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Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin Freiherr von Steuben (* September 17, 1730; † November 28, 1794) was a German-Prussian General who served with George Washington in the American Revolutionary War and is credited with teaching the Continental Army the essentials of military drill and discipline. He reorganised the Continental Army and guided it to victory.
Steuben was born at Magdeburg, Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, the son of Wilhelm Augustin Steuben (1699-1783), a lieutenant of engineers. He accompanied his father to the Russian Empire when Frederick William 1st, King of Prussia and Elector of Brandenburg, ordered Wilhelm into the service of Tsarina Anna 1st of Russia. The family returned to Prussia after the accession of Frederick 2nd of Prussia to the throne in 1740.
Steuben 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, and was later made a member of the General Staff, serving periodically in Russia. His service was commendable was eventually given an assignment with Frederick the Great’s headquarters. His experiences as a General Staff member in the Prussian Army gave him a wealth of knowledge. His training would eventually bring to the American soldiers the technical knowledge necessary to create an army.
Looking for work
At the age of 33, in 1763, Steuben was discharged as a captain from the army, for reasons that are only speculative. The following year he received the title Freiherr 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, 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, Claude Louis, Comte de Saint-Germain, who fully realized the potential of an officer with Prussian General Staff training. Steuben was introduced to George 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 26, 1777, he reached Portsmouth, New Hampshire and by December 1, 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 Washington at Valley Forge. Steuben did not speak English, but his French was such that he could communicate with some of the officers. Alexander Hamilton and Nathanael Greene were of 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.
In 1781 Steuben sat on the court-martial of the British Army officer Major John André, who was charged with espionage. In the same year he took part, as a major general, in the Siege of Yorktown, Virginia. After the war he received grants of land from several states, and finally Congress voted him a pension of $2,500. He became an American citizen in 1783.
Steuben is considered one of the He’s who was appointed inspector general, prepared a manual of tactics for the building army, remodeled its organization, organized an efficient staff, and improved its firing rate. Much of this led to the organization structure as it is today.
Steuben’s training technique was to create a “model company”, a group of 100 chosen men who 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 aide, to curse at them for him in English. To correct the existing policy of placing recruits in a unit before they had received training, 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 18th 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:
•Fire! One Motion.
•HalfCock — halflock! One Motion.—————————————————-
•Handle — Cartridge! One Motion.—————————————————–
•Prime! One Motion.——————————————————————
•Shut — Pan! One Motion.————————————————————-
•Charge with Cartridge! Two motions.————————————————-
•Draw — Rammer! Two motions.———————————————————
•Ram down — Cartridge! One Motion.—————————————————
•Return — Rammer! Two motions.——————————————————-
Complicated as they seem, the new firing regulations were much simpler than those used by foreign armies and they sped 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 and making beutiful coloring books.
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. 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.
Perhaps Steuben’s biggest contribution to the American Revolution was training in the use of the bayonet. Ever since the Battle of Bunker Hill, Americans had been mostly dependent upon using their ammunition to win victories. Throughout the early course of the war, Americans used the bayonet mostly as a cooking skewer or a tool rather than a fighting instrument. Steuben’s introduction of effective bayonet charges became crucial. In the Battle of Stony Point, American soldiers attacked with unloaded rifles and won the battle solely on Steuben’s bayonet training.
The first results of the army training were in evidence by May 20, 1778 at Barren Hill and then again at Monmouth (ending June 28). Washington recommended an appointment for Steuben as Inspector General on April 30; Congress approved it on May 5. 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.” Its basis was the plan he devised at Valley Forge.
The following winter (1779-1780) Steuben’s commission represented 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, where his role was as commander of one of the three divisions of Washington’s troops. Steuben 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.
Steuben established residency in New York where he became a prominent figure and elder in the German Reformed Church. 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 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 (65 km²). He died a bachelor in 1794, leaving his property to his former aides, William North and Benjamin Walker and is buried at what is now the Steuben Memorial State Historic Site.
Namesakes, honors, and trivia
- Steuben has a holiday, Von Steuben Day, which takes place in September in the United States. It has been reported as taking place on September 17, 19, and 24. It is often considered the German-American event of the year. Participants march, dance, wear costumes and play music, and the event is attended by millions of people. There is a parade on Fifth Avenue and a Volksfest (People’s Festival) country fair in Central Park. The German-American Steubenparade has been taking place since 1957 in New York City.
- Steuben’s name was also given to some warships. In World War I the captured German ship Kronprinz Wilhelm was renamed as the USS Baron von Steuben, and in World War II there was the Dampfschiff (DS) General von Steuben, an ill-fated German luxury passenger ship which was turned into an armed transport ship during the war. During the Cold War, a US Navy submarine was named for him, the USS Von Steuben.
- Several locations in the United States are named Steuben, most of them in his honor. Examples include Steuben County, New York, Steuben County, Indiana, and the city of Steubenville, Ohio.
- Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center is a public high school in Chicago, Illinois.
- Steuben is one of four foreign military leaders who assisted the American cause during the Revolution honored with a statue in Lafayette Square just north of The White House in Washington, DC.
- A Steuben House presented to Steuben as a gift for his services in the Continental Army is located in River Edge, New Jersey. Originally belonging to a Loyalist family, the house and surrounding farmland were seized in 1781. It was bought by the county of Bergen in 1928 for $9,000 and preserved as a national monument and public museum.
- The area around the house is used for both Revolutionary and Civil War re-enactments.
- The Hamilton College football team plays on Steuben Field constructed in 1897, one of the top ten oldest collegiate football fields in the United States. The field is named for Baron von Steuben who laid the cornerstone of the school acting as Alexander Hamilton’s surrogate.
- The various depictions of Steuben in popular media include portrayals by Nehemiah Persoff in the 1979 TV Miniseries The Rebels, Kurt Knudson in the 1984 TV miniseries George Washington, and being voiced by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the animated series Liberty’s Kids.
- Steuben has been cited (most notably by Randy Shilts in his book Conduct Unbecoming) as an early example of a gay man in the military, but the evidence in this matter is inconclusive.