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.


At Valley Forge, Steuben became an instant legend. Stomping through the snow, he put a single "model company" of Continentals through their paces, teaching them drill as he cursed the awkward soldiers in an incomprehensible mix of French, German, and English. The men fell in love with him, with his exaggerated fits of anger, but above all with his constant attention to their well-being. Within weeks, the entire army was marching and drilling with a grace and precision that rivaled the standing armies of the great European powers.

The reforms set in motion by Steuben imparted to the Continental Army the tactical proficiency that served it so well in the bloody battle at Monmouth, the storming of Stony Point, and the final confrontation at Yorktown. Though always lacking in manpower and matériel, the American rebels were now able to meet the British on nearly equal terms.

Steuben's fame comes from Valley Forge, but the truth is that his most enduring contributions came after 1778. As the first inspector-general of the U.S. Army, he worked tirelessly to keep the troops in fighting trim—not only through constant training but also by monitoring deficiencies in clothing, equipment, and medical care. Accountability was his byword. Officers were made responsible for the whereabouts and the physical condition of their men. Indeed, Steuben insisted that officers should put the needs of their men ahead of their own and that they should temper discipline with loving concern. This was one of the central tenets of his "Blue Book," the first official regulations of the U.S. Army.

The baron, however, was never quite satisfied with his contribution to the Revolutionary cause, and his quixotic personality often frustrated his efforts. He could be both overbearing and overly sensitive. When Congress balked at giving him the authority and compensation he felt he deserved, he would become petulant and threaten to return to Europe.

He was similarly stung when Washington repeatedly denied him a combat command. Washington, striving to keep the peace among a contentious band of proud generals, knew the uproar that would ensue if he were to promote the baron above longer-serving, American-born commanders. And when Washington did entrust Steuben with a major combat assignment—the defense of Virginia in 1781—the experience was not a pleasant one. Against overwhelming odds, Steuben managed to fend off a series of British invasions. But the military incompetence of state officials nearly drove him to distraction, and his impatience and autocratic manner alienated the proud Virginians.

Steuben served as inspector-general until the end of the war and remained in the fledgling republic until his death in 1794. Congress showed little inclination to reward him financially for his service, and the baron's improvidence kept him in poverty. Despite growing bitterness, he continued to serve the military, drafting plans for the peacetime army and composing the curriculum for the planned academy at West Point. He was an outspoken advocate for Continental Army veterans. And though he went to his lonely grave feeling that his services to the cause had never been fully acknowledged, he had made a conscious decision to accept the United States as home. Unlike most of the foreigners who joined in the fight for independence, Steuben became an American. l

Paul Lockhart is the author of The Drillmaster of Valley Forge: The Baron de Steuben and the Making of the American Army (HarperCollins 2008).