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Architect of U.S. military training; during the darkest days at Valley Forge, Washington's prayers were answered: a military master capable of turning untrained troops into efficient soldiers arrived on the scene. (History--Struggle for Freedom).

One of my earliest childhood memories is that of riding past a "Dutch colonial," brown sandstone farmhouse built on the bank of the Hackensack River in River Edge, New Jersey. Whenever we crossed the bridge spanning the river near the old homestead, someone would point out that this was the "Steuben House." Eventually, an elementary school teacher explained who Steuben was: Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, a Prussian baron and military officer who provided critical leadership in the American War for Independence. In so doing, he joined the ranks of several other European-born champions of liberty who aided the American cause, including the French military officer Marquis de Lafayette; the Polish military engineer Thaddeus Kosciusko; and the Polish patriot Count Casimir Pulaski, called the "Father of the American Cavalry."

Steuben was born in Magdeburg, Prussia--now north central Germany--in 1730. He entered the Prussian army in 1746, eventually becoming a staff captain and aide-de-camp to Frederick the Great. He was also a military attache with the Prussian embassy to Czar Peter III. Fortunately for Steuben, King Frederick the Great--considered the greatest military genius of his age--had personally selected the young Prussian for special training in military science. In 1763, Steuben secured the post of Grand Marshall in the court of the Prince of Hohenzollern-Hechingen. The following year, he became that court's chamberlain and received the title of "Baron." Steuben served in several foreign armies including Austria, Baden, and France. But by 1777 he was a military man without an army in which to serve. Upon learning that Benjamin Franklin was in Paris, he decided to approach the American diplomat to see if the Continental Army in America could use his services.

The French Minister of War, Count de St. Germain, appreciated the value of Steuben's Prussian military training and introduced the baron to Benjamin Franklin. Steuben could not have found a better advocate than Franklin, who penned a letter to General Washington awarding him the title of "Lieutenant General in the King of Prussia's service," which was perhaps an early example of resume exaggeration! With Franklin's encouragement, Steuben sailed from Marseilles and reached Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In a letter to the Continental Congress dated December 6,1777, Steuben offered his services:

Honorable Gentlemen:

The honor of serving a respectable Nation, engaged in the noble enterprise of defending its rights and Liberty, is the only motive that brought me over to this Continent. I ask neither riches nor titles. I am come here from the remotest end of Germany at my own expense, and have given up an honorable and lucrative rank; I have made no condition with your Deputies in France, nor shall I make any with you. My only ambition is to serve you as a Volunteer, to deserve the confidence of your General in Chief, and to follow him in all his operations, as I have done during seven campaigns with the King of Prussia.

Steuben then proceeded to Boston to present his letters of introduction to John Hancock, a member of the Continental Congress. While there, he also met Samuel and John Adams. In January 1778, Steuben received a reply from General Washington, asking him to proceed to York, Pennsylvania, where Congress had been meeting since being driven from Philadelphia by the British. Once there, he would present his credentials to Congress to consider his offer to serve. John Hancock provided him with a sleigh and horses for the wintertime journey.

The baron met with the Congress in York, and the body accepted his offer to serve without pay. In February, Steuben reported to General Washington at Valley Forge. When the baron arrived at the army's camp in the dead of winter, he was shocked to find half-naked troops, rusty equipment, and poor sanitation. His first comment was, "No European army could be kept together in such a state."

Steuben Begins His Training

He took a few weeks to take stock of the situation, then started personally training 120 soldiers to become a model company. Drill instruction began before dawn, and continued through the day. Even in those days, sergeants, not officers, trained troops. So Steuben's hands-on approach was considered novel. He overcame his inability to speak English by demonstrating the manual of arms with a musket in pantomime fashion. The communications dilemma was eventually solved when it was discovered that both Steuben and the English-born Captain Benjamin Walker were fluent in French. Walker served as a translator and became the baron's aide and close friend for the remainder of his life.

One of Steuben's main areas of concentration was developing a more efficient system for loading and firing the cumbersome muskets then in use. The speed with which the single-shot muskets could be fired and reloaded in the field could largely determine whether a unit would be victorious. Trainees were drilled until they could perform the 15 motions required in each firing cycle swiftly and automatically.

Disease decimated many armies in the days before modem medicine, and Steuben developed camp sanitation techniques still in use. In considering where to place latrines, Steuben logically placed them downhill from the water supply. He also focused on developing methods for sanitary food handling and food waste disposal.

During the winter of 1778-1779, Steuben wrote his Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States (commonly referred to as the Blue Book), the first field manual used by the U.S. Army. Congress endorsed this classic work of military science on March 29, 1779, and most state militias soon adopted it. In a lesson taught by the United States Army Cadet Command Headquarters entitled "Steps From the Past," it is observed: "The Army did not change the drill procedures initiated at Valley Forge for 85 years, until the American Civil War. In fact, many of those original drill terms and procedures still remain in effect today."

Above all, Steuben set protocols for how officers and enlisted men should interact that still inspire our military. He demanded strict discipline, without which a military unit cannot function, but he also abandoned the aloofness of European officers and--like Washington demonstrated genuine concern for the men in his command.

The "Instructions for the Captain" that Steuben listed in his Blue Book included this advice:

A Captain cannot be too careful of the company the state has committed to his charge. He must pay the greatest attention to the health of his men, their discipline, arms, accoutrements, ammunition, clothes and necessaries. His first object should be, to gain the love of his men, by treating them with every possible kindness and humanity, inquiring into their complaints, and when well founded, seeing them redressed. He should know every man of his company by name and character. He should often visit those who are sick, speak tenderly to them, see that the public provision, whether of medicine or diet, is duly administered, and procure them besides such comforts and conveniences as are in his power. The attachment that arises from this kind of attention to the sick and wounded, is almost inconceivable; it will moreover be the means of preserving the lives of many valuable men.

This combination of order, discipline, and genuine concern produced military units that not only operated efficiently, but in which the fighting men had a sense of personal loyalty toward their commanders.

Results on the Battlefield

We would not recall Steuben's efforts today had they not produced results on the battlefield. Indeed, the change in the tide in the War for Independence was apparent soon after the baron had trained his first troops. When British troops commanded by General Howe evacuated Philadelphia and marched toward New York, the colonials pursued them across New Jersey, where they met in the famous battle of Monmouth Courthouse. The talented, but headstrong, American General Charles Lee disobeyed orders to pursue the British and attack their rear guard and instead ordered a retreat. Only the personal intervention of General Washington, who rode along the lines rallying the troops, prevented disaster. (Lee was later court-martialed for his disobedience and suspended from command for 12 months. During the court-martial, Washington temporarily appointed Steuben to command one wing of the army.) Steuben performed magnificently at Monmouth, rallying the broken left flank of the American army while under cannon fire, and march ing it calmly back into the battle. Colonel Alexander Hamilton commented on Steuben's leadership that he "had never known nor conceived the value of military discipline until that day."

When 6,000 British and Hessian soldiers threatened military stores at Washington's Morristown headquarters in June of 1780, Steuben was given command both of Continental troops and New Jersey militiamen. The British were beaten back, and they finally retreated to Staten Island. Washington ordered General Steuben to inspect the fort at West Point, which General Benedict Arnold was preparing to surrender to the British. At this time, Steuben assumed the position of division commander in Washington's army as it advanced into Bergen County, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from upper Manhattan Island. When Benedict Arnold's confederate, the British Major John Andre, was captured in September 1780, Steuben sat on the military court that tried Andre.

The next month, Washington sent Steuben to Virginia to assist General Nathanael Greene in building an army to defend the South. Greene (the "Rhode Island Ironmaster") had done a brilliant job as quartermaster at Valley Forge, securing the food, clothing, and equipment Washington's small army needed to survive as a fighting unit. Greene was just as effective on the battlefield, engaging in a series of duels with the armies of the British General Comwallis, contributing to the eventual British defeat. Steuben concluded his military service to America as a division commander in the trenches surrounding the British at Yorktown--the final battle of the war--where General Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, 1781.

After the War

The Treaty of Paris, signed on September 3, 1783, officially sealed American independence. Three months later, Washington said farewell to his officers--including Steuben--at a victory banquet held in the Long Room of Fraunces Tavern, near New York's Wall Street. A few weeks later, George Washington penned a letter to Steuben expressing his gratitude:

Annapolis, December 23, 1783

My Dear Baron: Although I have taken frequent opportunities, both in public and private, of acknowledging your zeal, attention and abilities in performing the duties of your office, yet I wish to make use of this last moment of my public life to signify in the strongest terms my entire approbation of your conduct, and to express my sense of the obligations the public is under to you for your faithful and meritorious service.

I beg you will be convinced, my dear Sir, that I should rejoice if it could ever be in my power to serve you more essentially than by expressions of regard and affection. But in the meantime I am persuaded you will not be displeased with this farewell token of my sincere friendship and esteem for you.

This is the last letter I shall ever write while I continue in the service of my country. The hour of my resignation is fixed at twelve this day, after which I shall become a private citizen on the banks of the Potomac, where I shall be glad to embrace you, and testify the great esteem and consideration, with which I am, my dear Baron, your most obedient and affectionate servant.

George Washington

During that same period, Steuben, while living in a leased home on Manhattan known as the "Louvre," wrote to the New Jersey legislature to inform them that he was "anxiously desirous to become a citizen of the State of New Jersey." On the same day that Washington had written to him, New Jersey state legislators informed the baron that, as compensation for his "many and signal services to the United States of America," they were presenting him with the use of a farmhouse confiscated from a Tory named Zabriskie. For several years, Steuben divided his time between his "city house" in upper Manhattan and the "country" house across the river in New Jersey with which this writer is so familiar.

But, like many veterans of the War for Independence, Steuben fell on hard times financially. Several states awarded Steuben properties as payment for his contribution to the war, making Steuben land-rich but cash-poor. To stave off bankruptcy, he sold off all his properties, except for a 16,000-acre tract in Remsen, Oneida County, in the Mohawk Valley of New York. In 1788, he sold the brown sandstone farmhouse in New Jersey to one Jan Zabriskie, the son of the Tory from whom it had been originally confiscated, for 1,200 New York pounds. Steuben spent his remaining four years in the rustic log house he had built on his heavily forested tract, living mainly on an annual pension of $2,500 that Congress granted him in 1790.

He spent his days reading, gardening, and in conversation with his friends, including his old aide, Captain Benjamin Walker. Occasionally, he played chess or went hunting.

In November 1794, the retired soldier was overcome by paralysis (most likely a stroke) and died within days. His body was buried in his military cloak, bearing the baron's star of knighthood, which he had always worn. His servants and a few neighbors buried him in a grave surrounded by a deep forest. A stone was placed on his grave, with the inscription, "Major General Frederick William Augustus, Baron DeSteuben."
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Article Details
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Author:Mass, Warren
Publication:The New American
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 21, 2003
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