Prussian

How A Gay Prussian Who Spoke No English Became A Hero Of The American Revolution

June 7, 2023 People's Tonight 274 views

Phil Gibbons

If there was ever an outfit in need of an emotional lift, it was the Continental Army in the Valley Forge winter of 1778. Enter the fabulous Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben. This Prussian drillmaster established himself in the pantheon of stylish revolutionaries with his arrival in a horse drawn, fur-lined sleigh, accompanied by his gay lovers and a pet greyhound. American Revolutionary history is filled with similarly outlandish Baron Von Steuben stories as well as evidence that this gay, flamboyant expatriate was a major factor in the Colonial effort to reorganize itself into a fighting force formidable enough to ultimately defeat the British crown. The Baron may not have been as crazy as Teddy Roosevelt or as weird as Wolfgang Mozart, but he definitely is a unique historical character deserving of attention and respect.

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• Scandalous Rumors Got Him Kicked Out Of The Prussian Army

Prussian1Photo: onbangladesh / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben entered the Prussian Army in 1746 at the age of 17. Good at his job and promoted through the ranks, von Steuben saw extensive action in the European “Seven Years War” and even wound up on the personal staff of Frederick the Great. When the war ended, Von Steuben was decommissioned from the Prussian Army. After the war, Steuben served a very brief tenure in the tiny principality of Hohenzollern-Hachingen; however, he was eventually run off of his post by some seriously scandalous rumors about his sex life. Not only was von Steuben rumored to be a homosexual, but he was also said to particularly enjoy the company of young boys (a rumor that has never been substantiated). Because of this salacious and career-ruining gossip, von Steuben headed to France in 1775 in search of a military appointment.

• Benjamin Franklin Gave Him A Free Ticket To The US

BenjaminPhoto: Charle Wilson Peale / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Von Steuben’s acquisition of a military appointment with the Colonial Army was a long and circuitous process. After he arrived in France, the French government had no intention of commissioning von Steuben in their own military, but, having loaned the Colonies money, they hoped to establish professional organization and discipline in the dismally ragtag Continental Army.

They introduced von Steuben to Ambassador Benjamin Franklin, but Franklin had been instructed by the Continental Congress to rebuff high-level mercenaries, and he was unwilling to offer payment in return for von Steuben’s service. Eventually, though, von Steuben and Franklin reached an agreement they could both be happy with, and von Steuben agreed to report for the mere cost of free passage to America.

• He Introduced The Latrine To The American Army

LatrinePhoto: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Von Steuben’s efforts were not just confined to the battlefield. Prior to his arrival, the Continental Army lacked any organized approach to things like hygiene and sanitation. The Prussian drillmaster instituted fundamental changes, placing kitchen and toilet facilities at opposite ends of any encampment, for example. Before von Steuben, the concept of the latrine was unheard of in the Colonial military, so this newly instituted approach made everyday camp life a lot more bearable. For this and other fundamental changes to military administration, in May of 1778, upon George Washington’s specific recommendation, von Steuben was officially appointed Inspector-General of the army by the Continental Congress.

• He Threw The First Underwear Party In American Military History

MilitaryPhoto: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Baron Von Steuben never publicly denied being a homosexual. In fact, on his way to Valley Forge to report to Washington, von Steuben met William North, an officer in the Continental Army. North, quickly became a part of von Steuben’s entourage, living under the same roof at Valley Forge and eventually becoming von Steuben’s aide-de-camp. Von Steuben even “adopted” North and another young officer, Benjamin Walker, which allowed both men to live with him and not run afoul of any laws governing morality. It also sounds like von Steuben’s household at Valley Forge must have been a pretty wild place. He is said to have thrown the first underwear party in American military history:

“The Baron hosted a party exclusively for their lower-ranking friends. He insisted, though, that ‘none should be admitted that had on a whole pair of breeches,’ making light of the shortages that affected the junior officers as they did the enlisted men.”

• He Splashed Into Valley Forge With Style

Photo: Ralph Earl / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

It’s safe to say that the American troops waiting in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania had never seen anything quite like Baron von Steuben when he made one of the grandest, splashiest entrances ever upon his arrival there in February 1778. Basically, he rolled up into this totally austere, military encampment on a massive sleigh pulled by black, Percheron draft horses. He was decked out in silk robes, had a miniature greyhound on his lap, and had a massive retinue of servants and lovers trailing in his wake. African servants, a French chef, his French aide-de-camp Louis de Pontière and his 17-year-old lover/secretary Pierre-Étienne du Ponceau were all there behind the Baron. His entrance must’ve made an impression seeing as its details made their way into the historical record.

• He Completely Transformed The Continental Army

ArmyPhoto: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

How exactly did a Prussian officer who spoke no English fundamentally change the Continental Army? Enthusiasm in battle had never been a problem for the Colonials, but, at key points, their organization and discipline would completely disintegrate. To fix this discipline problem, von Steuben first picked a model company of soldiers and instructed them in the proper technique of standing and facing, marching in step, bayonet use, and rifle reloading until these techniques became so routine they were second nature. These newly instructed soldiers were then sent out to instruct at the brigade level. A mere month after von Steuben’s arrival, whole regiments were familiar with the “Prussian Exercise.” George Washington was so impressed that he canceled all other drills until von Steuben’s approach could be adopted by the entire army.

• He Had His Profanities Translated To The Troops

TroopsPhoto: Wally Gobetz / Flickr

Because he didn’t speak English, von Steuben required translation in all of his dealings with other military personnel. This included his personal habit of swearing while drilling his troops in his precise methods of warfare. When his own limited English repertoire of profanity was exhausted, he would have his aides translate additional swear words for the troops. Von Steuben would use this technique for comic effect, another approach that eventually endeared him to his American fighters.

• He Literally Wrote The Book On American Military Training

BookPhoto: NPS / NPS.Gov

Because they were so successful, von Steuben was encouraged to put his training and drill concepts on paper. Written in French, this volume – Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States – was translated by Alexander Hamilton and Nathaniel Greene. Bound with the only color paper available during the challenging times of the Revolution, the manual came to be known as “The Blue Book.” The book was a methodical summary of tactics, encampments, arms maintenance, artillery, the responsibilities of every rank, and even drum commands. It was officially used until 1812, although many of its methods are still in use.

• George Washington’s Last Letter Written As Commander-In-Chief Was To Von Steuben

GeorgePhoto: lucindalunacy / Flckr.com

George Washington’s last letter written as a soldier in service to the Continental Army was composed on December 23, 1783. It was a letter thanking Friedrich von Steuben for his service to the new nation.

“My dear Baron: Altho’ I have taken frequent opportunities, both in public and private, of acknowledging your great zeal, attention and abilities in performing the duties of your office; yet I wish to make use of this last moment of my public life, to signify [sic] in the strongest terms my entire approbation of your conduct, and to express my sense of the obligations the public is under to you, for your faithful and meritorious services… This is the last letter I shall ever write while I continue in the service of my country; the hour of my resignation is fixed at 12 this day, after which I shall become a private citizen on the banks of the Potomack, where I shall be glad to embrace you…”

• He Was Always Broke But Glamorous

GlamarousPhoto: New York State Digital Archives

Baron von Steuben’s title and status as Prussian nobility were jus an invention thought up by his ancestors. While he claimed to have a Prussian aristocratic background, in truth he came from very modest means. Because of his lifestyle, his acquisition of ornate uniforms that he designed himself and the fact that Congress put off any giving him meaningful compensation, von Steuben was typically destitute during the war. After the Revolution was over, Congress either ignored any promissory notes or delayed paying them for as long as possible. Von Steuben was quite vocal about his financial challenges and based on his governmental connections he eventually was awarded a 40-acre estate in New Jersey, a large land tract in Oneida County, New York, and an annual federal pension of $2,400, a considerable sum. Still, Von Steuben spent his last years in relative poverty, dying in a log cabin on his mostly undeveloped property. Despite his debt, he left any assets to his lifelong companions William North and Benjamin Walker.

• The Special Army Unit He Created Still Exists Today

SpecialPhoto: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

So many of von Steuben’s policies, ideas, and practices have really withstood the test of time. When von Steuben began his methodical process of introducing discipline into the Continental Army, he selected 100 men to become experts at the basics of soldiering. This special unit was so successful that it still exists today. The “President’s 100” is the name given to that unit, which stands as one of von Steuben’s living legacies.

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