Patriot General Von Steuben

From 1782-1783, patriot General Friedrich Von Steuben was headquartered at Mount Gulian, close to the Fishkill Barracks and Supply Depot and right across the Hudson River from Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh. While at Mount Gulian "The Baron", as he was often called, learned of the signing of the Treaty of Paris, ending the Revolutionary War and giving the new nation total independence from England.

Often a footnote in history, General Von Steuben, a Prussian (German) immigrant, emerged from military obscurity in Europe to become an important but unsung hero of the Revolutionary War, having a lasting impact on the American Army and our nation’s history.

Born on September 17, 1730 into a military family in Magdeburg, Saxony (now a German state), Friedrich Wilhelm Ludorf Gerhard Augustin Von Steuben became a soldier at age 16. Fighting in numerous engagements during Europe’s Seven Years War (1756-63), Von Steuben rose to rank of captain in the Prussian army, which was highly regarded for its precision and military discipline. At the war’s end he was attached to the King of Prussia’s General Staff as Quartermaster Lieutenant. He had served bravely in that war and in other European wars and was once captured and twice wounded while fighting. His services were offered to other nations by the King, a common practice then, who wrote him a letter of thanks for his role with British forces while at war against France and Spain. Later, he was made Court Chamberlain for the Prince of Hohenzollern-Hechingen, a German Principality. In 1769 he was formally knighted. Soon after, he was awarded the royal title of Baron, a title he proudly maintained throughout his years in America, although some scholars dispute this award.

The early 1770’s were a time of relative peace in Europe and the Prussian military was scaled down. There is some evidence that then Captain Von Steuben was somewhat restless and may have fallen into debt. It is unclear, but he may have been discharged from the Principality’s service due to "unsavory conduct" early in 1777. No doubt he was looking for another military opportunity.

During that year, in Paris, he ran into two American "agents" who had been authorized by their young government to seek out European financial, diplomatic and military assistance. The two were Silas Deane and Benjamin Franklin. Franklin met “The Baron” and immediately wrote to General Washington about Von Steuben, who he identified as a "Lieutenant-General in the King of Prussia’s service". In fact, he had never been any sort of general and was not in the King’s service since the early 1770’s. Nevertheless, Washington instructed Franklin to offer Von Steuben a position with the new American Army and to immediately send him to America.

Speaking virtually no English, Von Steuben arrived in Newport, Rhode Island on December 1, 1777. With instructions to report to General Washington by February 23, 1778, Von Steuben arrived at the squalid encampment at Valley Forge, PA. Of the nearly 10,000 troops encamped there during the harsh winter of 1777-’78 at least 3,000 died of sickness, starvation, exposure and infection from earlier wounds. Von Steuben met Washington and inspected the camp. He wrote home of the extraordinarily poor conditions of the men, but also of their extreme patriotism and willingness to endure hardship for the cause of liberty. In Europe, men fought for gold and honors. In America, Von Steuben learned, they fought for ideals.

Von Steuben was horrified at the terrible conditions of the encampment and became aware of the "administrative incompetence, graft, war profiteering" that existed in the Continental Army. He offered his immediate service to Washington at no pay. Washington accepted his offer of service with only a general officer’s rank and pay, and Friedrich Von Steuben immediately began to reform the American Army.

Working quickly, and using translators, Von Steuben worked as a "drill sergeant", introducing European basic training methods, marching drills, uniform commands and tactics to the ragged farmer-soldiers. He initiated basic hygiene into the camp and instructed the men in musketry and artillery drills. Although initially ridiculed by the troops for his demanding and Prussian aristocratic manners, and lack of English (except some confused swear words), Von Steuben quickly gained fellow officers’ and Washington’s trust and respect. He wrote a simplified drill book in French that was translated by Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s aide.

Within three months of his arrival at Valley Forge, Von Steuben was appointed the Inspector General of the Continental Army with the rank of Major General by Congress. Along with newly appointed Quartermaster General Nathaniel Greene, Von Steuben resurrected the once rag-tag army. On May 5, 1778, he prepared the troops for a military parade at Valley Forge to celebrate the news that France had decided to recognize America’s independence and would be our ally. Washington was surprised and delighted by the professional display of his parading troops.

Portrait of General Von Steuben
in the Cincinnati Room
Click to Enlarge

Over the next two years, the Major General’s reputation grew, as he was credited with transforming the Continental Line into a trained, disciplined force which could stand up to crack British Regulars. He introduced Prussian concepts of general staff duties and European field tactics that could rival British and Hessian battle maneuvers. He taught the men to break camp quickly, fire in volley, attack en masse with bayonet and regroup or retreat in an orderly fashion. He demanded that military camps be kept sanitary and be ready for inspection, especially weapons and equipment. He also set up a system of property accountability and supply procurement for the army, which was essential in stamping out corruption and waste. Most importantly, he gave General Washington an accurate accounting of the Army’s true battle strength and equipment supply, which had both been sorely lacking.

On March 29, 1779 Von Steuben’s book "Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops" was formally accepted by Congress as the official regulations for the United States Army. The "Regulations" or "Blue Book" as it is known, was used intact by the army until the War of 1812, and it affected American military drills and tactics until the Mexican War of 1846.

The harsh winter of 1779-80, which rivaled Valley Forge for desperation, saw Von Steuben maintaining the morale and discipline of the soldiers at the encampment at Morristown, New Jersey. For the spring 1780 campaign, "The Baron" was given a command of American troops in the field. He also recruited troops in Richmond VA for Nathaniel Greene’s Southern Army in the Carolinas. Due to his knowledge of military engineering and siege tactics, Von Steuben built supply depots, arsenals and small forts in the South to harass the British. On the James River in Virginia, he built the Point of Forks Fort, which was later successfully evacuated when British General Cornwallis attacked it in the summer of 1781. As Washington, Lafayette and Rochambeau’s French forces were gathering their armies to attack and trap Cornwallis in Virginia, Von Steuben was given Field Command of a full fighting division with artillery. His unit was employed at the Siege of Yorktown setting up the artillery barrage, and he was on hand when Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington on October 19, 1781. Von Steuben is depicted in the famous painting of the Yorktown Surrender by the artist John Trumbull.

After Yorktown, Washington still expected renewed attacks by British forces against the Hudson Valley so he had Von Steuben move his headquarters to New York. He joined General Knox at Vail’s Gate, near West Point, in the fall of 1781. He then moved to Mount Gulian in Fishkill Landing (now Beacon NY), opposite Washington’s Headquarters at Newburgh in early March of 1782. Throughout this time, Von Steuben was busy with the design and building of the huge New Windsor Cantonment, which eventually had 8,000 soldiers and dependents living in 700 cabins.

As peace negotiations dragged on into the spring, the Society of the Cincinnati, America’s first veterans’ fraternal organization, was formed at Mount Gulian on May 13, 1783 with Von Steuben presiding. While at Mount Gulian, Von Steuben drew up his Plan to Dissolve the Army in anticipation of the formal end of hostilities, and also wrote a Plan for National Defense, an important document in which he proposed the establishment of military academies for the new nation, which became the germ for West Point and Annapolis. With news of the signing of the Peace Treaty of Paris, Von Steuben furloughed and then discharged his troops by June of 1783. In March 1784, General Von Steuben was discharged from the Continental Army with honors.

Soon after the war, Von Steuben became an American citizen by special Act of Congress. He lived in Manhattan and was prominent in high society circles and also with common soldiers who frequented the many taverns and inns of New York. In addition to his officer’s pay, he was given gifts of money and land by private admirers and state governments. A house near Hackensack, New Jersey and the Mount Pleasant Mansion near Philadelphia were places of brief residence for him. New York State awarded him 16,000 prime acres in the Mohawk Valley near Remsen for his remarkable service to his adopted country. In 1790, Congress granted him an annual pension of $2,500 for life, a significant sum for the time. Despite his new found wealth, Von Steuben lived so extravagantly that he frequently fell into debt and had to be rescued by dedicated friends. However, it is almost universally recorded that after the war, the Baron was welcomed everywhere as a special sort of hero, one who was respected by Washington and his officers, but also loved by the common soldiers. Like so many Americans, he had left his homeland to re-create himself and make his mark in his new land. On November 28, 1794, he died at his simple home near Remsen NY, where he is buried.

Today, Steuben County NY, Steubenville OH, the Steuben Glass Company, and the German-American Steuben Society are named after him. Mount Gulian is on the National and State Registers of Historic Places due to its having served as his headquarters in 1782-1783.