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Major General Von Steuben

Frederick Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben, the son of a Captain of Engineers in the army of King Frederick William I of Prussia was born on September 17, 1730, at Magdeburg, Germany. Not too much is known of his early life, but historians state he was educated at Jesuit schools and at age 14 he served as volunteer with his father in one the campaigns of the Austrian Succession War. At age 16 he entered the Prussian Army and in 1753 became a captain and served with distinction through the Seven Years War. He was later as “ Aid-de-Camp “ and a member of his personal staff by Frederick the Great, who was recognized as the military genius of his time. During the last year of the war Steuben was made Quartermaster General and Adjutant General, giving him an opportunity to gain valuable technical experience and training on a large scale. The same principles he learned then was to be applied later in his work in America.

After the Seven Years War Steuben served in various capacities in several Courts in Europe. During his service in the Court Margrave of Baden he received the “ Cross of the Order of ‘ De la Fidelite “, which he proudly wore on all state occasions and which appears on his portraits. The last years he spent in Germany were as Grand Marshall at the Court of Hohenzollern-Hechingen, during which period he was made a Baron.

While in Paris in the summer of 1777, von Steuben was persuaded by his friend, the Comte Claude Louis de Saint-Germani, the French Minister of War, to volunteer his military assistance to the American Revolutionists. After several discussions, Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane, the American Commissioners, vouched for him to the American Congress; then General George Washington and von Steuben sailed for America in a munitions carrying frigate secretly bound for Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on September 26, 1777 and arrived in Portsmouth on December 1, 1777. In February 1778 the Continental Congress at York, Pennsylvania received him with high honors. Steuben had offered his services to Congress and General Washington as a volunteer without rank or command of any particular unit and to be reimbursed merely for his expenses. In his letters he stated “ The object of my greatest ambition is to render your country all the service in my power, and to deserve the title of a citizen of America by fighting for the cause of liberty “.

Arrives at Valley Forge

On his arrival at Valley Forge, Pa. on February 23, 1778 General Washington at once assigned Steuben to the task of overseeing the training of the inexperienced troops so that a uniform system might be introduced into all matters of military concern. Sick, hungry and tattered soldiers, almost without arms and ammunition, torn by dissension crowded the camp. Food and clothing was exceptionally scarce, as well as hospital supplies, even though the well-stocked cities of Reading and Lancaster were only about sixteen miles away.

Not many days after his arrival in camp, Baron Steuben began operations. He started with marching and evolutions, not with the tedious manual exercises. In doing this he reversed the European system. There had been no uniform system of marching; the Indian file practiced was not adapted to moving larger bodies of troops. After he had won their confidence, he taught his men to carry arms, to load, take aim, fire by platoons, and most important, to charge bayonets. Formerly the bayonet had been discarded entirely by the men or used to roast meat over a fire.

He picked 120 men from various regiments, ostensibly to be formed into a guard of honor for General Washington, actually to serve as a demonstration group of military training for the rest of the troops. He personally drilled them twice a day; and to remove the English prejudice which some officers entertained; namely that to drill a recruit was a sergeant’s duty and beneath the station of an officer, he often took a musket himself to show the men the manual exercise which he wished to introduce. They marched together, wheeled, etc. and in a fortnight the company knew perfectly how to bear arms, had a military air, knew how to march, to form a column, deploy, attack with the bayonet, change front and execute some maneuvers with excellent precision. It afforded a new and agreeable sight for the officers and soldiers. While Steuben continued drilling this group, they in turn drilled other small groups; which formed later into battalions, then into brigades and finally an entire division.

In the archives of the War Department ( Old Records Division, Adjutant General’s Office) at Washington, D.C. there is preserved a record of the earliest written instructions issued by Steuben dated March 24, 1778, entitled “ BARON STEUBEN’S INSTRUCTIONS “. This was also the first draft of the booklet printed the following year in Philadelphia and sent to all states for use in their militia; and the prototype for the famous drill book of Steuben entitled “ REGULATIONS FOR THE ORDER AND DISCIPLINE OF THE TROOPS OF THE UNITED STATES “ which were printed and reprinted many times and used for generations as the standard for drill in the American Army, popularly known as the “ Blue Book “ or “ Steuben’s Regulations”.

Appointed Inspector General

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. A form of drills was but a small part of the work to be done by the Inspector General. The whole army needed to be reorganized in all departments, as internal administration had been entirely disregarded. No books had been kept either as to supplies, clothing or men and the waste was enormous. Steuben enforced the keeping of exact records and strict inspections. His inspections saved the army an estimated loss of five to eight thousand muskets, and saved the nation $600,000.00.

The benefits of Steuben’s training became apparent at the Battle of Monmouth. On June 28th the retreating troops of General Lee were brought to a halt by General Steuben and reformed under heavy fire. The retreating men knew how to conduct themselves and wheeled into line with the precision of veterans. The taking of Stony Brook on July 16, 1779 by General Wayne’s troops at the point of the bayonet was one of the most brilliant single exploits of the war and proved to the whole army the value of the bayonet as a weapon. The fort was captured without the firing of a single shot.

Steuben had frequently longed for a command in the line, but General Washington was forced to listen to the objections of the American officers to increasing the foreign element in high commands and only placed Steuben in command of the State of Virginia after the loss of the south under the leadership of General Gates. Steuben was in command of a division at the siege of Yorktown and his division was in the front line of trenches at the crucial moment when Lord Cornwallis made the first overtures for surrender. At the relieving hour the next morning, General Lafayette approached with his division, but Steuben refused to be relieved; assigning as his reason the etiquette of Europe: “ That the offer to capitulate had been made during his guard, and it was a point of honor, of which he would not deprive his troops, to remain in the trenches until the capitulation was signed, or hostilities recommenced “. He did not do this for his own sake, but for the honor of the American troops whom he had trained. In this stand General Washington upheld him. General Washington held Steuben in high regard and considered his service to the nation invaluable. It is significant that the last letter the Commander-in-Chief wrote before resigning from the army to return to private life was to the Baron.

Steuben as a Private Citizen

Steuben resigned from the Army on March 20, 1784 at which time Congress awarded him a gold hilted sword and later a pension. He first lived in New York City, during which time he drew up the plans for the fortifications of the city and of the Military Academy to be built years later at West Point, N.Y.

The states of Virginia and Pennsylvania both gave him grants of land, but both in wilderness that had not yet been surveyed. New Jersey settled a country estate on him, which he never lived in and sold to settle some debts. New York finally offered him 16,000 acres of land, which he accepted in what is now Oneida County, near the present City of Remsen. He became a citizen of the United States (one the few foreign officers who stayed and did become a citizen) but he never married. He retired and built a log cabin on his land and died of a heart attack on November 28, 1794.

New York State has made a State Historical Park of part of the area Steuben lived in. There is a replica of the log cabin he lived in, furnished with some of his belongings and other colonial furnishings. In a grove nearby there is a tomb and a statue to honor General Steuben. It is fitting that there is inscribed on a bronze plaque on a boulder near his grave the simple statement which measures his contributions to the American people; “ Indispensable to the Achievement of American Independence”.

Steuben was one of the founders of the “ Order of the Cincinnati “ and was president of the New York Chapter from 1786 – 1790. He was also a member of Trinity Lodge# 10 & A.M. and an honorary member of Holland Lodge, both of New York City. The minutes refer to him as Brother, Past Master von Steuben. It is reported that he received the various degrees of Masonry in the Military Lodge of the Blazing Star in Berlin, Ill. He was also a Regent of New York University and one of the organizers of the Deutsche Gesellschaft (German Society, a Charitable organization of New York State for the benefit of German immigrants and remained its first president from 1785 to his death).

©2014 Steuben Society of America, Inc. | Cynthia A. Zorn-Scott