Sunday, November 15, 2020

ARP175 Von Steuben at Valley Forge

For the last couple of weeks we covered events in France and Britain and the US signed its first foreign treaty and Britain declared war on France.

Before that, we left the Continental Army cold, hungry, and slowly falling apart in Valley Forge.  

Baron von Steuben

In February of 1778, a Prussian officer made his way to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.  I mentioned Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus von Steuben back in Episode 136, when he met with Benjamin Franklin in Paris seeking a commission.  

Baron von Steuben
(from Wikimedia)
The 47 year old Von Steuben had served as an officer in the Prussian army as a young man.  He spent much of his early years in Russia, as his father had served as a lieutenant in the Russian war against the Turks.  By age 14, he was serving with his father in the War of Austrian Succession.  By age 17, he had his own commission in the Prussian Army and served in the Seven Years War.

Records of his service in the Seven Years War are sketchy, but he was wounded in two different battles during the war, and served as an adjutant for a couple of generals.  By the end of the war, the up and coming young officer had risen to the rank of captain, and was serving as an aide-de-camp on the staff of Frederick the Great.  When the war came to an end in 1763 though, so did von Steuben’s military career.  The size of the army shrank dramatically. Some officers remained in the peacetime army, but von Steuben did not make the cut.  

After leaving the army, Steuben got himself a position as a Hofmarschall (or what the British call a chamberlain) for a minor German prince.  In this role, he would be responsible for arranging events, trips, and supervising the household staff.  It could be a pretty good job with the right house.  Unfortunately, the prince who hired him was broke.  Steuben accompanied the family to France, where they tried to live rather simply while trying to raise cash.  In 1771 the prince bestowed the title of “baron” on his loyal assistant,

Despite their efforts, the prince, and von Steuben, remained broke.  By 1775 Steuben was looking to commission in any army that would take him.  He applied to the British, French, and Austrian armies, all with no luck.  There is some speculation that rumors of his homosexuality may have prevented his appointment.  There was no solid evidence to prove this, but there were apparently rumors of such activity circulating in Europe.

In 1777, Steuben got word that the Americans were looking for officers and went to see Benjamin Franklin.  By this time, the American Commissioners in Paris had already gotten pushback from Congress about the commissions that they had already offered.  So they would not send him with a pre-approved commission.  Instead, Franklin sent von Steuben to America with a letter recommending a commission and saying he had been a lieutenant general under Frederick the Great.  This mistake was later attributed to a translation error since he had never held a rank above captain.  Others argued that Franklin deliberately puffed up the resume of an officer that he liked.  Even so, Prussia had a reputation for one of the best trained armies in the world.  Franklin believed the Continentals badly needed von Steuben’s experience.

Arrival in America

Von Steuben’s ship reached Portsmouth, New Hampshire on December 1, 1777.  After spending ten days there, his party made its way to Boston.  There, he got a hero’s welcome, meeting with John Hancock and Samuel Adams.  What he did not get though, was any money.  He had arrived in America on some borrowed funds and had to cover his living expenses, and those of his small staff, as he awaited word from Congress about a commission.  While in Boston, he met several French officers whom Congress had rejected, and who were trying to find a way back to France.  At that point, Von Steuben began to worry that he had made a terrible mistake in coming.

Undeterred, he set out for York, Pennsylvania in mid-January,  hoping to make his case directly to Congress.  As it turned out, Congress had received word of his arrival and was interested in his services.  Even so, von Steuben found himself navigating the politics of the ongoing Conway Cabal (see Episode 171) as the head of the Board of War, Horatio Gates, and the Commander-in-Chief, George Washington, were barely on speaking terms.  Von Steuben met with Gates to assure him that he would not become a Washington partisan.  

 General von Steuben
(from Rev. War Journal)
There was also the issue of Continental soldiers resenting foreign adventurers getting commissions over them, as well as the Continental Congress not having any money.  Von Steuben agreed to serve as a gentleman volunteer, not taking a rank or salary in the army, at least until he had proven himself.  He only sought to have Congress cover his expenses.  Instead, he offered to work on commission asking that if, after Congress won the war and believed that he had contributed, that he be paid 600 guineas per year for his service, plus interest.  A guinea was gold and at the time was worth just a little more than a British pound sterling.  Congress always liked the idea of paying later, and accepted the offer.

Congress generally welcomed von Steuben and found his agreeable flexibility on rank and pay rather pleasant. Von Steuben’s view of Congress was a little different.  Most of the delegates had gone home for the winter by the time he arrived in York.  There were less than two dozen delegates still in York, and they were mostly the “B Team”.  Many of the more prominent delegates were not happy with York accommodations.  Not expecting much to happen over the winter, many found it a good time to take leave and go home.  That said, Congress was still in operation and trying to keep everything running.

As part of the negotiations, von Steuben requested that two French officers that had been denied commissions and whom he had met in Boston on their way home, be granted commissions as his aides.  Congress agreed and granted commissions to Fran├žois-Adrien de Romanet and an engineer named Pierre Charles L'Enfant.  The latter might be a recognizable name to some of you as he went on to design the new federal city at Washington after the war.

Although von Steuben did not demand a formal commission, Congress gave him one anyway: that of captain.  Von Steuben saw this as worse than no rank at all since it was far below what he was seeking.  Even one of his aides received a commission as major.  Congress, however, believed it important that he have some nominal commission in case the British captured him.  They wanted to ensure he would receive the courtesy given to other imprisoned officers.

With that, Steuben had the support of the Board of War under Horatio Gates, and the tentative support of the Continental Congress.  But all of this seemed to be a probationary trial.  Everyone wanted to see what this man could do before they were willing to bestow rank and money on this unknown quantity.

Valley Forge

By the end of February, von Steuben left York for Valley Forge.  General Washington met Steuben on the road with an honor guard to escort him into camp.  Washington was pleased to have the new officer who very much looked the role of a European general.  He wore his Prussian uniform with ribbons and medals on display.  He was a large barrel-chested man whose physical presence exuded leadership.  Washington also was impeccably dressed and also impressed European visitors with his appearance as a commanding officer.

However, von Steuben described his first encounter with Washington as rather awkward.  Washington did not greet him as a friend, nor did he show any deference to him.  Steuben took this as getting a bit of a cold shoulder.  In fact, it was Washington’s personality to greet virtually anyone with a formal reserve.  The fact that Washington’s rival, Horatio Gates, had sent von Steuben to him at least caused Washington to be a little wary of the new officer.  Again, Steuben would have to prove himself.

On visiting Valley Forge, von Steuben had to wonder what he had gotten himself into.  He saw men in camp naked and starving, on the verge of mutiny.  It may have looked more like a refugee camp than an army. Desertions were on the increase.  The main thing keeping many in camp was that they were too weak from hunger and cold to go anywhere.  On top of that, the top military and political leadership was divided into Team Washington and Team Gates with no real certainty that they would and could work together.

Von Steuben became the informal Inspector General for the army.  It had to be informal because General Thomas Conway still held that role.  After Washington had really given Conway the cold shoulder and refused to work with him unless explicitly ordered to do so, Congress had shipped off Conway to Peekskill.  

Even so, Conway retained his rank and position.  Until Conway resigned, or Congress terminated him, von Steuben could not become the inspector general.  That said, he took on the role and duties of inspector general, with plans to add more military discipline to the camp, and to train the soldiers in the practice of formal military field drills.

Training (from Rev. War Journal)
Despite the challenges, von Steuben was optimistic and excited to begin his new role.  He had been warned that all the officers were living in crude huts, but on his arrival he received as his quarters a nice stone house recently vacated by General de Kalb.  Von Steuben was limited in his ability to get to know his fellow officers by the fact that he did not speak English.  He did speak French pretty well.  The President of Congress Henry Laurens, had advised von Steuben to seek out his son, John Laurens, who was serving as Washington’s aide-de-camp.  Laurens spoke French and, having spent years in Europe, was hungry for good conversations with men of education and breeding.  

Laurens, and his fellow aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton, found themselves spending a great deal of time with von Steuben.  Their positive view of this new officer helped von Steuben’s standing with Washington, who trusted the judgment of his aides.  The relationship also helped his standing with Congress since John Laurens’ ongoing letters to his father helped assure the President of Congress that von Steuben would be a real asset to the army.

General Washington gave von Steuben free range of the camp and had him as a dinner guest on most nights for the first two weeks of his stay.  Von Steuben took careful notes and eventually reported his findings to Washington.  His final report was a rather blunt assessment of improper camp layout, unfinished defenses, and an ill-equipped and poorly-trained army.

Washington did not give much of any response to Von Steuben’s report, nor did he pass it along to Congress.  Some took this as concern that Washington was offended by the blunt assessment.  That, however, does not appear to be the case.  Washington was still looking for the best way to use this new asset.

Some in Congress wanted von Steuben to become the new Quartermaster General after General Thomas Mifflin had left the position.  He had served in that role in the Prussian Army.  However, the American Quartermaster would have to work with many civilians and merchants for the purchase of food and supplies.  A German-speaking officer without any experience in American mercantilism might not be the best choice.  Instead, Washington put him to work drilling the soldiers.  In March he became acting Inspector General.

Model Company

The role of drill master brought with it its own hurdles.  First, many of the soldiers were too sick, too ill-fed, or lacked clothing to march outside.  Von Steuben requested that the army give him a special company of 100 men, drawn from across all the regiments, who were sufficiently fit to drill.  He also took on 50 men from Washington’s elite Life Guards as part of his first group of trainees.  The goal was that von Steuben would train these men in basic drill, and that they would, in turn, go back to their regiments and train the others.

Steuben drills troops at Valley Forge
(from Wikimedia)
Even the 150 man group he began with was too much.  Von Steuben selected twenty of those men to drill while the others watched.  They started with the very basics, how to stand at attention and march in step.  Although Prussians have a reputation for strictness and a lack of a a sense of humor, von Steuben quickly adjusted this demeanor to laugh with the men as they screwed up, while gently correcting the smallest error to detail.

Even with just the small group, von Steuben had his problems.  One of the big ones was that he still could not speak English.  He had to give his commands in French, to an officer who would then translate into English.  The training was slow going at first, von Steuben would curse and shout when the inexperienced company screwed up a command.  There is a fun story of von Steuben calling over his translator and telling him to swear at the men in English for him.

Over the next few weeks, von Steuben learned the English swear words himself, but the model company also got better at the drill.  Von Steuben also quickly gained a favorable reputation.  He was one of the few officers in the American leadership who would regularly interact with the ranks and let them complain to him.  He also held parties at his house for junior officers.  According to one story, he said no one could come into the party who had a fully intact pair of pants.  This was in response to the fact that many men had tattered clothes that were literally falling off their bodies.  He wanted those who were suffering most from this deprivation not to feel ashamed about coming to his home for entertainment.  

The group quickly became known as the sans-culottes which in French means “without breeches.”  This is not to be confused with the radical group of the same name during the French Revolution.  That group took its name from the fact that its radical members chose to wear more modern trousers rather than the old fashioned knee breeches.  In von Steuben’s case, the men had no pants at all.  Given that von Steuben was also believed to have been a homosexual, there may have been other reasons why he enjoyed having young men hanging out in his home without pants.

During the drill, many officers and men from other regiments wandered over to watch the training.  Camp life was dull, and the men enjoyed watching Steuben scream and rant when the men screwed up a drill.  He found that the source of amusement worked for him and began exaggerating his temper tantrums.

Von Steuben focused on march and moving in lines rather than on firing their guns.  He wanted the men to look and feel like an army when marching onto a field.  The men already knew how to fire a gun, and doing that in precise steps was not as important.

Von Steuben did not have a training manual for the Continental Army.  He would later write the manual, which would be used until the end of the War of 1812.  But for now, he was using the memory of his old Prussian military drill and adapting it on the fly, as he saw fit.  Von Steuben also quickly realized that the American character would not accept an overbearing officer.  After the war, he wrote to a European colleague, commenting that, unlike a European soldier where you simply told them to do this or than and they obeyed, in America, you had to explain why it was important to do this or that, and then they obeyed.

Von Steuben’s training began in late March 1778.  After only a few days, General Washington saw the progress.  He ordered his regimental commanders to cease any training until they had received experience with von Steuben’s methods.  He also called on nominations from his officers for an Inspector General, ignoring the fact that General Conway in Peekskill still held that office as established by Congress.  A week later, Washington began referring to von Steuben as the Inspector General.  The model company began spreading the training throughout the regiments.  By mid-April, much of the army had received at least some training in the new drills.  

General von Steuben

Not only was General Washington impressed with Steuben’s results, the entire army seemed to fall in love with the new drillmaster.  He became highly popular with the officers and men, despite the language barrier between most of them.  

In late April, when Congress accepted General Conway’s offer to resign, Washington immediately wrote Congress requesting that von Steuben not only be given the position of Inspector General, but that he also be commissioned as a major general, with the full pay accorded to that rank.  Within days, Congress approved both of those recommendations..

Washington, however, did not inform Steuben immediately.  On May 1, Valley Forge received the news that France has signed the treaty of alliance.  The army celebrated that soon France would give them the much needed supplies, money, and armies they needed to defeat the British once and for all.  Washington called for a grand review of the army on May 6, to celebrate the French alliance and give Steuben an opportunity to show what the men could perform.  

The review went off well. Afterwards, the officers had a celebratory party and offered toasts all around.  Washington used the opportunity to inform von Steuben that he was now Major General von Steuben and that he was officially the Continental Army’s Inspector General.  The new general would have a full staff of aides and assistant inspector generals.  The Continental Army put its faith in him as a leader.

Next week, we are going to step away from Valley Forge again to hear about the Continental Navy and the sinking of the Randolph.

- - -

Next Episode 176 Sinking the Randolph 

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Further Reading


Armstrong, O.K. “He Transformed a Rabble Into an Army.” Prairie Schooner, vol. 21, no. 4, 1947, pp. 380–385. JSTOR,

Danckert, Stephen C. “A Genius for Training Baron Von Steuben and the Training of the Continental Army.” Army History, no. 17, 1990, pp. 7–10. JSTOR,

Fleming, Thomas “The Magnificent Fraud: How a lying poseur from Prussia gave America its army” American Heritage Magazine, Vol. 57, Issue, 1, Feb/Mar 2006.

Schellhammer, Michael “The Impact of General von Steuben” Journal of the American Revolution, May 23, 2013:

“From Benjamin Franklin to George Washington, 4 September 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Steuben, 6 December 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Doyle, Joseph Beatty Frederick William von Steuben and the American Revolution, Steubenville, Ohio: The H.C. Cook 1913. 

Greene, George Washington The German Element in the War of American Independence, New York: Hurd & Houghton, 1876.

Kapp, Friedrich The Life of Frederick William von Steuben,  New York: Mason, 1859.

Prowell, George R. Continental Congress at York, Pennsylvania and York County in the Revolution, The York Printing Co., 1914.

Steuben, Friedrich Regulations for the order and discipline of the troops of the United States : to which is added, an appendix, containing the United States militia act, passed in Congress, May, 1792 ; and the act for forming and regulating the militia in New-Hampshire, Exeter, N.H.: Henry Ranlet, 1794 

Woodman, Henry The History of Valley Forge, Oaks, Pa., J. U. Francis, 1922.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Buchanan, John The Road to Valley Forge: How Washington Built the Army that Won the Revolution, Wiley, 2004.

Chidsey, Donald Barr Valley Forge; An On-The-scene Account of the Winter Crisis in the Revolutionary War, Crown Publishing, 1959.

Drury, Bob & Clavin, Tom Valley Forge, Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Fleming, Thomas Washington's Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge, Smithsonian, 2005.

Flexner, James Thomas, George Washington in the American Revolution, 1775-1783, Little Brown, 1968.

Lockhart, Paul The Drillmaster of Valley Forge: The Baron de Steuben and the Making of the American Army, Smithsonian, 2008.

Von Steuben, Friedrich Wilhelm Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, Applewood Press, 2019 (reprint of original drill manual).

 Ward, Christopher The War of the Revolution, Macmillan, 1952. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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