He was not technically a baron, although he called himself one; but at the time, George Washington could use all the help he could get, and in Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, Washington found exactly what his rag-tag army needed: America's first drill instructor. He literally wrote the book on war.
Friedrich von Steuben was born on September 17, 1730 in the city of Magdeburg in present-day Germany. At the age of 16 he became an officer in the Prussian military and served in the Seven Years' War. In 1762 he was selected to attend an elite school for advanced military training, the Spezialklasse der Kriegskunst; (special class for the art of war).
At the end of the war, Steuben, like many other officers, found himself without a job. He acquired a position as chamberlain to a German prince, but still found himself plagued by debt. He lost that job too, due to accusations of homosexuality and pedophilia. He sought employment with various foreign armies, ultimately arriving in Paris in 1777, where he was introduced to Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was in France at the time negotiating with the French for aid in the American Revolution and saw how useful a man of Steuben's training could be. He wrote a letter of introduction for Steuben and sent him to America.
Steuben reported for duty to General Washington at Valley Forge on February 23, 1778, accompanied by a couple aides and his faithful greyhound, Azor. He had impressed Congress with his credentials (only slightly exaggerated) and by volunteering to serve without pay; at least for the time being. He said he didn't want to command troops; only to drill them.
And the troops were in sore need of drill. Poorly-clad, armed with rusty muskets and with practically no training other than whatever skill in marksmanship they possessed, the soldiers of Washington's army were woefully disorganized. What's more, they were proud and independent; European standards of military discipline were alien to them. Steuben complained in a letter that with Prussians or Austrians "you say to your soldier, 'Do this,' and he does it, but I am obliged to sy, 'This is the reason you ought to do that.' And then he does it."
Steuben's first task was to write a training program detailing how to do things which became the army's first field manual. He spoke no English, so he wrote the manual in French and it was translated into English by an aide and polished by Alexander Hamilton. The manual covered everything, from the correct posture for a soldier at attention to the procedure for firing a musket. Breaking it down into eight counts and fifteen motions, he was able to streamline the complicated process of loading and firing. He also trained the men in the use of the bayonet, something the American troops had little practice with. But instead of simply imposing Prussian discipline and precision on the men, he adapted it to the situation he had, and in doing so was able to make the American companies more flexible than their British counterparts.
One major improvement Steuben made was in the area of hygiene. He set the latrines on the opposite end of the camp from the kitchens and bade the men not to just relieve themselves wherever they stood. When an animal died, instead of just stripping the carcass and leaving it rot where it lay, they were to dispose of it. He even insisted that the men wash their hands once a day and bathe when the river was high.
Steuben felt that a good officer should gain the love of his men by treating them with kindness and respect and by being aware of their complaints; but he was not above cussing out his troops when the situation demanded it. There his lack of English was a major obstacle. The men would laugh at him when he shouted "Sacre Goddam!" and once he had to call to his translator, "These fellows won't do what I tell them! Come swear for me!"
Steuben performed a vital role in molding the Continental Army into a professional fighting force, able to face the British on the enemy's own terms. At Washington's recommendation, Steuben was promoted to the rank of major general and granted the post of Inspector General.
After Valley Forge, Steuben helped plan the Battle of Monmouth in June 1778, and sat on the court martial of the British spy Major John André. He accompanied General Nathaniel Green during the Southern Campaign of the war, and commanded one of Washington's divisions at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781
After the war, Steuben was awarded American citizenship and settled on Manhatten Island. He helped found a veteran's organization and was appointed a regent for what became the State University of New York. He never married and had no children. He died on November 28, 1794
Game and Story Use
- In a historical or time travel campaign set during the American Revolution, Baron von Steuben might be an interesting NPC to meet.