Biography of Revolutionary War Leader Baron Von Steuben Part 1

About the Revolutionary War leader Baron Von Steuben, his place in American history as he trained and drilled the soldiers.

BARON VON STEUBEN (U.S., Revolutionary War)

In late February of 1778, a bulky, balding middle-aged Prussian officer, resplendent in a blue uniform gleaming with military medals, rode into Washington's camp at Valley Forge with his translator, a young Frenchman named Duponceau, 2 aides, one servant, and a greyhound. This impressive, bulbous-nosed man was introduced to General Washington as Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus Henry Ferdinand, Baron von Steuben, recommended by Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane, who described him as a "Lieutenant-General in the King of Prussia's service."

The Baron spoke about 12 words of English, and even those caused him to turn red with embarrassment. He had been paid by the French to offer his services to Washington; he was an expert drill officer.

If a bit of harmless deception preceded Von Steuben's arrival, his presence at Valley Forge was like a breath of fresh air to Washington, whose half-naked, ill-disciplined troops could scarcely be worthy of battle against the thoroughly trained British. Steuben, as he wished to be called, was not a lieutenant-general; his rank when he was dropped from King Frederick's Army 14 years before was captain. And when he met an English friend of Benjamin Franklin's in 1777, Steuben was broke and unemployed. Aware that Congress would turn its nose up at a mere captain, having its hands full with foreign officers who all wanted high ranks in the Continental Army, Franklin became a party to this mild deception with Silas Deane and the Comte de Saint-Germain, the French War Minister. Saint-Germain knew that Steuben was the son of an accomplished Prussian officer, well educated, army-trained, and a crack drillmaster. Therefore, he, Franklin, and Deane elevated Steuben's rank for Franklin's glowing letter to Washington. But perhaps it was Steuben himself who won Washington's approval before they met at Valley Forge. In his letter to the commander-in-chief, he offered his services as a volunteer without rank simply because he wanted to help the cause of liberty. And so, with the blessings of the French War Ministry and of Franklin and Deane, the jovial baron set off for America as a volunteer, although all his expenses were paid by the French Government.

Gen. Thomas Conway was still nominally inspector-general of the Army, but Washington gave Steuben the duties of acting inspector-general without rank, pending congressional approval, to drill and train this pitifully undisciplined army.

Steuben was astonished at what he found. There was no drill manual, no book of army regulations. The ragged troops knew nothing about bayonet practice; to most, a bayonet was something to use as a spit for cooking roast beef. They were not used to instant obedience to crisp orders, as was the European way, and the officers thought drilling was beneath them.

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