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Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben

Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben
Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, by 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
Buried at Steuben Memorial State Historic Site, Remsen, New York ()
Allegiance Kingdom of Prussia
 United States of America
Years of service 1744–1762; 1778–1783
Rank Major general

War of 1744

  • Siege of Prague (1744)

Seven Years' War

'American Revolutionary War

Signature Cursive signature in ink

Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand Steuben (born Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben; September 17, 1730 – November 28, 1794), also referred to as the Baron von Steuben, was a chief of staff in the final years of the war.


  • Early life 1
  • Service in Hohenzollern-Hechingen 2
  • American Revolution 3
    • Inspector General 3.1
    • Training program 3.2
    • Southern campaign 3.3
  • Final years 4
  • Death 5
  • Legacy 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • Sources 9
  • External links 10

Early life

Fredrich Wilhelm von Steuben was born in the fortress town of Magdeburg on September 17, 1730, the son of Royal Prussian Engineer, Capt. Baron Wilhelm von Steuben, and his wife, Elizabeth von Jagvodin.[2] It is said that at age 14 he served as volunteer with his father in one the campaigns of the War of the Austrian Succession.

Von Steuben joined the Royal Prussian Army at age 17. He served as a second lieutenant during the Seven Years' War and was wounded at the Battle of Prague in 1757. He served as adjutant to General Johann von Mayer and was promoted to first lieutenant in 1759. In August 1759 he was wounded a second time at the Battle of Kunersdorf. In June 1761, he was appointed deputy quartermaster at the general headquarters. Later that year he was taken prisoner by the Russians at Treptow.[3] Upon his release in 1762 he was promoted to captain, and eventually became an aide-de-camp to Frederick the Great.[4] The end of the war and subsequent reduction of the army meant that Steuben was one of many officers who found themselves unemployed. Given von Steuben's exemplary military record, one has to question why this ambitious and competent officer was discharged from the Prussian army in 1763. Modern historians have noted the lack of a documented formal reason for his dismissal, Steuben’s flamboyant dress and personality and the fact that this undoubtedly attractive man never married and come to the conclusion that some kind of homosexual scandal forced his removal. A reading of some of Steuben’s correspondence with his close friend, Captain von Lüttwitz, would seem to suggest that these historians might be correct: "You know me too well to feel that my friendship for you could ever become lukewarm. My dear Orestes, your Pylades loves you as loyally as he has ever loved you. His friendship to you shows no change. Not the remotest distance can diminish it." [5] Towards the end of his life, Steuben indicated that "an inconsiderate step and an implacable personal enemy" led to his leaving the army.[6]

Service in Hohenzollern-Hechingen

In 1764 Steuben became Hofmarschall to Fürst Josef Friedrich Wilhelm of Hohenzollern-Hechingen, a post he held until 1777.[7] In 1769 the Duchess of Wurttemberg, niece of Frederick the Great, presented him with the “ Cross of the Order of ‘ De la Fidelite “.[4] In 1771 he was made a baron. That same year he accompanied the prince to France in 1771, hoping to borrow money. Failing to find funds, they returned to Germany in 1775, deeply in debt.[5]

In 1763 Steuben had been formally introduced to the French Minister of War, Claude Louis, Comte de Saint-Germain in Hamburg. They met again in Paris in 1777. The Count, fully realizing the potential of an officer with Prussian general staff training, introduced him to Benjamin Franklin. Franklin, however, was unable to offer Steuben a rank or pay in the American army. The Continental Congress had grown tired of foreign mercenaries coming to America and demanding a high rank and pay. Promoting these men over qualified American officers caused discontent in the ranks. Von Steuben would have to go to America strictly as a volunteer, and present himself to Congress. Steuben left these first meetings in disgust and returned to Prussia.[3] Steuben found waiting for him allegations that he engaged in homosexual relationships with young men while in the service of Prince Josef Friedrich Wilhelm of Hohenzollern-Hechingen. The allegations were never proven, but Steuben knew they would stymie his chances at an officer’s position in Europe.[8] Threatened with prosecution for his homosexuality, Steuben returned to Paris.[9] Rumors followed him from Prussia to America that he was homosexual, but there never was an investigation of Von Steuben and he received a Congressional pension after the war.[10]

Upon the Count's recommendation, Steuben was introduced to Marseilles on Friday, September 26, 1777 on board the frigate Flamand.[11]

American Revolution

Portrait of Steuben by Ralph Earl

The Baron, his

Military offices
Preceded by
Thomas Conway
Inspector General of the U. S. Army
May 5, 1778 – April 15, 1784
Succeeded by
William North
  • Works by or about Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben at Internet Archive
  • Works by Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
  • Francis Bowen, Charles Hayward, 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 Von Steuben's Revolutionary War Drill ManualFriedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin Baron von Steuben.

External links

  • Life of Frederick William Von Steuben: Major General in the Revolutionary Army", Mason Brothers, 1859Kapp, Friedrich.
  • Lockhart, Paul. The Drillmaster of Valley Forge: The Baron de Steuben and the making of the American Army. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Benemann, William. Male-Male Intimacy in Early America: Beyond Romantic Friendships NY: Routledge 2006
  • Palmer, John McAuley. General Von Steuben Yale University Press, 1937
  • Steuben Papers, NYHS.
  • The Historic Society of Pennsylvania, Simon Gratz Collection (#250), Case 4, Box 13 William North /Benjamin Walker Letters


  1. ^ Thomas Fleming "The Magnificent Fraud," American Heritage, Feb./March 2006
  2. ^ "Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben", Bergen County Historical Society
  3. ^ a b c d e f "General von Steuben", Valley Forge, National Park Service
  4. ^ a b c d e "Major General Von Steuben", Steuben Society of America
  5. ^ a b c Alexander M. Bielakowski (2013). Ethnic and Racial Minorities in the U.S. Military: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 667–69. 
  6. ^ a b c d Life of Frederick William Von Steuben: Major General in the Revolutionary Army", Mason Brothers, 1859Kapp, Friedrich.
  7. ^ , June 27, 2008US News and World ReportLockhart, Paul "The Rich Legacy of a Forgotten Founder",
  8. ^ , July 30, 2013NCO JournalVilla, Pablo. "Friedrich von Steuben: A closer look at the ‘father’ of the NCO Corps",
  9. ^ Randy Shilts (2005). Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military. St. Martin's Press. pp. 7–10. 
  10. ^ Thomas Adam (2005). Germany and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History; a Multidisciplinary Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 1007. 
  11. ^ Lockhart p. 50.
  12. ^ a b c d "General Von Steuben", Mount Gulian Historic site
  13. ^ Deats, Paula and Fleisher, Carol L. "A War Without End" episode, The Revolutionary War, The Learning Channel documentary series (1995). Accessed on the Military Channel (July 4, 2012)
  14. ^ William E Benemann. Male-Male Intimacy in Early America: Beyond Romantic Friendships Routledge; 1 edition (March 12, 2006)
  15. ^ Drill and Ceremony #43. Website accessed 9 April 2009
  16. ^ The current revision of this book is available for download from the US Army directly The United States Army
  17. ^ Lockhart, Paul Douglas (2008), The drillmaster of Valley Forge: The Baron de Steuben and the making of the American Army, New York: HarperCollins,  
  18. ^ "Baron Von Steuben", National Park Service Museum Collections
  19. ^  Joel Tyler Headley (1900). "Steuben, Frederick William Augustus Henry Ferdinand von". In Wilson, James Grant; Fiske, John.  
  20. ^ Von Zemenszky, Edith (1982). The Papers of General Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben 1777-1794. Millwood NY. pp. Account with –––––––, reel 6, frame. 
  21. ^ Zabriskie-Steuben House
  22. ^ Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben at Find a Grave
  23. ^ William B. Skelton. "North, William"; American National Biography Online, February 2000.
  24. ^ German-American Steuben Parade of New York
  25. ^ Bergen County Historical Society
  26. ^ NESCAC Football Record Book
  27. ^ LionHeart FilmWorks


See also

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.[27]

The various depictions of Steuben in popular (American) media include portrayals by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the animated series Liberty's Kids, and by David Cross on the "Philadelphia" episode of Drunk History.

Other tributes include Steuben Field, the stadium of the Hamilton College football team.[26] 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 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.[25]

Von Steuben was one of four European military leaders who assisted the American cause during the Revolution and was honored with a equestrian statue by Schweizer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A bust of Steuben is in the garden of the German Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Several locations in the United States are also named Valley Forge Military Academy and College.

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.

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.

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.[24] 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 section of the city.

General Von Steuben, 1930 Issue.


Steuben did not marry and had no children. He did not much care for his European relatives.[6] Thus, he left his estate to his companions and aides-de-camp, Captains Benjamin Walker and William North, with whom he had had an "extraordinarily intense emotional relationship ... treating them as surrogate sons".[23]

Von Steuben died on November 28, 1794, and was buried in a grove at what became the Steuben Memorial State Historic Site in a town named Steuben, New York.[22]


Von Steuben moved upstate and settled in Oneida County on a small estate in the vicinity of Rome, on land granted to him for his military service and where he had spent summers. He was later appointed a regent for what evolved into the University of the State of New York.

On September 5, 1788, the New Jersey Legislature gave Baron von Steuben full title to the former Zabriskie estate. A month later, recognizing his financial embarrassment, Steuben wrote another former aide-de-camp and companion, William North, recognizing: "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 North (at his new home in Duanesburg), noting "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 eventually sold the New Jersey property to a son of the previous owner, and it remained in the Zabriskie family until 1909, so today it is the only remaining eighteenth-century building that von Steuben owned.

On December 23, 1783, the State of New Jersey presented him with the use of an estate in Bergen County now known as Steuben House,[21] which had been confiscated from Loyalist Jan Zabriskie in 1781. Located in the formerly strategic New Bridge Landing, the estate included a gristmill and about 40 acres of land. Legislators initially conditioned the grant, requiring Steuben to "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 responded to his inquiries 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." Von Steuben spent considerable sums to repair wartime damages to the house and restore its commercial operations under former aide Walker.

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 with his longtime companion, William North, in which he created a special room at his retreat he called The Louvre[20] on Manhattan Island, where he became a prominent figure and elder in the German Reformed Church. However, even with the new U.S. Congress giving him large sums of money, he still managed to become largely indebted. In 1790, Congress awarded him a pension of $2500 a year, which he kept until his death.

Steuben's log cabin summer residence, Steuben, New York.[19]

Final years

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. In 1783, General Von Steuben joined General Knox at Vail’s Gate, near West Point, in the fall of 1782 and in early 1783 moved to the Verplanck homestead, at Mount Gulian, across the Hudson River from Washington’s headquarters in Newburgh.[12] Steuben gave assistance to Washington in demobilizing the army in 1783[18] as well as aiding in the defense plan of the new nation. In May 1783 Steuben presided over the founding of the Society of the Cincinnati.[12] He was discharged from the military with honor on March 24, 1784.[5]

Mount Gulian, Fishkill, NY

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.[6] He later traveled with Nathanael Greene, the new commander of the Southern campaign.[6] 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.

Southern campaign

[12] and affected American drills and tactics until the Mexican War of 1846.[3] It was used by the United States Army until 1814,[17] Its basis was the training plan he had devised at [16][15] commonly known as the "Blue Book".Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, During the winter of 1778–1779, Steuben prepared

The first results of Steuben's training were in evidence at the Battle of Barren Hill, 20 May 1778 and then again at the Battle of Monmouth in June 1778. Steuben, by then serving in Washington's headquarters, was the first to determine the enemy was heading for Monmouth.

In the earlier part of the war, Americans used the bayonet mostly as a cooking skewer or tool rather than as a fighting instrument.[4] 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.

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.

As he could not speak or write English, Steuben originally wrote the drills in French, the military language of Europe at the time. His secretary, Du Ponceau, then translated the drills from French into English. Colonel Alexander Hamilton and General Nathanael Greene were of great help in assisting Steuben in drafting a training program for the Army. The Baron’s willingness and ability to work with the men, as well as his use of profanity (in several different languages), made him popular among the soldiers.[3] It is here he met his reputed future lover, Captain Benjamin Walker. Upon meeting Walker for the first time he exclaimed "If I had seen an angel from Heaven I should not have more rejoiced." Within weeks, Walker was Steuben's aid-de-camp.[14]

Steuben picked 120 men from various regiments, to form an honor guard for General Washington, and used them to demonstrate military training to the rest of the troops.[4] These men in turn trained other personnel at Regimental and Brigade levels. Steuben's eccentric personality greatly enhanced his mystique. In full military dress uniform, he twice a day trained the soldiers who, at this point, were themselves greatly lacking in proper clothing.[13]

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

Training program

On May 5, 1778, on General Washington’s recommendation, Congress appointed Steuben inspector general of the army, with the rank and pay of major general. Internal administration had been neglected, and no books had been kept either as to supplies, clothing or men. Steuben became aware of the “administrative incompetence, graft, war profiteering” that existed.[12] He enforced the keeping of exact records and strict inspections. His inspections saved the army an estimated loss of five to eight thousand muskets.[4]

Washington appointed Steuben as temporary inspector general. He went out into the camp to talk with the officers and men, inspect their huts, and scrutinize their equipment. 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 downhill side. There was the familiar arrangement of company and regimental streets.

Inspector General


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