The Rich Legacy of a Forgotten Founder

Baron de Steuben may have been a fraud but he knew how to wage war.

Friedrich de Steuben.

Friedrich de Steuben.

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On May 6, 1778, the soldiers of the Continental Army filed onto the open field of the Grand Parade at Valley Forge to perform for the French ambassador and a small crowd of dignitaries from Congress. In the brilliant sunshine of a spring morning, they marched in perfect columns, quickly and precisely unwound into two parallel lines, and fired three rolling volleys of musketry to salute their awe-struck guests.

The Grand Review, as it was called, was a celebration of America's new alliance with France. It was also a celebration of the return of hope to the American cause after a long, dark winter. In large measure, the army's buoyant spirit and self-confidence owed to its newfound professionalism, the product of three frantic months of retraining. The mastermind behind the army's metamorphosis was an eccentric newcomer who spoke very little English: a dumpy, middle-aged former Prussian Army officer known as Friedrich Wilhelm August, the baron de Steuben.

Historians of the Revolution have taught us that Steuben was a talented fraud, a shameless self-promoter who falsified his titles and credentials in order to seek preferment in the Continental Army. But his military expertise was no affectation. The eldest son of a lesser noble family in the German kingdom of Prussia, Steuben had joined the army of the legendary warrior-king Frederick the Great at the age of 16. During Europe's bloody Seven Years' War (1756-63), he led troops in combat against the Austrians, the French, and the Russians. Steuben never rose above the rank of captain, but he served as a staff officer for several Prussian generals, and King Frederick himself hand-picked Steuben for training in generalship.

The advent of peace in 1763 left Steuben without a job. Dismissed from the Prussian Army, he spent the next decade as a functionary at the court of a minor German princeling. It was here that he was given the honorific title of freiherr (baron). But he still craved the life of a soldier. Quitting his post in 1775, he tried—without success—to find employment in nearly every army in Europe.

Steuben's big break came in 1777, when a casual acquaintance informed him that the American rebels were in dire need of military professionals. Steuben pounced on the opportunity, setting out immediately for Paris to sell himself to Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane, then the American commissioners at the French court. Franklin and Deane were suitably impressed by Steuben's credentials, but they were not authorized to grant rank of any kind. All the commissioners could do was to suggest that the baron journey to America and look for work on his own.

Steuben took this as rejection, but his desperation drove him to accept what little the American commissioners could offer. And they, in turn, did their best to make him more marketable. Franklin and Deane knowingly falsified Steuben's service record, informing Congress and Gen. George Washington that he had been a lieutenant general and personal aide to Frederick the Great. The ruse worked. When Steuben arrived in America at the end of 1777—styled in the French manner as the baron de Steuben—he was greeted as a conquering hero.

Yet it was Steuben's personality and manifest talent that won over his adoptive countrymen almost overnight. A lifelong bachelor, the 46-year-old was a skilled raconteur and incurable flirt. Though largely self-educated, he was as well-versed in contemporary literature and political thought as he was in military science. He enjoyed parties and high living and perpetually spent beyond his means. The baron's charm and raucous sense of humor transcended the language barrier. He effortlessly befriended the leading men of the Revolution.

Instant legend. Congress eagerly accepted Steuben's offer to serve Washington as a volunteer aide. Soon his blunt advice on military matters earned him the trust of the general-in-chief as well. Less than a month after Steuben's arrival at Valley Forge in February 1778, Washington assigned him the daunting task of retraining the army.