Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens, aide-de-camp to General Washington, to his father, Henry Laurens, the president of the Continental Congress, February 27, 1778
|Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben by Charles Willson Peale.|
Von Steuben was fluent in French and well-versed in Enlightenment thought and Classical History. His favorite pastime was reading. He loved to quote Cervantes's Don Quixote, his favorite book, as well as Montesquieu's The Spirit of the Laws, and from the time he left Paris until the end of the American Revolution, always had his dog Azor-- described as a large "Italian greyhound," which was a contradiction-- at his side. More importantly, to Congress and the patriot cause he was a superb organizer, trainer, logistician, and planner.
Born on September 17, 1730, Steuben, a week later, was baptized in the Calvinist Reformed Church in Magdeburg. He was a product of Prussian society; as a member of its lesser nobility, the Junker class, he joined his kingdom's pride and joy, the army, considered at the time to be the best career choice for young men of such social status. In terms of promotion and pay, the prospects as an officer (almost all of whom were Junkers) looked bleak. Nevertheless, there was one advantage that invariably won out against these factors: to have served in the Prussian army was deemed to be a privilege of the highest order.
His military career started in 1746, when he joined Infantry Regiment von Lestwitz (Regiment Nr. 31) in Breslau. However, he did not receive his commission immediately; he had to first be an officer cadet- in German, Gefreiten-korporal or Freikorporal. Two and a half years later, he became an ensign, a rank which entailed many jobs an officer would do but none of the benefits. Finally, at 22 years of age, he attained his lieutenancy.
Lieutenant von Steuben showed himself to be a competent officer. He cared deeply about his men, believing that good officers endure the same adversities as their men. When his company was digging trenches in a cemetery immediately outside Breslau in the summer heat of 1754, disinterring decaying corpses that filled the air with their putrid smell and perspiring profusely, he expressed his worries to a friend: "I fear for my poor soldiers. As yet I have no sick, but I fear the month of July. In order not to alarm them, I am continually at work, notwithstanding my disgust for this abominable occupation." Von Lestwitz's commander observed that von Steuben was "clever"... but "not capable as a manager"-- a sign of financial issues to come.
It was during the small amounts free hours that von Steuben stood out among his fellow officers: He didn't gamble; he didn't drink; he didn't visit the bordellos of Breslau. He found much entertainment in his comrades' stories, much of which no doubt sounded like something out of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, but he didn't participate in any of them. Rather, he read widely-- fiction, military science, the history of ancient Greece and Rome, bawdy comedies like Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, works espousing Enlightenment thought, learning arithmetic and becoming fluent in French, a language that was a prerequisite for success in the Age of Reason.
Still, he hungered for action. To Count Henkel von Donnersmark on June 4, 1754, he wrote, "If there is a war, I promise you, at the end of the second campaign, that your friend will either be in Hades, or at the head of a regiment."
Fortunately for him, war was just around the corner. Ever since she lost the province of Silesia to Prussia in the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748), Austrian Empress Maria Theresa waited, like a cat about to pounce on a yarn ball, for the perfect time to strike. Friedrich II, Frederick the Great, beat her to it, attacking Saxony in August 1756, one of those "territorial states" that would eventually be a part of present-day Germany. So began the Seven Years' War (1756-1763).
It was in this conflict that Steuben saw his first action, in at Prague on May 6, 1757, where, as a military apprentice in 1744, he had watched his father, an engineer officer, perform the tricks of his trade. His regiment suffered a casualty rate of 50 percent, and Steuben was wounded. Having recovered from his wounds, he joined a Freibataillone-- a light infantry battalion whose job was to gather intelligence and conduct raids, essentially an 18th century version of a commando unit-- becoming an adjutant of Free Battalion No. 2. In this formation he participated in the Battle of Rossbach on November 5, 1757, a shining example of Frederick the Great as the master tactician. Two years later, Steuben was transferred to the staff of a Prussian general, under whom he fought at Kay (July 23, 1759); Kunersdorf (August 12, 1759), where, once again, he was wounded; Liegnitz (August 15, 1760); and Torgau (November 3, 1760). In May of 1761, with Frederick's brother, Prince Henry, pulling the strings, he was moved to the "Royal Suit," the Prussian monarch's headquarters, in which, as a stop-gap measure, Steuben, now a first lieutenant, served as Quartiermeister-Lieutenant, an officer who was to help Frederick's staff in planning and the whereabouts of the enemy.
While his tour of duty in the Royal Suite was important to Steuben's development as a soldier, it did not last long. The Officer corps, where replacements were hard to find, had been suffering heavy losses in the war and were needed desperately, so Steuben, that summer, was sent to the staff of General J. von Platen, who had been given the thankless task of fighting against the Russians. Eventually, Platen's forces capitulated to the enemy at Treptow in October 1761.
As a prisoner in St. Petersburg, Steuben, who was a very sociable character, made friends with Karl Peter Ulrich, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, the future Tsar Peter III. When Tsarina Elisabeth died at the beginning of 1762, it was Steuben who wrote Prussia's foreign minister that Peter III, a Prussofile if their even was one, wanted to commence peace negotiations between the two kingdoms. Peace was attained, and it had all started with the initiative that Steuben took.
Steuben then became one of 13 students who were to be taught by Frederick himself the rudiments of generalship. It was called the Spezialklasse der Kriegskunst, the "Special Class on the Art of War," but for some reason, upon completion of the course, he fell out of favor. Captain von Steuben became a company commander of Infantry Regiment von Salmuth (No. 48) in a middle-of-nowhere post at Wesel, and was subsequently discharged. Friedrich von Steuben was out of a job.
Fortunately, he managed to procure another one: Hofmarschall to Prince Josef Friedrich Wilhelm of Hohenzollern-Hechingen. As Hofmarschall, Steuben was to ensure that the prince's children were nurtured and educated properly; advise Prince Josef on personal management; direct the many servants' activities; and make certain that everything functioned smoothly in the court. The woman who had open this avenue for him, Princess Margravine Friederike Dorothea, also got the margrave of Baden-Durlach, in June 1769, to induct Steuben into the Hausorden der Treue, a chivalric order, and bestow upon him the title of Freiherr-- "free lord" in German, which was about the equivalent of Baron in French. Consequently, he referred to himself as the "Baron de Steuben."
Nevertheless, such rewards could not make the life of a Hofmarschall any less boring. Steuben longed to resume what he did best: soldiering. He sought employment in the British East India Company's army (the 18th century's Blackwater), France's, Baden's, even the army of Prussia's rival, Austria. But all of these attempts came to naught.
Yet when the door closed before him at Karlsruhe, home of the court of the Margrave of Baden, another one opened. It was May 1777, and Steuben was talking to Peter Burdett, an English map maker working for the margrave. Burdett told him (not in English; the Baron couldn't speak that language) all he knew of what was going on across the vast Atlantic-- of the unjust Townshend, Stamp, and Intolerable Acts that Britain forced upon her American colonies, of a rebellion that turned from a fight for the rights of Englishmen into an attempt to forge a new nation. It was evident that he had been doing a good job at staying abreast of affairs over there. He also let von Steuben known that he was a Rebel sympathizer... but he did not tell him he was on the payroll of Benjamin Franklin, the American commissioner in Paris.
Franklin and Silas Dean, another American emissary, the Englishman told the Baron, were looking for officers experienced in the higher levels of command and organization. True, plenty of Europeans had embarked to fight in the New World against the British, but none of them had such experience on their credentials. Von Steuben liked what he was hearing. If I there is an opening, he replied to Burdett, I might want to seek employment there, too. He then told him of his military career in the army of "Old Fritz." Now it was Burdett's turn for his eyebrows to be raised.
One month later, Steuben was in Paris, wearing nice clothing made for him in Strasbourg-- after all, he wanted to make a good impression-- and carrying a letter of introduction from Burdett:
The Bearer is Baron Steuben of whom I had the honor to write to you by the hands of a Friend about a month since. He is a Gentleman of Family, Merit and great experience, well known to some of the First Personages in Europe, and hereby gives you sir a strong proof of his Ambition to make the Acquaintance of Docter Franklin in actualy performing a Journey from Germany to Paris for that purpose.
However, as a man who had been disappointed before at interviews, von Steuben knew he would need more proponents. Fortunately he had a friend in the French Minister of War Claude-Louis, Comte de St. Germain, who he had met in Hamburg circa 1763-64. St. Germain also wrote a letter in the Baron's favor, and introduced to him the Comte de Vergennes, the foreign minister, and the influential entrepreneur and playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. They, too, became his advocates. With such support, Steuben, on the evening of June 25, finally went Franklin's residence in the village of Passy on the outskirts of Paris to have an audience with American commissioners.
Suffice it to say that through intrigue, rumors, lies, and a little bit of luck, Steuben was able to sail to America. A loan given to him by Beaumarchais to deal with the travel costs. Steuben once more had letters of introduction from American diplomats Silas Deane and Benjamin Franklin. On September 26, 1777, he embarked from Marseilles for America aboard L'Heureux-- under cover as the merchant vessel Flamand, supposedly destined for the West Indies. On December 1, he arrived at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He was welcomed heartily there, at Boston, and finally at Lancaster, a home to the Pennsylvania Dutch, Germans who had emigrated from the Old World to build their lives anew.
What hardly anybody knew was how much he deserved such greetings.
Chartrand, René. American War of Independence Commanders. Oxford: Osprey, 2003. Print.
Lockhart, Paul Douglas. The Drillmaster of Valley Forge: The Baron De Steuben and the Making of the American Army. 1st ed. [Washington, D.C.] : New York, NY: Smithsonian Books ; Collins, 2008. Print.