The Revolutionary War General von Steuben

Baron Von Steuben was known as Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus von Steuben in America, and as Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand, which was the name, he called himself in later years. He was born in Magdeburg fortress in 1730. At the age of ten, he returned to Germany and at the age of 17 he had joined the Infantry unit of the Prussian Army. Baron von Steuben, was new to the Revolutionary cause in America, and as a result was able to witness several shortcomings of discipline in the military and identify the causes for it.1 His progress was steady and he served as an officer in the Seven Years War and was later promoted to the General Staff that would be posted to Russia often. Fredrick the Great was impressed with the young Baron von Steuben and assigned him to his own headquarters. The experiences the young officer gained with such exposure, especially as General Staff member in the Prussian Army, would stand him in good stead in later years when he would be called upon to share his knowledge with American soldiers for the process of setting up an ‘army’. 2

1. Baron Von-Steuben – Revolutionary War General [Online] Available at Accessed 23 March 2004

2. Who Served Here? Baron Von Steuben. [Online] Available at Accessed 23 March 2004

By the year 1775, his luck changed for the worse and Baron von Steuben fell heavily in debt and also out of work, having been dismissed by his army for reasons unknown. In 1777, however, the French Minister of war, Count de St. Germain, having realized the value of a person such as Baron von Steuben, offered him immediate employment. Benjamin Franklin, meanwhile, had come to know about Baron von Steuben and, in a written missive to General George Washington, described the 48-year-old officer as a Lieutenant General in the King of Prussia’s Service, which, even though it was something of an exaggeration, was not entirely untrue. He was invited over, and, upon accepting this offer, traveled to New Hampshire, which he reached in September 1777. 3

In February 1778, Baron von Steuben had reached York, Pennsylvania, where he volunteered his services free, to the Americans. Soon, he had assumed duty, and started reporting directly to George Washington at Valley Forge and in the month of March, had made a rough draft of a training program for the soldiers. Both Alexander Hamilton and Nathaniel Greene formed a part of this team, since both could communicate with Baron von Steuben in French, a language in common for all concerned, since Baron von Steuben did not speak English. This plan for the training program would prove to be the basis for many similar training programs for soldiers of the army in the years to come. 4

3. Who Served Here? Baron Von Steuben. [Online] Available at Accessed 23 March 2004

4. Who Served Here? Baron Von Steuben. [Online] Available at Accessed 23 March 2004

The Continental Army was commanded by George Washington, a 43-year-old officer from Virginia. In a comparison with the advantages that the British had in the case of a war, America had none. America did not have an organized army or even a naval force. It had no monetary resources that the army could use for its development and promotion. There was not even a separation of the various generally known departments of government such as the treasury, or the foreign affairs ministry, and so on. Britain, on the other hand, had not only a powerful army, but a navy as well. Her government was of a good caliber, consisting of quite a few Loyalist members who had pledged their complete allegiance to the Queen of Britain. However, America was not completely at a disadvantage. She had, for the most part, more men than she needed at any particular time. 5

The soldiers who enlisted would not stay for long, some would only stay for a few weeks at a time, but they were always available to fight, in large numbers, whenever George Washington called upon them, though he sometimes had to call upon criminals from jails and upon British deserters when he found himself short of manpower. Americans, however, had guns, and also had the know-how on how they were to be used. The Continental army fought quite a few battles and did win quite a few, commanded as it was by officers of the caliber of Major General Nathaniel Greene and Baron Von Steuben. It was when Baron Von Steuben was invited to inculcate discipline in the American soldiers and get them organized into some sort of workable groups that the ‘army’ as such was factually formed, and from thereon, the success went to the organized and disciplined forces of the American Army. 6

5. The Continental Army [Online] Available at Accessed 23 March 2004

6. The Continental Army [Online] Available at Accessed 23 March 2004

In order to understand the extent of the achievement of Baron von Steuben, the condition and the working of the soldiers during a war or battle in the eighteenth century must be understood. Warfare in those days was a general free-for-all wherein the emphasis was on firing as quickly as possible, and at the closest ranges possible. It was, in fact, a mass fire combat, where the soldier on one side would find it of utmost importance to fire before the soldier on the opposite side could; he would always try to get the first shot across, before the other could. The rules and regulations for the soldiers were dealt primarily with drill, and firing arms. The sole emphasis was on the conduction of drills for the soldiers whereby they would become more and more proficient at handling the arms, and it would finally become nothing that would take up any sort of effort of concentration; the process of loading and firing a firearm would become totally automatic. 7

There was another matter too that needed change, and most urgently. This was the fact that the camps of the soldiers were in a despicable condition and there were no sanitation arrangements. The soldiers would relieve themselves wherever they pleased. When the soldiers needed meat, or when an animal happened to die close to the campsite, the animal would be stripped of its flesh and left in the same place to rot away. This was a primary cause for a lot of concern about the spread of diseases among the soldiers, for whom there seemed to be no awareness of sanitation and the maintenance of good health. These then were the major issues that Baron von Steuben found in need of immediate attention and change. He developed a set of firing regulations for the soldiers whereby, after training; they would be able to fire at a more rapid pace than before. 8

7. Who Served Here? Baron Von Steuben. [Online] Available at Accessed 23 March 2004

8. Who Served Here? Baron Von Steuben. [Online] Available at Accessed 23 March 2004

Now firing could actually be done in a matter of eight counts whereas the process from the start of the fire: ‘fire’ to the end of the fire: ‘return’ would involve only eight processes. The movements or motions involved in the firing of a firearm would be reduced to a series of fifteen well-calculated moves that would waste no motion and be of immense benefit to the soldier of that time who had to either fire before the opposite soldier can, or end up dead. The new regulations brought in by Baron von Steuben made firing much simpler and quicker than it was before. Certain alignments necessary for the grouping of the soldiers in order to fight better were also inculcated into the new training methods and the soldiers had to be organized into small groups of three, and later, in groups of twelve and they were taught to wheel, and to turn to the left, or to the right, as one, as the occasion deserved. 9

This sort of perfect alignment of the troops facilitated in smooth firing and the fighters improved considerably their fighting and firing methods. In the area of sanitation, Baron von Steuben who was appalled by the general lack of awareness enforced new regulations whereby the health of the commanders and the soldiers and the enlisted men would not all be put into jeopardy. He therefore made up a plan for the campsite whereby the entire camp would be laid out in rows, one each for the command, the soldiers, and the enlisted respectively. The kitchens and the latrines would be set as far away from the campsite as possible, and the latrines would preferable be set on downhill slopes. This took the main causes of diseases away from the main site and the persons in the camp benefited immensely; in fact, army camps followed this sort of arrangement over the next few centuries with full faith in its good planning. 10

9. Who Served Here? Baron Von Steuben. [Online] Available at Accessed 23 March 2004

10. Who Served Here? Baron Von Steuben. [Online] Available at Accessed 23 March 2004

Baron Von Steuben was thus able to influence the Continental Army with his rare insight into the problems that were being faced by the military forces in America at that time. The Commanders, in fact, who were used to relying, primarily, on fear to enforce discipline among the soldiers, now discovered that this, in fact, was a totally unnecessary and ineffective method to discipline the troops. With the new strictures developed by Baron Von Steuben, they now found it easy to command over a force of soldiers who, in actuality, had no sort of idea of what or whom they were fighting for; the Commanders did not impress them. They fought because they had some personal reason for doing so and they would leave as and when they wanted to. They saw themselves as private citizens fighting a private battle, and as a result, would not be disciplined by a set of commanders who meant nothing to them. 11

They also felt that there was, in fact, no need to fight and the world would not look down upon them if they did not fight for the nation; it was a purely voluntary gesture on the part of the soldier to offer to fight for the Revolution. This attitude was completely turned around by the new regulations brought about by Baron Von Steuben. These rules bridged the wide gap between the soldiers and the commanding officers, for one. The officers felt that they were not only officers, but also gentlemen; they would not mix socially with the common soldiers. They felt that a distance was to be maintained in order to enforce appropriate discipline and maybe even awe in the soldiers. Baron Von Steuben, when confronted with these concepts, knew that he had to bring both the commanders and the soldiers onto ca common level ground first. For this, he insisted that the officers would have to play a major part in the training of soldiers, and not rely solely on sergeants to do the job. 12

11. Baron Von Steuben. [Online] Available at http://www.*****/History/150.htm. Accessed 23 March 2004

12. Baron Von Steuben. [Online] Available at http://www.*****/History/150.htm. Accessed 23 March 2004

They were also made to take part in drills, marches, and other such training with the soldiers. The commanders were even encouraged to eat with the soldiers so that there would not be social distancing between the two. The respect of the soldier, Baron Von Steuben felt, would be gained not by the officer distancing himself from the soldier, but from being close to him in all respects. The gap would be bridged if the officers were to set an example for the soldier by over-achieving in any field, and not by maintaining a distance and under-achieving and thus earning the disrespect and disregard of the soldier. The standard of the drills and disciplining system were also noticed by Baron Von Steuben, as being below the general standard. There was, actually, no set standard for the conduct of training or drills. Each officer would do it at his own discretion, as he knew how to. 13

This was not the method of training that had been experienced by Baron Von Steuben in the Prussian Army. He now set about setting a particular standard that would have to be followed by the officers when undertaking the training of their various battalions and regiments. This set up a universal standard of operation that was followed by the American army in the years to come. Now the simplified drills and other training methods were to be repeated again and again numerous times until the soldier became quite proficient at it. When this training method was enforced by the officers with the brand new standard of behavior and conduct whereby they demonstrated a lot of mutual respect and love in their various dealings with their men, the soldiers began to feel and demonstrate a sense of pride and achievement in being a part of the fight in the Revolution and they shared this sense with their comrades in what was now the Continental Army. 14

13. Baron Von Steuben. [Online] Available at http://www.*****/History/150.htm. Accessed 23 March 2004

14. Baron Von Steuben. [Online] Available at http://www.*****/History/150.htm. Accessed 23 March 2004

Baron Von Steuben also knew in intimate detail the thinking process of a soldier in any army. A soldier, if ordered to undertake any sort of mission, would immediately want to know ‘why’ it had to be done. The commanding officers would not deem to answer this important question and this would leave the soldier in doubt as to the necessity or importance of the order. If the soldier received a proper answer to his question, he would undoubtedly follow the order without qualms. This, Baron Von Steuben insisted, would make for better discipline and looking up to authority. When the officers of the Continental Army adopted this method of answering any question that the soldier would ask of them, the improvement in discipline was dramatic. The simplicity of the method held its own appeal to the officers, and the soldiers reacted as predicted by Baron Von Steuben, with a lot of pride and professionalism. 15

Why did the methods of training and discipline initiated by Baron Von Steuben achieve such success? The main reason was the fact that these methods were eventually focused on the soldier and not the officer. The soldier was made to feel a sense of justifiable pride in his work as a soldier and not feel like a mere volunteer with no other job options. He was now able to identify himself as a soldier fighting for his nation under the guidance of senior officers who would not only encourage but also discipline them whenever or wherever necessary. The soldiers’ innate sense of pride and virtue would have come to naught in the difficult times ahead when they had to fight many a war in severe weather conditions in the camps of Valley Forge and Morristown. However, the method of discipline and training conceived by Baron Von Steuben served to not only rid the soldier of his indiscipline but also inculcated such pride in his work that he would volunteer his very life for the cause of any war that his country would fight in the future. 16

15. Baron Von Steuben. [Online] Available at http://www.*****/History/150.htm. Accessed 23 March 2004

16. Baron Von Steuben. [Online] Available at http://www.*****/History/150.htm. Accessed 23 March 2004

The agreement between Steuben and the Congress was that the military personnel would offer his services and did not require any payment or official rank for his voluntary services; but only his expenses should be met. He also stated that America did not win its independence the Congress would not owe him anything, but if he proved successful, then he was to get complete appreciation and reward in return for his services. (The Revolutionary War General von Steuben (1730-1794)). It was during the severe winter of 1778 that Baron Von Steuben had arrived at Valley Forge and the task that he had set out to accomplish had been done in a satisfactory manner and he was now a close ally of the President of America, George Washington. An army historian of the 20th century states that the services of two men of America in military terms were an important factor in achieving American independence and they were that of George Washington, who was the commander and Baron Von Steuben, his staff officer. 17

Steuben was recognized for his strict enforcement of discipline among the soldiers and also as an example for his own teachings. He would, in fact, be up at daybreak, and be alert and efficient throughout the day in the carrying out of his training. He was, indeed, indefatigable, and he expected, therefore, that his men would also be the same. Despite being unfamiliar with the English language, he managed to communicate with great success al his training methods to all those under him. 18

17. Schmitz, Joseph. The enduring Legacy of Inspector General-Von Steuben [Online] The Journal of Public Inquiry Fall/Winter, 2002 Available at Accessed 23 March 2004

18. Baron Von Steuben, Arrival at Valley Forge. [Online] Available at Accessed 23 March 2004

Steuben did of course, lost his temper on more than one occasion, and at those times would use any of the three languages that he used but a smattering of, to curse at the soldiers. He would even, sometimes, call upon his aide-de-camp, Major Camper, who would translate the necessary words into the required language to enable him to curse! He was, in spite of these curses, a favorite among his men, who loved him for his kind and generous heart and giving ways. Baron Von Steuben’s success lay in the fact that he was able to adapt his training methods to the situation of the time and not adhere blindly to the methods that were being followed in Europe at that time; these may not have been suitable to the soldiers at Valley Forge and would have ended in disaster for all concerned. George Washington was greatly impressed by all that Baron Von Steuben was able to achieve, especially his drill manual for the army of America that came to be called ‘the Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, and named him a ‘Knight of the Order of Fidelity’. 19

The battle of Monmouth fought in 1778, between the American army under George Washington, and the British Army under Sir Henry Clinton. The American General, Charles Lee, gave repeatedly confused orders to his troops wherein orders to retreat were followed by orders to fight, leaving the soldiers totally confused. Though George Washington did try to save the day, he found that he could not, and both the American as well as the British armies admitted defeat. What has to be remembered here is that though defeat was admitted, Baron Von Steuben’s strictures on general discipline in the army played a major role in the rallying of the confused and lost and retreating troops of the army. The value of his regulations was acknowledged by quite a few people at this point of time. 20

19. Baron Von Steuben, Arrival at Valley Forge. [Online] Available at Accessed 23 March 2004

20. Baron Von Steuben. [Online] Available at 23 March 2004

The next important battle of the American Revolution was the Battle of Camden fought in August 1780 between American and British forces headed by Major General Horatio Gates and Lt. General Charles Cornwallis respectively. Horatio Gates suffered a humiliating defeat, after which Baron Von Steuben was asked to take over command of Virginia, the primary reason being to execute his regulations of discipline and organization of the soldiers of the Southern Army. The final battle of the American Revolution was fought in 1781 and was known as the Battle of Yorktown. Baron Von Steuben played a major role in this battle and very soon after this; he became an American citizen in the year 1783. 21

Upon retirement from the American army, Von Steuben settled down in New York. He resided here as a first class citizen who had fought many a battle for the cause of America and the American Revolution. Some states including Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey gave him grants of land that kept him in good state till the end of his life in 1794. He was given awards of recognition by the Congress, one of which was the gold-hilted sword in 1784. He was also granted a grand sum of $2,400 as pension as a gift of gratitude. 22 A ship was named after him ‘USS Von Steuben’ as acknowledgement of all his services to the American Army. It was a twin-screw, steam passenger ship that was constructed in 1901 in Germany. It was primarily used to carry passengers across North America all the way to the North Sea Ports of Europe.

21. Baron Von Steuben. [Online] Available at 23 March 2004

22. Baron Von Steuben. [Online] Available at 23 March 2004

America has given great importance to its hero, Baron von Steuben as there is even a town named by his name- Steubenville. And on every third Saturday of the month of September in New York, the German-American Steuben Parade takes place. 23 Baron von Steuben is thus remembered to this day as the hero who was the main force behind the creation and the turning around of the soldiers of the Continental Army. 24

23. Victory and Glory of Baron von Steuben [Online] Available at Accessed 23 March 2004

24. Von Steuben. [Online] Available at Accessed 23 March 2004


Baron Von-Steuben – Revolutionary War General [Online] Available at Accessed 23 March 2004

The Continental Army [Online] Available at Accessed 23 March 2004

Baron Von Steuben. [Online] Available at http://www.*****/History/150.htm. Accessed 23 March 2004

Baron Von Steuben, Arrival at Valley Forge. [Online] Available at Accessed 23 March 2004

Baron Von Steuben. [Online] Available at 23 March 2004

Schmitz, Joseph. The enduring Legacy of Inspector General-Von Steuben [Online] The Journal of Public Inquiry Fall/Winter, 2002 Available at Accessed 23 March 2004

The Revolutionary War General von Steuben (1730-1794) [Online] Available at Accessed 23 March 2004

Victory and Glory of Baron von Steuben [Online] Available at Accessed 23 March 2004

Von Steuben. [Online] Available at Accessed 23 March 2004

Who Served Here? Baron Von Steuben. [Online] Available at Accessed 23 March 2004

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