiherr, meaning “free lord,” or baron.
In 1775, as the American Revolution broke out, von Steuben’s boss, the Hechingen prince, ran out of money. Von Steuben, his salary slashed, started looking for a new military job. But Europe’s great armies, mostly at peace, didn’t hire him. In 1777, he tried to join the army in Baden, but the opportunity fell through in the worst way possible. An unknown person there lodged a complaint that von Steuben had “taken liberties with young boys” in his previous job, writes Lockhart. The never-proven, anonymously reported rumor destroyed von Steuben’s reputation in Germany. So he turned to his next-best prospect: America.
In September 1777, the disgraced baron sailed from France to volunteer for the Continental Army, bankrolled by a loan from his friend, French playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. A letter from America’s diplomats in Paris, Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane, vouched for him and reported that France’s minister of war and foreign minister had done so too.
But Deane and Franklin’s letter also falsely claimed that von Steuben was a lieutenant general and exaggerated his closeness to Frederick the Great—“the greatest public deception ever perpetrated in a good cause,” wrote Thomas Fleming in Washington’s Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge. Why? Only the highest recommendation would make an impression back home. Congress, desperate for volunteers earlier in the war, had been overwhelmed by unemployed Europeans eager for military jobs, and the number of officers from overseas had begun to stir resentment among American-born officers. “Congress had sternly warned they wanted no more foreigners arriving in America with contracts for brigadier and major generalships in their trunks,” Fleming wrote. Though von Steuben didn’t exaggerate his accomplishments to Franklin and Deane, he went along with the story once he got to America—and added some flourishes of his own. At one point, he even claimed he’d turned down paid positions with the Holy Roman Empire to serve in the United States.
Von Steuben landed at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on December 1, 1777, with four French aides to translate for him and a large dog named Azor. His exaggerated reputation spread fast. In Boston, he met John Hancock, who hosted a dinner for him, and chatted up Samuel Adams about politics and military affairs. Next, von Steuben headed to York, Pennsylvania, the temporary American capital while the British occupied Philadelphia. Aware that the Continental Congress had soured on foreign volunteers, von Steuben offered to serve under Washington and asked to be paid only if America won the war. They took the deal and sent von Steuben to Valley Forge.
“Baron Steuben has arrived at camp,” Washington wrote soon after. “He appears to be much of a gentleman, and as far as I have had an opportunity of judging, a man of military knowledge and acquainted with the world.” Washington’s confidence in von Steuben grew quickly. Within two weeks, he made the baron acting inspector general and asked him to examine the Continental Army’s condition.
“What [Steuben] discovered was nothing less than appalling,” wrote Fleming in Washington’s Secret War. “He was confronting a wrecked army. A less courageous (or less bankrupt) man would have quit on the spot.” Unlike the American forces in New York, who had beaten the British at Saratoga in fall 1777, the army in Pennsylvania had suffered a series of defeats. When they lost the Battle of Brandywine in September 1777, the British had seized Philadelphia. Now—following common military practice of the era—they had camped for the winter. But Valley Forge, their winter quarters, was nearly as punishing as battle: hastily built huts, cruel temperatures, scarce food.
The baron found soldiers without uniforms, rusted muskets without bayonets, companies with men missing and unaccounted for. Short enlistments meant constant turnover and little order. Regiment sizes varied wildly. Different officers used different military drill manuals, leading to chaos when their units tried to work together. If the army had to fight on short notice, von Steuben warned Washington, he might find himself commanding one-third of the men he thought he had. The army had to get into better shape before fighting resumed in the spring.
So, von Steuben put the entire army through Prussian-style drills, starting with a model company of 100 men. He taught them how to reload their muskets quickly after firing, charge with a bayonet and march in compact columns instead of miles-long lines. Meanwhile, he wrote detailed lists of officers’ duties, giving them more responsibility than in English systems.
Soldiers gaped at the sight of a German nobleman, in a French-style black beaver hat, drilling poorly clothed troops. Though von Steuben raged and cursed in a garbled mixture of French, English, and German, his instructions and presence began to build morale. “If anything, the curses contributed to Steuben’s reputation as an exotic character who was good for a laugh now and then,” wrote Fleming.
And though the baron was appalled at the condition of the army he was tasked with making over, he soon developed an appreciation for its soldiers. “The genius of this nation is not in the least to be compared with that of the Prussian, Austrians, or French,” von Steuben wrote to a Prussian friend. “You say to your soldier ‘Do this and he doeth it’; but I am obliged to say [to the American soldier]: ‘This is the reason why you ought to do that: and then he does it.’”
Off the drilling field, von Steuben befriended the troops. A lifelong bachelor, he threw dinner parties rather than dine alone. One night, the guests pooled their rations to give von Steuben’s manservant the ingredients for a dinner of beefsteak and potatoes with hickory nuts. They also drank “salamanders”—cheap whiskey set on fire.
As von Steuben’s work progressed, news of the United States’ treaties of alliance with France reached Valley Forge. Washington declared May 6, 1778 a day of celebration. He asked von Steuben to ready the army for a ceremonial review.
At 9 a.m. on May 6, 7,000 soldiers lined up on the parade ground. “Rank by rank, with not a single straying step, the battalions swung past General Washington and deployed into a double line of battle with the ease and swiftness of veterans,” Fleming wrote. Then the soldiers performed the feu de joie, a ceremonial rifle salute in which each soldier in a line fires in sequence—proof of the army’s new discipline. “The plan as formed by Baron von Steuben succeeded in every particular,” wrote John Laurens, an aide to Washington.
The baron’s lessons didn’t just make the American troops look impressive in parades—under his tutelage, they became a formidable battlefield force. Two weeks after the celebration, the Marquis de Lafayette led a reconnaissance force of 2,200 to observe the British evacuation from Philadelphia. When a surprise British attack forced Lafayette to retreat, von Steuben’s compact column formation enabled the entire force to make a swift, narrow escape. At the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, the Revolution’s last major battle in the northern states, American troops showed a new discipline. They stood their ground during ferocious fire and bayonet attacks and forced the British to retreat. “Monmouth vindicated Steuben as an organizer,” wrote Lockhart. The Continental Army’s new strength as a fighting force, combined with the arrival of the French fleet off the coast of New York in July 1778, turned the tide of the war.
Von Steuben served in the Continental Army for the rest of the Revolutionary War. In 1779, he codified his lessons into the Army’s Blue Book. Officially the Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, it remained the Army training manual for decades. The Army still uses some portions of it in training manuals today, including von Steuben’s instructions on drill and ceremonies.
After the war, the governor of New York granted von Steuben a huge wilderness estate in the Mohawk Valley as a reward for his service in the war. Von Steuben died there in November 1794 at age 64. His importance to the Revolution is evident in Washington’s last act as commanding general. In December 1783, just before retiring to Mount Vernon, he wrote von Steuben a letter of thanks for his “great Zeal, Attention and Abilities” and his “faithful and Meritorious Services.” Though his name is little known among Americans today, every U.S. soldier is indebted to von Steuben—he created America’s professional army.