Born Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben, Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben was a military officer in the American Revolution from Prussia. Called one of the fathers of the Continental Army, Steuben served as both an inspector general and a major general in the Revolution. He taught the army military drills, tactics, and disciplines and was a chief of staff for George Washington.
On September 17, 1730, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben was born in Magdeburg, a fortress town in Prussia. His father, Captain Baron Wilhelm von Steuben, was a Royal Prussian Engineer and his mother was Silvia Sue Steuben. The young Baron von Steuben accompanied his father to Crimea and Kronstadt when he came into the service of Empress Anna. The two stayed in Kronstadt until the the Russo-Turkish War began. When his father returned to Prussia, Steuben was educated by Jesuits in Neisse and Breslau, two garrison towns.
Seventeen year old Steuben joined the Royal Prussian Army as a second lieutenant in the Seven Years’ War in 1756. However, he was wounded at the Battle of Prague. In 1759, he was promoted to first lieutenant after serving as General Johann von Mayer’s adjutant to the free battalion. Once again, he was wounded at the Battle of Kunersdorf that August. A few years later in June of 1961, Steuben was appointed deputy quartermaster at the general headquarters, but was taken prisoner by the Russians at Treptow only a few months later. Soon, he became a captain and one of Frederick the Great’s aide-de-camps. One of thirteen young officers, Steuben was chosen in 1762 to participate in a special course the king was holding for instruction. But as the army was reduced at the end of the war in 1763, Steuben, like many others, was left unemployed.
Steuben became Fürst Josef Friedrich Wilhelm of Hohenzollern-Hechingen’s Hofmarschall (an official in charge of a prince’s German court who supervised economic affairs) in 1764. He would hold this post until 1777. Frederick the Great’s niece, the Duchess of Wurttemberg, presented Steuben in 1769 with the “Cross of the Order of De la Fidelite.” In 1771, Steuben had been made Baron von Steuben, accompanying the price to France that same year. The purpose of the trip was to, hopefully, borrow money. But they failed to find funds as returned to Germany deep in debt in 1775.
In Hamburg, Steuben had been formally introduced to Claude Louis, Comte de Saint-Germain, who would soon become the French Minister of War, in 1763. Steuben met him once again on a trip to Paris in 1777. While there, the Comte realized there was potential to a Prussian officer with general staff training and then introduced him to Benjamin Franklin. However, the American politician was not able to give Steuben a rank, nor pay, in the Continental Army. This was due to the Continental Congress tiring of the many foreign mercenaries demanding a high rank and pay in the American army, leading to discontent in the ranks. Instead, Steuben would have to go to America to present himself to Congress as just a volunteer. Disgusted, Steuben left and returned to Prussia. But when he returned, he was met with allegations that he and young men in Price Josef Friedrich Wilhelm of Hohenzollern-Hechingen had engaged in homosexual relationships. In the end, these allegations were never actually proven to be true. Steuben was threatened with persecution for apparent homosexulaity, causing him to leave Prussia and return to Paris. These rumours even followed him all the way to America.
George Washington was introduced to Steuben through way of Franklin’s letters by the Comte’s recommendation. Franklin described him as a “Lieutenant General in the King of Prussia’s service.” With travel funds, Steuben left Marseilles and Europe all together on September 26, 1777, boarding a frigate called the Flamand.
Steuben was accompanied by many on his trip to America, Azor (his Italian Greyhound), Louis de Pontiére (his aide de camp), Peter Stephen Du Ponceau (his military secretary), and a few others. They arrived at Portsmouth, New Hampshire a few months after their departure on December 1, 1777. Immediately the British almost arrested them because Steuben had given his companions red uniforms. Upon reaching Boston, they were entertained extravagantly. Steuben and his men arrived in York, Pennsylvania on February 5, 1778, which was where the Continental Congress had had to relocate to. They began to arrange for him to be paid after the war for his contributions. Later that month of February 23, he reached Valley Forge, reporting for duty as a volunteer.
General George Washington appointed Steuben as a temporary inspector general shortly after he arrived at Valley Forge. Steuben went out to the camp, talking with the men and officers and then inspecting their huts and scrutinizing their equipment. He began establishing sanitation standards and camp layouts that would remain in use for over 150 years. Whers before, they had not had any arrangements set for tents and huts. Steuben also had kitchens and latrines (men had been able to relieve themselves wherever they wished prior to these arrangements) on the opposite sides of camp.
By recommendation of General Washington, Steuben was appointed inspector general of the army by the Continental Congress. This also gave him the rank, along with pay, of a major general. As the internal administration was abandoned and no books with supplies, clothing, or men were kept, Steuben became aware of this. He began to enforce that they keep exact records of everything and strict inspections that saved the army from nearly losing 5,000-8,000 muskets.
120 men were chosen from various different regiments by Steuben so he could form an honor guard for the General. These men were used to demonstrate military training for the other troops. They also trained other people who were at Regimental and Brigade levels. Steuben would train the soldiers twice a day in his full military dress uniform while the soldiers themselves did not even have proper clothing.
Originally, Steuben wrote out his drills in the Prussian German because he did not speak or write much English. Du Ponceau, his secretary, would translate the drills into French. After that, Washington translated them into English. Every single night they would do this so the following morning, Washington could command his soldiers. Both Colonel Alexander Hamilton and General Nathanael Greene were of great assistance in assisting Steuben as he drafted a training program to use on the army. He was popular among the soldiers for his willingness and ability to work with them and use of profanity in various languages. Steuben also met Captain Benjamin Walker there, his reputed future lover. Within weeks of the two meeting, Steuben had made him his aide-de-camp.
Starting with the school of a soldier with and without arms, Steuben introduced a new progressive training system. Then, the soldiers would go through the school of the regiment. Steuben’s new training system fixed the previous system where personnel were assigned to regiments. While each commander was responsible for training new men, sergeants were selected to do the actual training.
Bayonets were used mainly for cooking or as a tool instead of a weapon at the beginning of the war. Steuben, however, effectively introduced bayonet characters that would later become crucial. The Battle of Stony Point was won by the Americans all because of Steuben’s bayonet training. The first evident results of his training was at the Battle of Barren Hill in May of 1778. They were also shown at the Battle of Monmouth that June. At this point, Steuben was serving in Washington’s headquarters and was also the first to realize that the enemy was on its way to Monmouth.
More commonly known as the “Blue Book”, the Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States was prepared by Steuben during the Winter of 1778-79. The book was the basis for his training plan used at Valley Forge. The U.S. Army would continue to use this until 1814.
Steuben was on the court-martial of Major John André, the British Army officer, in 1780. André had been captured and charged with espionage, having worked with General Benedict Arnold. Afterwards, he traveled with Nathanael Greene, who was the Southern campaign’s new commander. Steuben stayed in Virginia, which was where the American soldiers and supplies were to be provided from. He would also help with Virginia’s defense with 1,000 militia fighting in the Battle of Blandford. Steuben continued to aid Greene in the southern campaign in the spring of 1781. He culminated the delivery of 450 men from the Continental Army that june to the Marquis de Lafayette. Although, Steuben had to take sick leave. He did rejoin the army just in time for the final campaign, Yorktown. There, he took on the role as a commander of one of Washington’s three divisions.
At the end of the war, General Henry Knox was joined by Steuben in the fall of 1782 at Vail’s Gate, which was near West Point. They moved to the Verplanck homestead at Mount Gulian in early 1783 from Newburgh, which was where Washington’s headquarters were located. After the war in 1783, Steuben also assisted Washington in demobilizing the army. He also helped him to create the new nation’s defense plan. Later that year in May, Steuben presided over the Society of the Cincinnati’s founding. On March 24, 1784, the Baron von Steuben was discharged with honor.
By the act of the Pennsylvania legislature that March, he became an American citizen. In July 1786, New York authorities also made Steuben an American citizen. He resigned from service when the war ended and settled with William North, his longtime companion. Steuben had formally adopted both North and Captain Benjamin Walker, making them his heirs. They settled on his retreat on Manhattan Island and Steuben became a prominent figure and elder of the German Reformed Church. He also served as the German Society of the City of New York’s president from 1785 until his death. The society was a charity founded in 1784 to assist immigrants from Germany.
Steuben was very much in debt, despite the large sums of money given to him by the U.S. Congress. They began rewarding him with a $2500 annual pension in 1790. He kept the annual pension until his death.
The State of New Jersey presented Steuben with an estate in Bergen County on December 23, 1783. The estate is now known as Steuben House. It had originally belonged to Jan Zabriskie. The Loyalist’s house was confiscated from him. The estate was made up of about 40 acres of land and was located on New Bridge Landing. Considerable amounts of money were spent by Steuben to repair any wartime damages to the house.
Full title to Zabriskie’s estate was given to Steuben by the New Jersey Legislature on September 5, 1788. A month later, Steuben recognized how poor his financial stat was. He wrote to William North, saying that “The jersey Estate must and is to be sold. Walker is my adminstrator, all dets are to be paid out out of it.” Once again, he wrote North in November of 1788, telling him that the estate was “advertised but not yet sold.” At that point, Steuben was living in Duanesburg, New York. Eventually, the estate was sold to the former owner’s son. Until 1909, it remained in the Zabriskie family.
On November 28, 1794, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben was at his Oneida County estate when the sixty-four year old died. He was then buried in a grove that was later known as the Steuben Memorial State Historic Site. His estate became a part of Steuben, New York, a town named for him. Steuben left his estate to Captains Benjamin Walker and William North