Foreigners of the American Revolution: The Prussian Who Helped Make the U.S. Army

Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (Wikimedia)

Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (Wikimedia)

In a previous post, I outlined the role of Hessian mercenaries fighting for the British in the American Revolutionary War. But plenty of Germans fought for the Patriots, too, of whom the most famous is Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben.

Born in Prussia, he joined the military at age 17, and saw combat in the Seven Years’ War, then one of the biggest conflicts in European history. By the end of the war, he had risen to become captain, and even served as one of the right-hand men of Frederick the Great, one of history’s most brilliant military reformers.

Discharged from the Prussian Army once the war was concluded, Steuben found himself unemployed and deeply in debt. Through a chance meeting with the French minister of war, he was introduced to none other than Benjamin Franklin, the noted Francophile and diplomat who was trying to garner support for the Patriots in Europe. The French believed that the Americans could use an experienced soldier from one of the continent’s leading military powers, and doubtless Franklin agreed.

Steuben’s credentials and force of personality made such an impression on George Washington, that he was immediately appointed as Inspector General. Though a temporary post, it would grant the Prussian considerable influence in managing the training, logistics, and discipline of this ragtag, unprofessional, yet spirited Continental Army (which consisted of various local and provincial militias slapped together).

Steuben took to the task with vigor. He established standards of sanitation and camp layouts that would remain standard for over 150 years, organizing kitchens, latrines, and troop quarters in ways that improved operational efficiency, health, and morale. Before long, Washington recommended Congress appoint Steuben as Inspector General of the Army, with the rank and pay of a Major General.

With his greater authority, Steuben quickly found just how badly governed the Continental Internal administration had been. There were no books kept to account for supplies, clothing, or men. Graft and profiteering were alleged to be rampant. Steuben enforced the keeping of exact records and strict inspections. Such heightened accuracy saved as many as 5,000 to 8,000 muskets for the supply-starved army.

Baron von Steuben Drilling Troops at Valley Forge, by E. A. Abbey (c.1904), Pennsylvania State Capitol, Harrisburg. (Wikimedia)

On the military side, Steuben implemented rigorous military drills, tactics, and discipline. He handpicked 120 of the best troops from various regiments and formed an honor guard for Washington, which he also used to demonstrate training to the rest of the troops. He imparted this knowledge to sergeants selected for their quality, helping to create a professional and sustainable standing army. The Continentals even became more proficient with bayonets, which Steuben taught could be vital in a pinch (as demonstrated in the Battle of Stony Point, which was won solely by melee).

By the end of the war, Steben had become part of Washington’s chief staff, and credited as one of the founders of the U.S. Army. His training demonstrably won several key battles, to say nothing of their long-term impact; his “Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States”, commonly known as the “Blue Book”, influenced U.S. tactics and drills until the mid 19th century.

[Note that this was all the more impressive given that Steuben did not speak English and most soldiers did not speak German. Instead, he dictated instructions in French, then the lingua franca in Europe, especially for military terms.]

After the war ended, Steuben settled in the country he helped create, becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen. He lived a comfortable life in upstate New York from his military pension until his death in 1794.

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