Baron von Steuben

Portrait by Ralph Earl, 1786


17 September 1730 in Magdeburg, Duchy of Magdeburg (now part of Germany)
28 November 1794 in Remsen, New York
Buried at his home in Remsen; see Steuben Memorial State Historic Site.

  • Steuben is christened; King Friedrich Wilhelm I becomes his godfather (24-Sep-1730).
  • Fights in the Seven Year’s War under Frederick the Great.
  • Demoted and then dismissed from service at the end of the war (Apr-1763).
  • With few prospects, Steuben becomes chamberlain to Prince Josef in his residence at Hechingen (1764 - 75).
  • He is prepared to accept an officer’s commission under the Margrave of Baden, but rumors that he had taken familiarities with young boys while employed by Prince Josef scotch the offer (1777).
  • Certain that he will be welcomed by the Americans in their revolution, but without funds for travel, he is loaned money from the playwright and arms dealer, Pierre Beaumarchais (Aug-1777).
  • Steuben sails for America (26-Sep-1777) and lands at Portsmouth, New Hampshire (1-Dec-1777).
  • With a commission from Congress as a Captain, Steuben leaves York, Pennsylvania, for Valley Forge (19-Feb-1778), where Washington rides out to greet him (24-Feb-1778).
  • After a month of being feted by the officers at Valley Forge, it is decided that Steuben will become Inspector General — drillmaster. On 19 March 1778 he begins training his model company of select Continental soldiers, who will, in turn, eventually train others.
  • Following a Grand Review where Steuben capably demonstrates the discipline and order that he has instilled in the troops in less than two months, Washington announces that the Baron has been promoted to Major General (6-May-1778).
  • When General Nathanael Greene becomes commander of the Southern army, Steuben is named his second-in-command (22-Oct-1780).
  • Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, 1779 (also known as the Blue Book).
  • This is Steuben’s singular contribution to the Revolution and to the future United States Army. It becomes the standing regulatory service manual for 30 years.

Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand von Steuben, German-born soldier, was born at Magdeburg, Prussia, in 1730, the son of William Augustine Steuben (1699 – 1783), also a soldier. At fourteen he served as a volunteer in a campaign of the Austrian Succession War. He became a lieutenant in 1753, fought in the Seven Years’ War, was made Adjutant General of the free corps in 1754; but he re-entered the regular army in 1761, and became an aide to Frederick the Great in 1762.

Leaving the army after the war, he was made Canon of the Cathedral of Havelberg, and subsequently was Grand Marshal to the prince of Hohenzollern-Hechingen. In 1777 his friend, the Count St. Germain, then the French minister of war, persuaded him to go to the assistance of the American colonists, who needed discipline and instruction in military tactics.

Carrying a letter from Benjamin Franklin introducing him to George Washington, Steuben arrived at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on 1 December 1777 and offered his services to Congress as a volunteer in the Continental Army. In March 1778 he began drilling the irregularly experienced soldiers at Valley Forge. By May, when he was made Inspector General, with the rank of Major General, he had established a thorough system of discipline and economy by first training a model company of soldiers who then trained others.

Results of Steuben’s efforts were shown in the next campaign, the Battle of Monmouth (28-Jun-1778), where he rallied the disordered and retreating troops of General Charles Lee.

During the winter of 1778 - 79, General von Steuben wrote his Blue Book, published as Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States. As he completed drafts, Washington went through them line by line, and passed them to Generals Stirling and Arthur St. Clair for comment. They recommended only very minor changes. Published in 1779, the Blue Book served as the American Army’s regulatory bible until the War of 1812.

Steuben was a member of the court-martial which tried and hung Major John André in 1780. After General Horatio Gates’ defeat at Camden he was placed in command of the district of Virginia with special instructions to collect, organize, discipline and expedite the recruits for the Southern army. In April 1781 he was superseded in command of Virginia by Marquis de Lafayette; in the fall he took part in the Siege of Yorktown.

For his service, the states of New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey gave Baron von Steuben grants of land. Congress passed a vote of thanks and gave him a gold-hilt sword in 1784 and later granted him a pension of $2400.

Baron von Steuben retired from the army after the war and passed the last years of his life at Steubenville, New York, where he died in 1794.

Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911 ed.

The men who lost America were also the men who saved Canada, India, Gibraltar, and the British Caribbean. The political leadership of the North government can be credited with the victory at the Saintes in 1782; the same year, Admiral Howe raised the Spanish siege of Gibraltar which had been heroically defended by a garrison of German mercenaries and British troops. In contrast to the British navy in the Chesapeake Bay, Howe was able to shield his transports and supply vessels behind his warships to enable them to relieve the garrison. This climactic end to the three-year siege was one of the most celebrated wartime subjects of artists like John Singleton Copley. The final voyages of Captain James Cook to Australia and New Zealand took place during the American Revolution, and the convicts formerly transported to America became the first settlers of Australia.

Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy
The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire (2013)