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Baron Von Steuben

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Baron Von Steuben

For ships named after General von Steuben, see Von Steuben (disambiguation).
Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben
Charles Willson Peale
Birth name Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand von Steuben
Born (1730-09-17)September 17, 1730
Magdeburg, Duchy of Magdeburg
Died November 28, 1794(1794-11-28) (aged 64)
Utica, New York, U.S.
Buried at Steuben Memorial State Historic Site
Allegiance  Prussia
 United States of America
Years of service 1744–1762; 1778–1783
Rank Inspector General

War of 1744

  • Siege of Prague (1744)

Seven Years' War

American Revolutionary War


Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand von Steuben (born Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben; September 17, 1730 – November 28, 1794), also referred to as the Baron von Steuben,[1] was a Prussian-born military officer who served as inspector general and Major General of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. He is credited with being one of the fathers of the Continental Army in teaching them the essentials of military drills, tactics, and disciplines.[2] He wrote the Revolutionary War Drill Manual, the book that served as the standard United States drill manual until the War of 1812. He served as General George Washington's chief of staff in the final years of the war.

Service in Hohenzollern-Hechingen

In 1764 Steuben became chamberlain to Fürst Josef Friedrich Wilhelm of Hohenzollern-Hechingen. In 1769, he started using the title of baron, based on a falsified lineage prepared by his father.[3] He was the only courtier to accompany his incognito prince to France in 1771, hoping to borrow money. Failing to find funds, they returned to Germany in 1775, deeply in debt.[1]

Steuben traveled to Ireland in the summer of 1777. As luck would have it, he had been formally introduced to the French Minister of War, Claude Louis, Comte de Saint-Germain. The Count, fully realizing the potential of an officer with Prussian general staff training, further introduced him to Benjamin Franklin. Upon the Count's recommendation, Steuben was introduced to George Washington by means of a letter from Franklin as a "Lieutenant General in the King of Prussia's service", an exaggeration of his actual credentials that appears to be based on a mistranslation of his service record. He was advanced travel funds and left Europe from Marseilles.[4]

American Revolution

On September 26, 1777, the Baron, his Italian greyhound, Azor (which he took with him everywhere), his young aide de camp Louis de Pontière, his military secretary Pierre Etienne Duponceau, and two other companions, reached Portsmouth, New Hampshire and by December 1, were extravagantly entertained in Boston. Congress was in York, Pennsylvania, after being ousted from Philadelphia by the British advance. By February 5, 1778, Steuben had offered to volunteer without pay (for the time), and by February 23, Steuben reported for duty to Washington at Valley Forge. Steuben spoke little English and he often yelled to his translator, "Over here! Swear at him for me!" Colonel Alexander Hamilton and General Nathanael Greene were of great help in assisting Steuben in drafting a training program for the Army, which found approval with Washington.

Training program

Steuben's training technique was to create a "model company"; a group of 120 chosen men who in turn successively trained other personnel at Regimental and Brigade levels. Steuben's eccentric personality greatly enhanced his mystique. In full military dress uniform, he trained the soldiers—who, at this point, were themselves greatly lacking in proper clothing—swearing and yelling at them up and down in German and French. When that was no longer successful, he recruited Captain Benjamin Walker, his French-speaking aide, to curse at them for him in English. Steuben would write out the next day's orders in German, Walker would translate them into French, and a French-speaking officer would then translate them into English.[5]

Steuben introduced a system of progressive training, beginning with the school of the soldier, with and without arms, and going through the school of the regiment. This corrected the previous policy of simply assigning personnel to regiments. Each company commander was made responsible for the training of new men, but actual instruction was done by sergeants specifically selected for being the best obtainable.

Steuben established standards of sanitation and camp layouts that would still be standard a century and a half later. There had previously been no set arrangement of tents and huts. Men relieved themselves where they wished and when an animal died, it was stripped of its meat and the rest was left to rot where it lay. Steuben laid out a plan to have rows for command, officers and enlisted men. Kitchens and latrines were on opposite sides of the camp, with latrines on the downhill side. There was the familiar arrangement of company and regimental streets.

Perhaps Steuben's biggest contribution to the American Revolution was training in the use of the bayonet. Since the Battle of Bunker Hill, Americans had been mainly dependent upon using their ammunition to win battles. Throughout the early course of the war, Americans used the bayonet mostly as a cooking skewer or tool rather than as a fighting instrument. Steuben's introduction of effective bayonet charges became crucial. In the Battle of Stony Point, American soldiers attacked with unloaded muskets and won the battle solely on Steuben's bayonet training.

The first results of Steuben's training were in evidence at the

Southern campaign

In 1780 Steuben sat on the court-martial of the British Army officer Major John André, captured and charged with espionage in conjunction with the defection of General Benedict Arnold. He later traveled with Nathanael Greene, the new commander of the Southern campaign. He quartered in Virginia since the American supplies and soldiers would be provided to the army from there. During the spring of 1781, he aided Greene in the campaign in the south, culminating in the delivery of 450 Virginia Continentals to Lafayette in June.

He was forced to take sick leave, rejoining the army for the final campaign at Yorktown, where his role was as commander of one of the three divisions of Washington's troops. Steuben gave assistance to Washington in demobilizing the army in 1783 as well as aiding in the defense plan of the new nation. He was discharged from the military with honor on March 24, 1783.

Final years

Steuben became an American citizen by act of the Pennsylvania legislature in March 1784 (and later by the New York authorities in July 1786). With the war over, Steuben resigned from service and first settled on Manhattan Island, where he became a prominent figure and elder in the German Reformed Church. However, even with Congress giving him large sums of money, he still managed to become largely indebted. In 1790, Congress gave him a pension of $2500 a year which he had to keep until his death.

On December 23, 1783, the State of New Jersey presented him with the use of an estate now known as Zabriskie-Steuben House,[9] which had been confiscated from Loyalist Jan Zabriskie in 1781. Located in New Bridge, New Jersey, the estate included a gristmill and about 40 acres of land. The Legislature made the grant on condition that he "hold, occupy and enjoy the said estate in person, and not by tenant". Gen. Philemon Dickinson of the New Jersey Militia informed the baron of this gift and informed him that his recent inquiries showed that "there are on the premises an exceeding good House, an excellent barn, together with many useful outbuildings, all of which I am told, want some repairs...there is...a Grist-mill; a good Orchard, some meadow Ground, & plenty of Wood. The distance from N York by land 15 miles, but you may keep a boat & go from your own door to N York by water—Oysters, Fish & wild fowl in abundance—Possession will be given to you in the Spring, when you will take a view of the premises."

On September 5, 1788, the New Jersey Legislature repealed its previous acts and invested Baron von Steuben with full title to the former Zabriskie estate. Recognizing his predicament and hoping to save himself from further financial embarrassment, Steuben wrote to William North in October 1788, saying: "The jersey Estate must and is to be sold. Walker is my administrator, all debts are to be paid out of it." On November 6, 1788, Steuben again wrote to North at his new home in Duanesburg, noting that "My jersey Estate is Advertised but not yet Sold, from this Walker Shall immediately pay to you the money, you so generously lend me and all my debts in New-York will be payed. I support my present poverty with more heroism than I Expected. All Clubs and parties are renounced, I seldom leave the House."

Steuben paid a considerable sum of money to repair the war damages to the Zabriskie-Steuben House and to restore its commercial operations, leaving a permanent mark on the building that bears his name. The Steuben House is the only extant eighteenth-century building that Steuben owned.

Steuben eventually settled on a small estate in the vicinity of Rome, New York, on land granted to him for his military service. He later assisted in the founding of the Society of the Cincinnati and was appointed a regent for what evolved into the State University of New York. He never married and had no children. He left his estate to General Benjamin Walker and Captain William North, who had served as his aides-de-camp during the war, and with whom he had had an "extraordinarily intense emotional relationship ... treating them as surrogate sons".[11] He is buried at what is now the Steuben Memorial State Historic Site.


Generally, Von Steuben Day takes place in September in many cities throughout the United States. It is often considered the German-American event of the year. Participants march, dance, wear German costumes and play German music, and the event is attended by millions of people. The German-American Steuben Parade is held annually in September in New York City. It is one of the largest parades in the city and is traditionally followed by an Oktoberfest in Central Park as well as celebrations in Yorkville, Manhattan, a German section of New York City. The German-American Steuben Parade has been taking place since 1958.[12] Chicago also hosts a von Steuben Day parade, which is featured in the American movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Philadelphia hosts to a smaller Steuben Parade in the Northeast of the city.

The Steuben Society was founded in 1919 as "an educational, fraternal, and patriotic organization of American citizens of German background". In the difficult post-World War I years the Society helped the German-American community to reorganize. It is now one of the largest organizations for Americans of German extraction.

A warship, a submarine, and an ocean liner (later pressed into military service) were named in von Steuben's honor. In World War I the captured German ship SS Kronprinz Wilhelm was renamed as USS Von Steuben, and in World War II there was the Dampfschiff General von Steuben, an ill-fated German luxury passenger ship which was turned into an armed transport ship during the war. During the Cold War, the US Navy submarine USS Von Steuben was named for him.

Several locations in the United States are also named Steuben, most of them in his honor. Examples include Steuben County, New York, Steuben County, Indiana, and the city of Steubenville, Ohio. Several buildings are named for Steuben, among them Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center in Chicago, Illinois, as well as one of the cadet barracks buildings at Valley Forge Military Academy and College.

Von Steuben is one of four European military leaders who assisted the American cause during the Revolution honored with a statue in Lafayette Square just north of the White House in Washington, D.C. Other statues of Steuben can be found in Utica, New York, the garden of the German Embassy in Washington, D.C., as well as in Potsdam and in Steuben's home town of Magdeburg. Another Steuben Monument stands in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In Berlin, Germany, one stands near the Allied Museum on Clayallee in the former American sector of the divided city.

The Steuben House presented to Steuben as a gift for his services in the Continental Army is located at New Bridge Landing in River Edge, New Jersey. The house and surrounding farmland were seized in 1781 from a Loyalist family. The house looks much as it did after Steuben renovated it. The State of New Jersey took possession of the historic mansion and one acre of ground for $9,000 on June 27, 1928. It was opened as a public museum in September 1939. The Bergen County Historical Society opens the building for special events. It is under the jurisdiction of the Historic New Bridge Landing Park Commission.[13]

Other tributes include Steuben Field, the stadium of the Hamilton College football team.[14] Von Steuben, acting as Alexander Hamilton's surrogate, laid the cornerstone of the school. Upon graduating, all Hamilton seniors receive as a gift from the college a cane with a tricorn hat at its top in reference to von Steuben.

The various depictions of Steuben in popular (American) media include portrayals by Nehemiah Persoff in the 1979 U.S. TV miniseries The Rebels, Kurt Knudson in the 1984 TV miniseries George Washington, and being voiced by Austrian-American Arnold Schwarzenegger in the animated series Liberty's Kids.

There are many books on von Steuben. Most recently, Paul Lockhart, a professor at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, wrote The Drillmaster of Valley Forge as the first comprehensive biography of General von Steuben in more than 80 years.[15] In 2007, a popular documentary DVD was released by LionHeart FilmWorks and director Kevin Hershberger titled Von Steuben's Continentals: The First American Army. The 60-minute, live-action documentary details the life, uniforms, camp life, food, weapons, equipment and drill of the Continental soldier 1775–1781, as taught and developed by Baron von Steuben.[16]

Homosexuality rumors

Von Steuben was forced to leave Baden (a German state) where he was threatened with prosecution for homosexuality.[17] When he joined Washington's army at Valley Forge in February 1778 he was accompanied by two young European aides, one aged 17. Despite rumors about his parties, there never was an investigation of Steuben and he received a Congressional pension after the war.[18] [19]

See also


External links

  • Lives of Baron Steuben, Sebastian Cabot, and William Eaton (1838).
  • Baron Von Steuben: An account of a 19th century visit to America by his German relatives.
  • Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben at Find-a-grave.
  • Steuben Society.
  • "Von Steuben's Continentals" (video)
Military offices
Preceded by
Thomas Conway
Inspector General of the U. S. Army
May 5, 1778 – April 15, 1784
Succeeded by
William North

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