Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Von Steuben (1730-1794)

By FIN

Friedrich Wilhem von Steuben and the American Revolution

By Lorna Luniewski

This is a name that many may not be familiar with, myself included, but Baron von Steuben is credited with being one of the fathers of the Continental Army, teaching military drills, tactics and disciplines. He is still considered one of the most important German Americans, as his training of the young American troops helped the United States gain independence from Britain during the American Revolution. He was rumored to be homosexual, although records of his relationships are only referenced in correspondences since homosexuality was illegal at the time.

Von Steuben (1730-1794), was born in Madgeburg, Germany. At the age of 17, he joined the Prussian Army and served as a second lieutenant during the Seven Years’ War in 1756, was wounded in 1757, was promoted to first lieutenant in 1759, and was taken prisoner by the Russians in 1961. His rise in the military continued and he achieved the rank of captain and served as aide-de-camp to Frederick the Great. At the end of the war in 1763, he, like many officers, found himself unemployed.

Steuben was formally introduced to the future French Minister of War, Claude Louis, Comte de Saint-Germain, in Hamburg, in 1763. They met again in Paris in 1777, and the count, knowing the potential of an officer with Prussian general staff training, introduced him to Benjamin Franklin. It turned out Franklin could not offer Steuben a rank or pay in the American army however. The Continental Congress was weary of foreign mercenaries coming to America and demanding a high rank and pay, and promotion of these men over qualified American officers caused dissension. Steuben would have to go to America strictly as a volunteer, and present himself to Congress. He left these first meetings disheartened and went back to Prussia.

When he returned home, Steuben faced allegations that he engaged in homosexual relationships with young men while in the service of Prince Josef Friedrich Wilhelm of Hohenzollern-Hechingen. Although never proven, Steuben knew the allegations would thwart his chances at an officer’s position in Europe, and with prosecution for his alleged homosexuality a possibility, Steuben returned to Paris. With the count’s recommendation, Steuben was introduced to George Washington by means of a letter from Franklin as a Lieutenant General in the King of Prussia’s service, an exaggeration of his actual credentials, which may have been mistranslated from his service record. He was given travel money and left Europe in 1777, arriving in the United States with his Italian Greyhound Azor (which he took with him everywhere); his young aide-de-camp Louis de Pontière; his military secretary, 17-year-old Peter Stephen Du Ponceau (rumored to have been his lover); and two other companions.

He arrived at Valley Forge on Feb. 23, 1778, and reported for duty as a volunteer. Washington appointed Steuben as temporary inspector general. He talked with the officers and men, inspected their huts, and examined their equipment. Steuben established standards of sanitation and camp layouts that were still customary more than a century later. He created 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. The internal administration had been neglected and no books had been kept on supplies, clothing or men. Steuben enforced the keeping of exact records and strict inspections.

He could only speak and write a small amount of English, so Steuben wrote the drills in German, his secretary then translated the drills into French, and a secretary for Washington translated them into English. Colonel Alexander Hamilton and General Nathanael Greene were instrumental in assisting Steuben in implementing a new training program for the Army.

Steuben introduced a system of progressive training, starting with the schooling of the soldier, with and without arms, and going through the schooling of the regiment. This changed the previous policy of just assigning personnel to regiments. Each company commander was responsible for the training of new men, but actual instruction was done by sergeants specifically chosen for being the best. On May 5, 1778, on General Washington’s recommendation, Congress appointed Steuben inspector general of the army, with the rank and pay of major general.

During the winter of 1778-1779, Steuben prepared “Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States,” commonly known as the “Blue Book.” Based on the training plan he had devised at Valley Forge, it was used by the United States Army until 1814, and affected U.S. drills and tactics until the Mexican-American War of 1846.

Steuben helped Washington demobilize the army in 1783, and aided in the defense plan of the new nation. He was discharged from the military with honor on March 24, 1784. He became a U.S. citizen by act of the Pennsylvania legislature in March 1784. The war over, Steuben resigned from service and first settled with his longtime companion, William North, at his retreat on Manhattan Island, where he became a prominent figure and elder in the German Reformed Church. From 1785 until his death in 1794, he served as president of the German Society of the City of New York, a charitable organization founded in 1784 to assist German immigrants.

In 1783, New Jersey gave him the use of an estate in Bergen County now known as Steuben House, which had been confiscated from Loyalist Jan Zabriskie in 1781, and he received full title to the estate in 1788. In debt, Steuben sold the property to a son of the previous owner, and it remained in the Zabriskie family until 1909. Von Steuben moved upstate New York, and settled in Oneida County on a small estate in the vicinity of Rome, on land granted to him for his military service. He was later appointed a regent for what evolved into the University of the State of New York.

Steuben did not marry and had no children. At Valley Forge he began close relationships with Benjamin Walker and William North, both military officers in their 20s, which are considered to have been romantic. Steuben formally adopted Walker and North and made them his heirs. A third young man, John W. Mulligan Jr., also thought of himself as one of Steuben’s “sons” and inherited Steuben’s extensive library, collection of maps and $2,500 in cash.

Steuben died on Nov. 28, 1794, at his estate in Oneida County, and was buried in a grove at what became the Steuben Memorial State Historic Site. The estate became part of the town of Steuben, New York, which was named for him.

Von Steuben Day is celebrated across the country in mid-September, with parades, dance, music and traditional German food and beer. The first Von Steuben Parade was held in New York City in 1957. The annual parade on Fifth Avenue takes place on the third Saturday of September, and is followed by an Oktoberfest-style celebration in Central Park.

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