Born September 17, 1730 in Prussia, he was schooled by Jesuits and, by the age of 16, was an officer in the Prussian military.
During the Seven Years’ War he was a member of an infantry unit but served primarily as an aide-de-camp of Frederick the Great.
In 1762 he was selected as one of thirteen members of the “special class for the art of war” (Spezialklasse der Kriegskunst).
Headmaster of this class was the Prussian king himself.
After the Seven Year War, the army was greatly reduced in size and he became one of many Prussian officers suddenly out of work.
In 1769, he started using the title of baron, based on a falsified lineage prepared by his father.
He went to France in 1771, hoping to borrow money. Failing to find funds, he returned to Germany in 1775, deeply in debt.
Then he traveled to Ireland in the summer of 1777.
As luck would have it, he had formally been introduced to the French Minister of War, Count Claude Louis.
The Count, fully realizing the potential of an officer with Prussian general staff training, introduced him to Benjamin Franklin.
Upon the Count’s recommendation, he was then 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 for America.
On September 26, 1777, the Baron, along with his Italian greyhound, Azor (which he took with him everywhere), a young aide de camp Louis de Pontière, his military secretary Pierre Etienne Duponceau, and two other companions, reached Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
By December 1, the Baron was being extravagantly entertained in Boston.
By February 5, 1778, he had offered to train the Continental Army without pay.
Then, on February 23, 1778, Baron von Steuben reported to George Washington for duty at Valley Forge.
Colonel Alexander Hamilton and General Nathanael Greene assisted Steuben in drafting a training program for the Army. Baron von Steuben’s Revolutionary War Drill Manual became the standard United States manual until the War of 1812.
Baron von 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. He trained the Continental soldiers (who at this point were greatly lacking in proper clothing)in full military dress, swearing and yelling at them up and down in German and French.
Steuben spoke little English and he often yelled to his French-speaking aide,
“Over here! Swear at him for me!”
Baron von Steuben would write out the next day’s orders in German, a Captain Benjamin Walker would translate them into French, and a French-speaking officer would then translate them into English.
Steuben introduced a system of progressive training, beginning with schooling of the soldier, with and without arms, and going through the schooling 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 selected sergeants.
Another program developed by Steuben was camp sanitation.
Steuben established standards of sanitation and camp layouts that remained the 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.
Ever 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 successful results of Steuben’s new training program became evident at the Battle of Barren Hill, May 20, 1778 and then again at the Battle of Monmouth in June of 1778.
Steuben, by serving at George Washington’s headquarters, was the first to determine the enemy was heading for Monmouth.
Washington recommended the appointment of Steuben as inspector general on April 30; Congress approved it on May 5.
During the winter of 1778–1779, Steuben prepared Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, commonly known as the “Blue Book”.
Its basis was the training plan he had devised back at Valley Forge.
In 1780, Baron von 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.
Steuben 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, Steuben aided Greene in his campaign in the south, culminating in the delivery of 450 Virginia Continentals to Lafayette in June.
Steuben 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 George Washington in demobilizing the army in 1783 as well as aiding in the defense plan of the new nation.
Baron von Steuben was discharged from the military with honor on March 24, 1783.
On December 23, 1783, the State of New Jersey presented Steuben with the use of an estate now known as Zabriskie-Steuben House, 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.”
Steuben became an American citizen by act of the Pennsylvania legislature in March of 1784 (and later by the New York authorities in July 1786).
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.
However, even with these gifts, Steuben still managed to become largely indebted.
Recognizing his predicament and hoping to save himself from further financial embarrassment, Steuben wrote to William North in October of 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 then 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.
In 1790, Congress gave Baron von Steuben a pension of $2500 a year until his death.
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.
Baron Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand von Steuben died November 28, 1794 and is buried at what is now the Steuben Memorial State Historic Site.
Steuben never married and had no children. He left his estate to former aide, now General Benjamin Walker and a Captain William North, who both 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”.
Today, Baron von Steuben is credited with being the father of the Continental Army for teaching them the essentials of military drills, tactics, and disciplines.
Now WE know em