General Horatio Gates to Friedrich von Steuben, March 25, 1778.
He woke up at three in the morning, tired. He had been at his desk, working on the next day's lessons well into the previous night, with the only the light of a candle to help him. Now, he had to contend with his appearance; it was a big day for him, and he wanted to look his best. His hair was powered and braided according to the customary fashion of his time by a servant of his, and he donned his uniform, all the while still making sure that everything he was supposed to be as only an officer of the "Lace Wars"--the term modern-day historians use to describe the conflicts of the eighteenth century- could. After that, he smoked a pipe and drank some coffee, reviewing what had written the evening before. Finally, he went outside, mounted his steed, and left.
It was March 19, 1778 at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand von Steuben was about to returned to what he loved most: soldiering. Only this time he was not merely a cog in a great machine like he had been in the Prussian army of Frederick the Great but the man responsible for turning the George Washington's Continental Army to a force that could stand up to the Redcoats and their Hessian mercenaries.
“Eighteenth-century warfare,” notes military historian Michael Stephenson, “seems exotically formalized, strangely balletic, and ‘unreal’ by modern standards.” Yet under that surface appearance of formality and unrealism were practical measures that took into account the limitations of technology.
The most significant influence was the gun the men carried: the musket or firelock. It was very inaccurate. The muzzle velocities of today’s firearms range from 2,400 to 4,000 feet per second. Back then, they ranged from 600 to 800 feet per second. A superb marksman could hit a target at 100 yards, but more than 20 yards from that point the bullet would start to drop around five feet. At 200 yards, a ball would have perhaps a 50/50 chance on hitting an opponent; at 300, the possibility was out of the question.
Thus, the tactical doctrine of Europe’s armies in the Age of Reason called for (A) a faster loading and firing process and (B) a densely packed formation of infantrymen, the logic being that the greater number of infantry—and therefore muskets—within a certain area, the greater the firepower; and the greater the windage, the distance between the ball and the barrel, the higher the rate of fire (while less windage would mean more accuracy, it would take longer to ram the bullet down barrel). “Battles will be won through superior firepower… the infantry that can load the fastest will always defeat those who are slower to reload,” Frederick the Great, the military genius of his day, proclaimed. Indeed, it was this mentality that made the Prussian army deemed the greatest army of the eighteenth-century.
Still, in the chaos of combat and even the serenity of the parade ground, there was waste: “Powder is not as terrible as believed,” French Marshal Maurice de Saxe stated in his Rêveries on the Art of War (1757). “Few men in these affairs are killed from in front while fighting. I have seen whole salvoes fail to kill four men.”
Artillery was deadly, too. Like the musket, it wasn’t very accurate, but it had a much longer range, of course. Solid shot, cannonballs that didn’t combust, were fired to ricochet two or more times like a tennis ball before it finally rested. For a six-pounder artillery piece, the first bounce, or “graze,” would have been at 400 yards; the second, 400 yards after that; and the last, about 100 yards before it hit the ground, rolling to a halt. Stephenson gives a vivid description of eighteenth-century artillery: “Lacking accuracy itself, it was a beast of omnivorous and indiscriminate appetite, guzzling, like some Cyclops, the herds of men conveniently marching in dense formation towards its greedy muzzle.”
Needless to say, the results of this gunnery, from both muskets and cannons, were gruesome. Patriot Peter Brown recalled one such incident during the Battle of Bunker’s Hill: “One cannon cut off 3 men in two on the neck of land.” On the British side, Corporal Roger Lamb of the 23rd Foot recorded that during the advance to Saratoga “a man, a short distance on [my] left, received a ball in his forehead which took off the top of his head” The stress of combat was bad enough with the cacophony of battle and the perception of danger—the enemy advancing, or about to unleash a potentially devastating volley—but to withstand the sanguinary nature of battle and not flee required rare courage indeed.
Where did this courage come from? There was religion, ideology, esprit de corps, fear, adrenaline, a desire for glory, rum… and discipline. Thus drill served two purposes—one practical, concentration of firepower, and one psychological: to sufficiently suppress individual thoughts and feelings, and impress mindless obedience. As military historian Paul Lockhart writes,
Drill did not inoculate soldiers against the horrors of the battlefield. But it helped. Troops who had been exercised on the parade ground, day in and day out, for months at a time, were more likely to respond to their officer’s commands in the heat of battle without thinking about the awful carnage around them.
These factors partly explain why it was imperative that the Continental Army be uniformly trained. So far, drill was haphazardly enforced: “Each Colo Exercised his Regt according to his own Ideas, of those of any Military Author that might have fallen into his hands,” von Steuben would complain to the Continental Congress’s Board of War. Another reason why the Americans needed discipline was that Washington thought so. For all the erroneous claims that the American Revolution was won by partisan tactics, Washington preferred “conventional,” European-style warfare. To him, and many of his fellow officers, the rifle-toting partisans from Virginia and Pennsylvania had an obdurate individualism (a notable slogan of theirs was “Don’t Tread on Me”)—they detested discipline, and they ran counter to the European way of war. Also, having fought in the French and Indian War and quelled the Jacobite Rebellions, anti-guerrilla tactics were nothing new to the British Army. And fighting formally would win respect from across the Atlantic. Besides, Lockhart notes, “A successful war of posts [guerrilla war] required patience and stamina, qualities that the Americans generally had not exhibited.”
The Baron de Steuben’s job was to make Washington’s dream come true. It was not going to be easy. After all, how can one man, no matter how well-trained he is, train an army, and in three months at that? Hence Washington, taking von Steuben's advice, promulgated in his General Orders of March 17 that a "model company"—a unit of 100 men from every brigade that would be attached to Washington's headquarters guard as a stop-gap measure—be formed. Steuben, of course, was going to teach the company, and when he believed they were sufficiently trained he would disband it, sending all the men back to their brigades so they could take teach their comrades what they had learned. They must be, Washington added, at the Grand Parade on the morning of the 19th.
On that Thursday morning, von Steuben, his right hand grasping his Prussian Army silver-headed swagger stick (Exerzierstock), facing this company and using his notes, commenced with the basics, treating the company as if they had never seen combat before. First in order was the technique of marching, which was far more complicated back then that it is today. Steuben had the men disarm, stack their weapons, and stand in a long, single-rank line. Then, he selected twenty men to teach, the remainder of the unit observing the Prussian instructing their comrades on the "Position of the Soldier"; he had to be erect, have his shoulders back, his head bent a little to the right so the left eye was aligned with the waistcoat buttons (or where they would be if he did not have a waistcoat), and chest forward; feet were to be almost touching each other while the toes were to be spread. The Baron gave his students an example by doing the position himself.
Now it was their turn. Von Steuben praised the ones who deserved it, cussed out, teased, and, of course, criticized the ones who didn't. Even when Steuben played the part of the disciplinarian, the environment was hardly devoid of humor, both teacher and students occasionally enjoying a good laugh.
Baron von Steuben at Valley Forge by an unknown artist. While he did spend time on the use of the bayonet, von Steuben focused more on the art of maneuvering and marching.
This lesson was followed by dressing ranks. The men had to have their heads face either to the left or right so as to make sure he was precisely in line with the man next to him; eventually, the line became so straight that it seemed as if it was the product of a gigantic ruler.
Anyway, with that accomplished, it was time for marching. Every man had to walk at the same speed and step the same way, 75 paces a minute, 28 inches per rate of movement. It was nothing the men had ever done before; they were used to the British practice of 60 paces a minute. "Slow Time is a Medium between what was in our service slow and Quick Time," Henry Beekman Livingston wrote on March 25. "Quick Time is about as Quick as a Common Country Dance."
There was one more thing to do before the company was dismissed. The men had to be taught to turn left and right at right angles and to the rear by turning 180 degrees on the heels. After that, the men were given a break. They all went back to their respective campsites and probably told their comrades what had happened thus far.
Class was back in session in the afternoon. First, they reviewed what they had learned earlier that day; then the company broke down into squads to practice wheeling- an action in which an entire line of infantry would advance while simultaneously swinging like a door, by far the most difficult of what Steuben taught them; and finally, dinner being imminent, the training program on the Grand Parade ended. Of course, the men of the model company eased the boredom of many a fellow patriot when they returned to their brigades.
Such a routine continued for the subsequent few days. The Baron wrote his new lessons the night before; woke up by 3:00 A.M.; arrived at the Grand Parade six hours later; and- the most important of all, obviously- he commenced teaching the model company, going over what it had learned the previous day, breaking it down into squads, and giving it a new lesson to tackle. All of this happened, once again like the first day, in the morning and afternoon. The regimen was equally trying for von Steuben's staff, as William North, who joined his staff in 1779, relates: "There was no waiting for a tardy adie-de-camp, and those who followed wished they had not slept. Nor was there need of chiding. When duty was neglected or military etiquette infringed, the Baron's look was quite sufficient." "After three or four days on the Parade," Lockhart notes, " the company was able to march, wheel, and change front with a precision and speed not yet seen in Continental troops."
This precision and speed resulted in Washington, on March 22, to write in his General Orders that, due to the "happy Effects" of von Steuben's training program on the model company, no brigade commander should have the "new Regulations" (what Washington called the Baron's doctrine) had been put on paper. The whole Continental Army would begin to receive these "happy Effects" on the 24th.
On that day Washington imparted to his subordinates the green light. "At nine oclock precisely all the Brigades will begin their exercise, each regiment on its own parade, and the Inspector General [von Steuben] will attend the exercise." "Steuben was no longer a mere volunteer, drilling a single company of men," adds Lockhart. "He was now responsible for training all of the Continental infantry at Valley Forge. Washington's order put him temporarily above all other officers in the army, making him answerable to Washington alone."
Steuben was no longer a mere volunteer, drilling a single company. He was now responsible for training all of the Continental infantry at Valley Forge. A daunting task, indeed. How was he to do it? Fortunately, for the Baron, he had his staff, "sub-inspectors," who had the job of acting as a sort of liason officer for the Baron and the brigade inspectors, Steuben's helpers in every brigade. Also, there was a lesson plan:
- The sub-inspectors would impart to the brigade inspectors the new lesson. A squad of 20 men would be chosen from every brigade. Company commanders must do the same, by squads.
- Larger formations would then train. Every officer had to take part and would be taught by the brigade inspectors as if they were enlisted men.
As for the Manual Exercise, the way a soldier had to handle his musket, it was virtually nonexistent. In European armies, the it was unnecessarily complex, and the Baron consequently simplified by a huge margin. When he first met the model company, the Baron was not at all pleased with the exercise's influence: "The only part which retained a shadow of Uniformity was the least Essential of all, the Manual Exercise, as it was nearly an Imitation of that Established by the English Army. The most Essential part which is the March & Maneuvring step was as varied as the Colour of our Uniforms." The downplaying of the exercise is just another example of von Steuben's pragmatism when he had to train an army in such a short period of time.
Like the model company, the army was first instructed on how to march properly. The men initially had to march forward ("direct step") in "common time" and "quick time"; what followed was the "oblique step," in which the line had to move diagonally while still retaining its cohesion. There was no music, no muskets, and, on the Baron's orders, not a word was spoken; nor was anybody allowed to "stir their hands, blow their noses."
What did the men think of all this strictness and the training regimen? Although there was complaining, that is hardly unnatural for any soldier to do. There morale improved greatly. "Discipline flourishes and daily improves under the indefatigable Efforts of Baron Steuben- who is much esteem'd by us," wrote Colonel Alexander Scammell of the 3rd New Hampshire Regiment. The same thing could be said for the officers, who also recognized practicality of the Baron's program. As John Laurens, Washington's aide-de-camp, wrote, "The Officers in general seem to entertain a high opinion of him, and he sets them an excellent example in descending to the functions of a drill-Serjeant."
Colonel Henry Beekman Livingston, who commanded a New York regiment, was one of those approving officers:
He is now teaching the Most Simple Parts of the Exercise such as Positition and Marching of a Soldier in a Manner Quite different from that, they Have been heretofore used to, In my Oppinion More agreable to the Dictates of Reason & Common Sence than any Mode I have before seen.
So was Colonel Scammell:
The Baron Steuben sets us a truly noble example. He has undertaken the Discipline of the army & shows himself to be a perfect Master of it, not only in the grand manieuvres, but in every Minutia. To see a Gentleman dignified with a Lt Genls Commission from the great prussian Monarch, condescend with a grace peculiar to himself, to take under his direction a Squad of ten or twelve men in Capacity of a Drill Serjt, & induce the Officers & men to admire him and improve exceeding fast under his Instructions.
When the training was finished, Steuben had every reason to be proud of his accomplishment:
My Enterprize Succeeded better than I had dared to expect, and I had the Satisfaction, in a month's time, to see not only a regular Step introduced in the Army, but I also made maneuvers with ten and twelve Battalions with as much precision as the Evolution of a Single Company.
On May 1, word reached Valley Forge of the alliance between France and the United States. In observance of this new friendship, Washington called for a Grand Review to take place five days later—an exposition of the “new” Continental Army trained along European lines. The intention of the Grand Review was to assure Louis XVI that his bets on an American victory were not misplaced. It was also a form of self-satisfaction on Washington’s part, vindicating his proponents and showing his opponents that they were in error. The details, of course, were left to von Steuben.
The morning of May 6 found the men attending a church service outside. Then a cannon blast rent the air—the signal that the maneuvers had begun. The men formed into columns and started marching to the Grand Parade. As the fifers played their fifes and the drummers beat their drums, the men of the Continental Army marched like what they were supposed to be—an army, the way von Steuben had taught them. Having reached their destination, they made parallel lines of battle, both of which were two ranks deep. Then 13 artillery pieces fired three salvos. Next, the infantry began to perform the feu de joie in recognition of the new Franco-American alliance. On the far right row of the first line of battle, the two soldiers raised their muskets to the heavens, firing them. Their comrades adjacent to them did likewise, one row at a time, until the musketry display reached the left flank. Once the men on the far left had discharged their muskets, the process was renewed in the line of battle to their rear—only this time it was left to right. The demonstration was repeated, going back to the line in front. This performance went on for three more times as the powder smoke built up around them until they couldn't be seen by the audience at all. It was flawless, with no one accidentally firing his weapon when he was not supposed to—perfect fire discipline.
The spectators loved the review. Among them was Washington’s aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens:
The order with which the whole was conducted, the beautiful effect of the running fire which was executed to perfection, the martial appearance of the Troops, gave sensible pleasure to every one present…The plan as formed by Baron von Steuben succeeded in every particular, which is in a great measure to be attributed to his unwearied attention and to the visible progress which the troops have already made under his discipline…Triumph beamed in every countenance.
Washington’s dream of a European army had been achieved. All that was needed now was an opportunity for the Continental Army to show what they had learned to His Majesty's troops.
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.
Stephenson, Michael. Patriot Battles: How the War of Independence Was Fought. 1st ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. Print.