Saturday, February 23, 2013

This Day in Revolutionary War History (Steuben, Army Trainer, Arrives at Valley Forge)

Feb. 23, 1778—Midway in a dispiriting, even deadly, winter encampment, a German visitor with a murky past and few English-speaking skills arrived to give the Continental Army much-needed discipline and even hope. Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben wasn’t really entitled to use that aristocratic “von,” he had inflated his military resume, and he didn’t mention other, decidedly dodgy rumors about his past. But he ended up precisely drilling the Continentals in the fundamentals of fighting, along with writing the first U.S. Army training manual. The American army may be said to have begun in earnest with him at Valley Forge.

It’s easy to imagine the reaction of George Washington when Steuben showed up at his Valley Forge headquarters: Oh no, not another headache! That same month, with the redcoats occupying Philadelphia, with his forces having dwindled to half the 12,000 he had started the winter with, the American commander-in-chief had needed to convince clueless delegates from the Continental Congress that, without immediate aid, his starving forces would cease to exist as a fighting unit. No sooner was he done with that problem than Steuben’s presence raised another.

Motivated variously by idealism, adventure, fame and the desire for land, visitors from abroad had been besieging the Continental Congress requesting military commissions. It was one thing if British soldiers (Lee, Stirling, Montgomery) had come over, but quite another when Lafayette, DeKalb, Pulaski and Kosciuszko did likewise. How trustworthy were their backgrounds? And how would they adapt to soldiers speaking a different language?

Additionally, how would native-born officers react to this interloper? The Continental Congress had gotten into the habit of awarding these foreigners, virtually sight unseen, major positions in the army, causing so much dissension that the lawmakers had been forced to suspend the practice. Nevertheless, what would the loyal Greene, Wayne and (at the time) Arnold think about another such officer, even if only here as a volunteer?

Steuben, like countless figures who, to borrow a phrase from historian Garry Wills, “invented America,” started by reinventing himself. He had perpetuated his grandfather’s claim that they were members of nobility. He then brought to General Washington a letter from America’s diplomat to France, Benjamin Franklin, introducing “His Excellency, Lieutenant General von Steuben, Apostle of Frederick the Great.” 

Actually, the highest rank he had attained in the Prussian Army, under the command of Europe’s reigning military genius, was captain. Steuben’s title while in the Prussian army as a staff officer was Deputy to the Quartermaster General--in French, “Lieutenant General Quarters Maitre,” then further mistranslated as “Lieutenant General.”

Another matter was harder to document, but potentially more explosive. According to Randy Shilts’ account of gays and lesbians in the American military, Conduct Unbecoming, a letter had come to the Prince of Hohenzollern-Hechingen (whom Steuben was serving as Grand Marshall, or administrator) in August 1777, accusing the onetime soldier of having “taken liberties with young boys which the law forbids and punishes severely.”

Was the charge true? Lending credence to it were the facts that Steuben never married or fathered children; that he had buffed up his lineage and military career; and that he had left the army in 1763. On the other hand, the source of the rumor was anonymous; the Seven Years War, in which Steuben had served (and been wounded twice), had just ended when he left the service; the thought of Frederick, himself a homosexual, drumming someone out of his service on a similar charge was a bit rich; and Shilts’ claim that the language skills of Steuben’s “interpreter” were inadequate has been disputed.

No Americans, including Franklin or Washington, knew anything about this when Steuben came to the patriot cause. The American general didn’t know what to make of him, period, aside from the fact that the Prussian was splendidly fitted out, with clothes he had picked in Europe to make him look every inch of what an American soldier called “a perfect personification of Mars,” the god of war. But Washington had a simple but effective method for judging him and other men: let’s see him prove himself. He told Steuben to inspect the troops and report what he saw.

What Steuben found, after talking to officers, looking at the huts, and sizing up the men’s bearing, was a mess. No European army could have held together under these conditions, he noted.

There was another way in which the Americans differed from the European troops with whom Steuben had trained: the matter of discipline. Americans wouldn’t simply obey an order; you had to tell them why they should. One could only imagine the Prussian’s astonishment when he discovered that.

Washington liked enough of what he learned from Steuben to appoint him Inspector General. In March, the German got to work training his men. He set about through two means: written and oral.

Steuben knew little English but a great deal of German, Russian (he had been a POW on the Russian front toward the end of the Seven Years’ War), and French. In addition to the translation assistance provided by Steuben’s secretary, Washington had two aides-de-camp whose French Huguenot descent gave them familiarity with the language, and whose extensive practice in writing out their chief’s orders gave them a firm hold of simple, direct military language. These two friends, John Laurens and Alexander Hamilton, made Steuben’s French-written training manual a reality for American troops.

Steuben’s personal inspection of the troops was more colorful. He would learn a few simple English words, then rely on aides for translation. If that didn't work, he resorted to sign language. If the troops still weren't absorbing the drill, he would curse and swear in German, leaving the recruits with more than a few chuckles. 

He picked Washington’s personal guard and 120 men from each of the states as part of a model unit. He kept his instructions simple, the better for the men to absorb what he was doing. He concentrated on drilling in bayonet, whose use, amazingly, the troops had never been trained for--this despite the fact that British troops had spread terror whenever they had employed them against the patriots.

By the time camp was over, Washington’s troops had been transformed under the Prussian’s care. They would not buckle anymore in the face of superior British training. The redcoats learned firsthand about this changed fighting force later that year after the Americans had broken camp, at the Battle of Monmouth, when the Continentals fought them to a bloody draw.

In the end, the new country that sprang from the American Revolution received more from Steuben than he had from it. Throughout the war, the Continental Congress continually ignored his requests for reimbursement of expenses, then his request for land.  It took three different state governments to donate lands (the best form of payment in those days of the young republic) to the now-retired soldier, and many of these he had to sell off to meet his expenses. Steuben died in 1794 in upstate New York.

(I took the photo accompanying this post on a visit to Valley Forge last October. The bronze statue by J. Otto Schweizer, erected in 1915, is located off of Route 23, near the Grand Parade grounds where Steuben proudly inspected the troops he had so masterfully drilled.)

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