Print Friendly, PDF & Email

vonsteubenFriedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand von Steuben was bornBaron von Steuben September 17, 1730 in Magdeburg fortress where his father was an engineer lieutenant in the military in 1730. Most of his adolescent years were spent in Russia, but with his father at the age of 10, they returned to Germany. He was schooled in Breslau by Jesuits and by the age of 17…was a Prussian officer in the military. He was a member of an infantry unit and a staff officer in the Seven Years War, later being made a member of the General Staff serving in Russia periodically. His service was commendable enough that he was eventually given assignment with Frederick the Great’s headquarters. Von Steuben’s experiences as a General Staff member in the Prussian Army gave him a wealth of knowledge that heretofore was unheard of, even in the British and French armies of the period. His training would eventually bring to the American soldiers the technical knowledge necessary to create an effective fighting force.

At the age of 33, in 1763, Steuben was discharged as a captain from the army, for reasons that are not known. The following year he received his “Baron” title when he became chamberlain at the Petty Court of Hohenzollern-Hechingen. He was the only courtier to accompany his incognito prince to France in 1771, hoping to borrow money. Failing to find funds, they returned to Germany in 1775, deeply in debt. Looking for work to reverse his fortunes, von Steuben tried employment in several foreign armies including Austria, Baden and France. He discovered that Benjamin Franklin was in Paris and that possibly, he could find work with the Continental Army in America.

Steuben traveled to Paris in the summer of 1777. As luck would have it, he was endorsed for service by the French Minister of War (Count de St. Germaine) who fully realized the potential of an officer with Prussian General Staff training. Steuben was introduced to General Washington by means of a letter from Franklin as a “Lieutenant General in the King of Prussia’s service,” a certain exaggeration of his actual credentials. He was advanced travel funds and left Europe from Marseilles. On September 26th, 1777, he reached Portsmouth, New Hampshire and by December 1st, was being extravagantly entertained in Boston. Congress was in York Pennsylvania, after being ousted from Philadelphia for the winter and on February 5, 1778, Steuben was with them. They accepted his offer to volunteer, without pay for the time, and on the 23rd of the same month, Steuben was reporting for duty to General Washington at Valley Forge. Steuben did not speak English, but his French was such that he could communicate with some of the officers. Washington’s aide-de-camp, Alexander Hamilton as well as Nathanael Greene were a great help in this area. The two men assisted Steuben in drafting a training program for the soldiers which found approval with the Commander-in-Chief in March.

How did the men at Valley Forge become an army? Steuben began with a “model company,” a group of 100 chosen men and trained them…they in turn successively worked outward into each brigade. Steuben’s eclectic personality greatly enhanced his mystique. He trained the soldiers, who at this point were greatly lacking in proper clothing themselves, in full military dress uniform, swearing and yelling at them up and down in German and French. When that was no longer successful, he recruited Captain Benjamin Walker, his French speaking aid to curse at the men for him in English. His instructions and methods have a familiar ring, nor is this strange when we consider that much of what is done today stems from his teachings. Though he spoke no English, Von Steuben systematically trained the amateur American troops in military discipline and battle-readiness. This rigorous training saved the troops from complete defeat during the Battle of Monmouth. In 1779, von Steuben prepared his Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, which remained America’s official military manual for over three decades.

To correct the existing policy of placing recruits in a unit before they had received training, Von Steuben introduced a system of progressive training, beginning with the school of the soldier, with and without arms, and going through the school of the regiment. Each company commander was made responsible for the training of new men, but actually instruction was done by selected sergeants, the best obtainable.

Warfare in the Eighteenth Century was a comparatively simple matter, once the battle was joined. Combat was at close range, massed-fire melee, where rapidity of firing was of primary importance. Accuracy was little more than firing faster than the opposing line. Much of the Regulations dealt with the manual of arms and firing drills. But battle was close-order drill, and speed of firing could only be obtained by drilling men in the handling of their firearms until the motions of loading and firing were mechanical. Firing was done in eight counts and fifteen motions.

1. Fire! One Motion.
2. Half-Cock — Firelock! One Motion.
3. Handle — Cartridge! One Motion.
4. Prime! One Motion.
5. Shut — Pan! One Motion.
6. Charge with Cartridge! Two motions.
7. Draw — Rammer! Two motions.
8. Ram down — Cartridge! One Motion.
9. Return — Rammer! Two motions.

Complicated as they seem, the new firing regulations were much simpler than those used by foreign armies and they speeded up firing considerably. The bulk of the fighting in the Revolutionary War was a stand up and slug match. The winning side was the one that could get in a good first volley, take a return fire and re-load faster than its foes. Once the individual could handle himself and his musket he was placed in groups of three, then in groups of twelve, and taught to wheel, to dress to the right and to the left. Alignment and dressing the ranks was emphasized but only because proper alignment was necessary for smooth firing.

Another program developed by Steuben was camp sanitation. He established a standards of sanitation and camp layouts that would still be standard a century and a half later. There had previously been no set arrangement of tents and huts. Men relieved themselves where they wished and when an animal died, it was stripped of its meat and the rest was left to rot where it lay. Von Steuben laid out a plan to have rows for command, officers and enlisted men. Kitchens and latrines were on opposite sides of the camp, with latrines on the downhill side. There was the familiar arrangement of company and regimental streets.

The results of the army training were in evidence by May 20, 1778 at Barren Hill and then at Monmouth (ending June 28th). Washington recommended an appointment for Steuben as Inspector General on April 30th, and on May 5th, Congress approved it. It was Steuben serving in Washington’s headquarters in the summer of 1778 who was the first to report the enemy was heading for Monmouth. 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.” It’s basis was the plan he devised at Valley Forge.

The following winter (1779-1780) his commission was representing Washington to Congress regarding the reorganization of the army. He later traveled with Nathanael Greene-the new commander of the Southern campaign. He quartered in Virginia since the American supplies and soldiers would be provided to the army from there. He aided the campaign in the south during the spring of 1781, culminating in the delivery of 450 Virginia Continentals to Lafayette in June. He was forced to take sick leave, rejoining the army for the final campaign at Yorktown. At Yorktown his role was as commander of one of the three divisions of Washington’s troops. He gave assistance to Washington in demobilizing the army in 1783 as well as aiding in the defense plan of the new nation. He became an American citizen by act of Pennsylvania legislature in March 1784 (and later by the New York authorities in July 1786). He was discharged from the military with honor on March 24, 1784.

He established residency in New York where he became a very prominent figure. His business acumen was not very keen, and he found himself in difficult financial condition once more. The primary reason was most likely the fact he was living off the prospect of financial compensation from the United States government which was unrealized until June of 1790 when he was granted a yearly pension of $2,500. His financial problems were not ironed out until Alexander Hamilton and other friends helped him gain a “friendly” mortgage on the property he was given in New York (about 16,000 acres). He died a bachelor on November 28, 1794, leaving his property to his former aides, William North and Benjamin Walker.

Contents taken from the following resources: