Baron Von Steuben: Quotes, Facts & Biography

Instructor: Matthew Hill
Baron von Steuben was a Prussian military officer who served under Frederick the Great. He helped train troops in the American Revolution and wrote a manual on military training.

Partners in a Revolution

It is a curious fact of the American Revolution that much of the cost of the war was funded by the French and the lead teacher in the art of war was a German! Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus von Steuben, more commonly known as Baron von Steuben, was that teacher. He was one of a number of Europeans volunteers who assisted the American cause, but he was arguably the one who contributed the most to their military training.

European Background

Baron von Stueben was born in 1730 in Magdeburg, Prussia. His father was an engineer in the Prussian army and von Steuben spent his early years in Russia, returning to Germany at age ten. Von Stueben was educated in a Jesuit school in Breslau and after graduation, he joined the military. He served in the Seven Years War, worked in the General Staff, and made several more trips to Russia. He was twice wounded in battle and even taken captive on the Russian front. Upon his release,von Stueben he was assigned to the headquarters of Frederick the Great. Frederick the Great was one of the greatest military tacticians of his age, and von Steuben was put into one of his training programs in the art of war and leadership. In 1763, he found himself suddenly out of work when the war ended and the army was cut to peace-time levels. By the standards of his day, von Steuben had highly coveted credentials as Prussia was considered to have the best trained military in the world.

Baron von Steuben
Baron von Steuben

Coming to America

Von Steuben found work at the court of Hodenzollern-Hechingen, partly due to misrepresenting his royal lineage. However, it was due to his service in the royal court he acquired the title of 'baron.' He struggled financially though, and sought work in the foreign armies of Austria, France, and Baden, but his fortune turned in 1777 while he was in France. The French Minister of War, Count de St. Germain, knew von Steuben'sskills would be useful in the ongoing American Revolution, and he introduced von Steuben to Benjamin Franklin, the American diplomat in Paris. Franklin was impressed and he wrote a letter of introduction to George Washington on behalf of von Steuben. He noted in his letter that von Steuben was an 'Apostle of Frederick the Great.' He arrived in New Hampshire in December and met with Congress in Pennsylvania in February 1778. He agreed to initially serve without pay or rank and was assigned to George Washington's army at Valley Forge that same month.

Baron von Steuben at Valley Forge
Baron von Steuben at Valley Forge

Von Steuben Trains the Troops

Washington made von Steuben his Inspector General and quickly put him to work training his troops in a European manner. Language proved a barrier; von Steuben did not speak English and no one at Valley Forge spoke German. Von Steuben, though, did speak French and Washington had enough French speakers to work as interpreters. He began with a 'model company' of between 100-120 men made up of people from each brigade. The point was to train these particular men and then have them train others to expedite training and to keep repeating the process. He schooled them in the art of firing, marching, reloading, and coordinating their movements. He put on quite a show. He drilled them in full-dress uniform, yelled, screamed, shouted, and cussed at them in both French and German. He even sometimes had his assistant, Captain Benjamin Walker, cuss at them in English! These actions actually made him popular with the troops.

Von Stueben recognized the democratic nature of the American army. The average solider wanted to know the 'why' they had to do something, not simply the 'what' they were required to do. As he stated himself: 'You say to your soldier, 'Do this' and he does it. But I am obliged to say to the American 'This is why you ought to do this' and then he does it.'Von Steuben also regulated sanitation, and the location of latrines, kitchens, and food preparation to reduce health issues. In the winter of 1778-1779, he took time off to create a training-manual titled, Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States (1778-1779). Known as the 'Blue Book', it was a standard training manual for American soldiers through the War of 1812.

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