von Steuben Portrait, Source: Wikipedia
Von Steuben’s Career as a Soldier
Von Steuben was a Prussian aristocrat born in Magdeburg, Germany on September 17th, 1730. Like his father, he became a solider at an early age. When the Seven Years’ War began in 1747, he was a second lieutenant and became a first lieutenant in 1759. After recovering from wounds suffered that year, he became a staff officer in the position of quartermaster. He was subsequently taken prisoner, released and promoted to captain and later became an aide-de-camp to Frederick the Great. Under Frederick the Great’s leadership, von Steuben attended the King’s personal class on the art of war. Here young soldiers were schooled in the art of leadership. Von Steuben was discharged from the Prussian Army in 1763 under auspicious circumstances (Magdeburg Tourist Information).
At this point von Steuben had already gained all the military experience that would make him so essential to the American Revolution.
In 1763 von Steuben was introduced to Louis de St. Germain in Hamburg. St. Germain later become the French Minister of War during the American Revolution. His casual relationship with St. Germain was renewed while von Steuben served as Grand Marshall to the Prince of Hollenzollern-Hechingen. Von Steuben acted as the administrative director for the Prince and his court during this period. His ties to the Duchess of Wurtemburg, a niece of Frederich the Great, led to von Steuben receiving the title of Baron.
Von Steuben travelled to France in 1777 looking for some sort of military occupation. In Paris, St. Germain introduced von Steuben to the American ambassadors to France, Silas Deane and Benjamin Franklin. The American ambassadors couldn’t offer von Steuben a paid position, so he left his first encounter with the Americans in ‘disgust’ (nps.gov/vafo/learn/history). But lacking any other tangible opportunities, eventually von Steuben decided to travel to America as a volunteer, with only his passage being paid by the French government.
Von Steuben in America
Von Steuben embarked for America on September 2, 1777 with his Italian greyhound, an aide-de- camp, and his military secretary. They arrived in Portsmouth, NH on December 1, 1777, where he and his party were almost arrested for wearing red uniforms similar to those of the British Army. Von Steuben and his party traveled from Portsmouth over land through Boston, to York, PA, arriving there on February 5,1777.
Von Steuben presented himself to Congress with a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin that included several inflated mistakes about von Steuben’s rank in the Prussian Army (nps.gov/ vafo/learn/history). But his interview was successful: Von Steuben was offered an arrangement to serve and be paid following successful completion of the war. The Baron was told to report to Valley Forge.
The first impression that von Steuben made upon the soldiers of Valley Forge was that of ‘an ancient fabled God of War’ (nps.gov/vafo/learn/history). His large stature, impressive horse and enormous pistols evidently made a big impression.
Von Steuben’s first task was to create standardized drills for the army, based on European methods. He could not speak or write in English, so he originally wrote the drills in French and his aide-de-camp translated them. Brigade inspectors and regiments received the drills, who copied them and handed them on to the companies. Von Steuben tried to make the drills as simple as possible, teaching the soldiers in the quickest possible time before moving on to the next set of troops. This is how the discipline and uniform maneuvers were quickly learned and integrated in an orderly fashion into the army procedures. In an unprecedented move, von Steuben also broke rank and worked often directly with the men. According to the National Park Systems history website, von Steuben’s talent for obscenities in several languages made him popular among the troops.
On May 6, the French Alliance enjoyed their first demonstration of the American troops’ new- found professionalism. Von Steuben was made a Major General, and shortly thereafter his troops brought the British Army to a standstill in a battle at Monmouth Courthouse, NJ.
Von Steuben went to Philadelphia in the winter of 1778-79 to write a book of regulations, which was translated into English by aids. The guide was used by the United States Army until 1814.
Von Steuben rejoined the Continental Army in 1779 and served through the remainder of the war. He was an instructor and supply officer to the southern army, which fought key battles that led to the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781.
Unfortunately, von Steuben didn’t receive all the money he requested for his services after the war. He sold various properties given to him by several states, but even the sale of these was not enough to cover his living expenses (nps.gov/vafo/learn/history). He retired to the Mohawk Valley in New York State on a 16,000 acre farm tract, where he died on November 28 ,1794.
Von Steuben Remembered
In Magdeburg, Germany there is a plaque that was funded and dedicated by the DAR on the main post office building, which was originally the site of the church where Wilhelm von Steuben was christened. There is also a bust of von Steuben in the City Hall and a reproduction of a statue found in Washington DC in Harnackstrasse. There is another copy of the statue in Potsdam, Germany as well.
In the United States, German-Americans celebrate Von Steuben Day in several states. The parade on Fifth Avenue in New York City is particularly notable. There are cities with the name ‘Steuben’ in Maine, New York, Wisconsin, Ohio (Steubenville) and Steuben Counties in Indiana and New York State.
The original von Steuben statue stands in Lafayette Park in Washington DC. It was created by Albert Jaegers and dedicated in December, 1910.
In 1915, Swiss-American sculptor Jakob Otto Schweizer also created a standing statue of von Steuben in Valley Forge.
Von Steuben’s name has also appeared on many plaques and naval vessels over the years.
We recognize General von Steuben posthumously on the occasion of his 292nd birthday with gratitude!
Magdeburg Tourist Information
National Park Service/Government/ValleyForge (nps.gov/vafo/learn/historyculture/ vonsteuben)