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.
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).