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The Magnificent Fraud

June 2024
13min read

How a lying poseur from Prussia gave America its army

There was a kernel of truth in the drama. Friedrich von Steuben was a Prussian soldier who had served with distinction in the Seven Years’ War and had become an aide-de-camp to Frederick the Great. But he had never advanced beyond the rank of captain. Discharged from the army after the war, he had made a precarious living as chief minister at the court of Hohenzollern-Hechingen, one of the many small principalities into which Germany was divided at the time.

This mini-state in the Black Forest region was presided over by a relative of Frederick the Great, Joseph Friedrich Wilhelm, whose royal expenses constantly outran his annual revenue. Steuben’s pay seldom exceeded more than $400 a year. One of his few consolations during these years was his nomination to a high order of knighthood that carried with it the right to wear the Star of Fidelity on his breast.

This order was bestowed through the favor of Princess Frederica, niece of Frederick the Great. Married to the prince of the neighboring principality, Baden-Durlach, Frederica was extremely fond of the ex-captain and had come to hate her violent husband. It was through her intervention that Steuben had obtained his post at Hohenzollern-Hechingen. There are some grounds for speculating that they had been lovers, and her influence may also have played a part in persuading the prince to bestow the title of baron on his chief minister.

The finances of Hohenzollern-Hechingen more or less collapsed in 1777, and Steuben wandered around Europe, seeking appointments. One old friend tried to rescue him by introducing him to a rich widow. With a trail of IOUs behind him, the baron came to Paris, where Franklin’s agile imagination concocted his career and the idea of offering his services as a volunteer. Congress had sternly warned that it wanted no more foreigners arriving in America with contracts for brigadier and major generalships in their trunks.

The canny Silas Deane added another touch. After Steuben had sailed, Deane wrote to Robert Morris that in the hurry of his departure, the baron had left behind the proofs of his long service in the King of Prussia’s armies, but there was no need to be concerned: Deane and Franklin had examined them, and they were entirely convincing. Beaumarchais added a final fillip to the story with a letter to Morris, asking him to advance the baron money and assuring him that he had “discussed the merits of this officer with the greatest generals that we have.”

General Washington’s actual reception of Baron von Steuben was so low-keyed as to be barely perceptible. Four days after Steuben arrived at Valley Forge, the commander in chief mentioned him in the middle of a long letter to Henry Laurens about several pressing matters. Almost offhandedly, Washington wrote: “Baron Steuben has arrived at camp. He appears to be much of a gentleman, and as far as I have had an opportunity of judging, a man of military knowledge and acquainted with the world.”

Fortunately, we have John Laurens’s letters to his father to give us a better appreciation of the baron’s progress. On March 9, two weeks after his arrival, John wrote: “The Baron Steuben has had the fortune to please uncommonly for a stranger at first sight. . . . All the gen officers who have seen him are pre-possessed in his favor, and conceive highly of his abilities. . . . The General [Washington] seems to have a very good opinion of him and thinks he might be usefully employed in the office of inspector general.”

Next young Laurens undertook what contemporary politicians would call damage control. He told his father that Congress had “mistaken” Baron von Steuben’s rank in Prussia. He was never more than a colonel in Frederick the Great’s service; the title of lieutenant general was acquired when he commanded the troops of the principality of Baden.

The Baron decided there was only one thing to do. He would personally drill a model company.

This revision of the Baron’s biography probably occurred to Steuben when he discovered how many knowledgeable European officers were in the American army. An old soldier such as Baron Johann de Kalb, whom Congress had made a major general, was likely to have a working knowledge of the past and present lieutenant generals in the Prussian army and might start asking questions. De Kalb would be far less likely to know the names of all the Prussian colonels, and a lieutenant general from Baden would be totally unknown to him—and scarcely worthy of comment. Extravagant titles were common in these little states.

President Laurens got the message and soon began describing Steuben as a “lieutenant general in foreign service.” Neither the president nor Congress ever specifically repudiated the Prussian title, which continued to be accepted by most Americans without a smidgen of doubt.

Washington soon appointed Baron von Steuben the army’s “acting” inspector general. Steuben accepted the offer with alacrity. He understood Washington wanted to see what he could accomplish before giving him full backing.

The baron had already gone to work. He had toured Valley Forge, talking to officers and enlisted men. To his reputation as a military expert, Steuben added the charm of his rough-and-ready personality. There was little of the famous Prussian harshness and formality to him. Letters from friends in Europe attest to the warmth of his relationships. With the help of the interpreter Duponceau and occasional assistance from the aides John Laurens and Alexander Hamilton, who were fluent in French, the baron’s second language, Steuben persuaded everyone to be candid. What he discovered was appalling. He was confronting a wrecked army. A less courageous (or less bankrupt) man would have quit on the spot.

In his reminiscences, Steuben described the disorder that pervaded the Continental Army. Because of the ebb and flow of short enlistments, there was no such thing as a complete regiment or company. “Sometimes a regiment was no stronger than a brigade. . . . [Another] regiment consist[ed] of thirty men and a company of one corporal!”

It was also impossible to estimate the army’s size. A muster-master general, as in the English system, received monthly reports from the captains of each company, who simply listed those absent and present “to the best of his knowledge and belief.” No one checked to find out if a captain was lying or careless. When Steuben asked one colonel how many men were in his regiment, he replied, “Something between two and three hundred.” Most captains were equally ignorant of how many men they commanded at any given moment.

Steuben chose a company with 12 men listed as present and asked the whereabouts of each man listed as absent. One soldier was the valet to a commissary general in the northern army, 200 miles away. Four others were in different hospitals. Two were drivers of wagons. Others were employed elsewhere as a baker, blacksmith, or carpenter. “The soldiers were scattered about in every direction,” Steuben concluded. “The army was looked upon as a nursery for servants.” If this force had to go into action on short notice, the baron said, Washington would be lucky to find a third of the men he had on paper.

Equally appalling was the state of the army’s weapons and uniforms. Neither captains nor colonels were required to report on the condition of their men’s guns or clothing. Steuben found muskets “covered with rust, half of them without bayonets.”

As for the uniforms, many of the enlisted men were literally naked. Officers had coats “of every color and make.” Steuben saw one officer mounting guard in “a dressing gown, made of an old blanket or woolen bedcover.” Consistent organization was nowhere to be seen. Regiments ranged from 3 platoons to 21. Almost every colonel followed a different system of drill.

Worse, there were no regulations to keep order in the camp or to direct how and when to mount guards. Sometimes guards were left on their posts for two and three days running. Marching in compact formations was totally unknown. The standard advance was in Indian-file columns, which often extended the line of march for miles and made for fatal delays in deploying men into a battle line.

Steuben blamed much of this disorder on the Continental Army’s imitation of the English system, in which an officer had little sense of responsibility for his men. Sergeants were assigned the task of drilling the troops and maintaining a semblance of order in camp. As the officers saw it, their duty consisted of mounting guard and putting themselves at the head of their companies or regiments when the army went into action. Steuben had a vastly larger vision of the officer’s job.

Accompanied by Duponceau, Steuben made frequent visits to Washington’s headquarters, where he confided his proposals for reform to the commander in chief. It soon became clear that there was no hope of one man’s doing the job. To back up the baron, Washington selected 14 inspectors—one for each infantry brigade—from among the most talented and intelligent majors in the army. They would be Steuben’s assistants. But the question remained: Where to begin?

Steuben decided the key to reviving the army was a manual that would enable the troops, with sufficient practice and instruction, to march and maneuver with precision and confidence first on a drill field and then on a battlefield. No such manual existed. Steuben decided he would write one.

The baron still knew only a few English words. He had to write the chapters of his manual in French, which Duponceau translated into rudimentary English. Late in the night, after a laborious day at headquarters, Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens added military terminology that was beyond Duponceau’s knowledge.

As soon as chapter one was finished, Steuben had it distributed to the entire army, in itself no small task. There was no printing press at Valley Forge to speed the process. Copies had to be made in longhand.

Reading the manual was only a first step. It would have been difficult enough to start a new form of drill by describing it to an army full of trained drillmasters. Such beings did not exist in the American army. Moreover, there was no hope of overcoming with a mere announcement the fixed opinion that officers should not descend to drilling their troops, even if the decree was backed by General Washington.

Steuben decided there was only one way to achieve this transformation. He would set the example by personally drilling a model company. He would show these self-satisfied lieutenants and captains and majors that it was not beneath the dignity of a lieutenant general from the King of Prussia’s army to issue such commands, and the results would, he hoped, convince them that there was something to be said for this portly foreigner’s bizarre ideas.

The baron quickly obtained General Washington’s agreement, and an order from headquarters called for 100 men to be added to the commander in chief’s guard. These soldiers became Steuben’s model company.

Nine days after the Steuben-trained army left Valley Forge, it went toe to toe with the British.

So began a drama of immense historical importance that now and then degenerated into low comedy. The baron’s English remained rudimentary. None of his pupils spoke a word of his two principal languages. Nor did any of the brigade inspectors. His only interpreter was Duponceau, who still had no grasp whatever of military terminology. Laurens and Hamilton could not help; they were needed at headquarters to handle General Washington’s enormous correspondence.

March 19 was D (for drill ) day. The baron arose at 3:00 a.m. and spent some time trying to memorize the English words for the first lesson. On Valley Forge’s grand parade, his 100 men, carefully selected from all 14 brigades, were waiting for him, along with the 14 brigade inspectors. Steuben ordered a dozen men to form a squad and began with a fundamental: how a soldier stood and carried himself. Here are the exact words from Steuben’s manual: “He is to stand straight and firm upon his legs, with his head turned to the right so far as to bring his left eye over the waistcoat buttons; the heels two inches apart; the toes turned out; the belly drawn in a little, but without constraint; the breast a little projected; the shoulders square to the front and kept back; and the hands hanging down the sides, close to the thighs.”

Visit West Point or Annapolis or the Air Force Academy today and you will see cadets standing and walking in this basic posture, exactly as Friedrich von Steuben taught it on March 19, 1778, at Valley Forge.

The baron’s memorized English was soon exhausted, and he resorted to pantomime as he taught the rest of the first day’s lesson: how a soldier came to attention, how he went to parade rest, how he “dressed” to the left and right with precise motions of his head. Next the squad learned to face to the left and right and how to turn at the command “right about face.” In each of these maneuvers, they were told exactly where to place their feet and hands.

Now came a lesson in marching in both the traditional 75 steps a minute and the “quickstep” of 120 a minute. Steuben taught all these things to each soldier in his squad individually and then placed three men in a rank and reissued all the orders in the stentorian tones of the drillmaster he had been in his lieutenant’s days in the Lestwitz Regiment of the King of Prussia’s army.

Soon the ex–lieutenant general created by Ben Franklin’s imagination had his entire squad dressing right and left and facing about and marching by files—another important lesson, in which each man had to maintain an exact distance from his file leader. They also learned the important battlefield maneuver of marching obliquely to the right and left, again with exact instructions on how the feet and shoulders were placed, so no one got bumped and threw the whole squad into confusion.

The brigade inspectors and the rest of the model company had been watching all this with intense interest. For them, Steuben was a celebrity. And here he was, with his Star of Fidelity on his breast, a lieutenant general from the army of Frederick the Great, drilling a squad of soldiers with passion and even ferocity, something they had never seen even a lowly lieutenant do in the American army.

Steuben now broke up the rest of the model company into squads and ordered the brigade inspectors to take over teaching them the manual’s first lesson. The baron walked from squad to squad, adjusting a musket here, demonstrating the footwork of facing about there. Meanwhile, on the edge of the Grand Parade, a crowd was gathering that included officers and enlisted men. They, too, found irresistible the spectacle of the lieutenant general doing a drill sergeant’s work. At the end of the day, Steuben collected the squads into the entire company, and they performed all the evolutions with an élan that left the spectators all but speechless.

On succeeding days Steuben taught each man the position of the soldier under arms. Here the manual was lengthy and exact, specifying the precise height of the firelock (muskets would not be called flintlocks for some years to come), the location of the fingers on the butt, and the need to keep the barrel “almost perpendicular” on the left shoulder.

Next came a simplified version of the manual of arms and the art of firing the musket and reloading swiftly. Then came the equally difficult art of charging with the bayonet, a primary eighteenth-century tactic. The butt of the gun had to be under the right arm, and the rest of the piece firmly gripped by the left hand, while the butt was pressed by the right arm against the soldier’s side.

Even in these first lessons, Steuben was teaching something far more important than the mechanics of drilling and marching and handling a musket. He was showing these men and the spectators that doing these things right made a soldier proud. Marching in exact formations gave him a sense of confidence in himself and his brothers in arms. The baron was inculcating the idea that being a soldier required far more hard work and attention to details than civilians imagined.

To perform courageously on a battlefield, a soldier had to prepare for that ultimate test by acquiring pride and a readiness to obey orders instantly. He had to keep his weapons in pristine condition. His uniform must also be neat and well fitting; when he looked in a mirror, he should see a soldier .

The baron was not satisfied with transforming the drill and marching procedures of the Continental Army. He wanted to see a psychological, even a spiritual change in the relationships between the officers and men. He wrote succinct summaries of the duties of each officer in a regiment, from the colonel to the lieutenants. Perhaps the most important were the instructions to the captain. To this day the opening lines remain the cornerstone of the U.S. Army’s philosophy of leadership: “A captain cannot be too careful of the company the state has committed to his care. . . . His first object should be, to gain the love of his men, by treating them with all possible kindness and humanity. . . . He should know every man of his company by name and character. He should often visit those who are sick, speak tenderly to them, see that the public provision, whether of medicine or diet, is duly administered and procure them besides such comforts and conveniences as are in his power. The attachment that arises from this kind of attention to the sick and wounded, is almost inconceivable. . . .”

Steuben realized, of course, that the army would not achieve these practical and spiritual transformations instantaneously. Even his model company did not always perform up to his expectations. When that happened, the troops got a glimpse of another side of the ex–lieutenant general: his volcanic temper. He showered his pupils with oaths in French and German, adding to this choice collection the only English curse he had acquired: “Goddamn!”

During one of these blowups, caused when the model company misunderstood some complicated command, perhaps “To the rear, march!,” and one half collided with the other half, the baron’s temper rose to apoplectic heights. Duponceau was frantic at his inability to communicate Steuben’s orders. The men stumbled around, trying to sort themselves back into orderly ranks.

Out of the spectators on the edge of the parade ground stepped a New York captain named Benjamin Walker, who asked in perfect French if he could help the great lieutenant general communicate with his pupils. “If I had seen an angel from heaven,” Steuben later said, “I could not have been more rejoiced.” Captain Walker instantly became his aide-de-camp, and in a few minutes the company was performing the maneuver perfectly.

As other companies and regiments began doing the baron’s exercises, they too were sometimes treated to a barrage of multilingual Steuben curses. Nevertheless, there was a genuine affection between this odd German general and the men in the ranks. They told stories of how he occasionally, having cursed the slow learners until he was exhausted, turned to Walker for help: “Viens, Walker, mon ami, mon bon ami! Sacré! Goddamn de gaucheries of dese badauts. Je ne puis plus. I can curse dem no more.”

The baron’s long years as a bachelor also made him the right man in the right place when it came to making Valley Forge more hospitable. He hated to dine alone, and whenever possible he had guests to dinner. One of his first parties mocked the army’s lack of decent clothing with a soldierly bravado that delighted the guests. No one was admitted to the feast unless he showed up in a torn pair of breeches.

As Duponceau recalled in his memoir, the guests all “clubbed” their rations, and Steuben’s German manservant saw to the cooking. “We dined sumptuously on tough beefsteak and potatoes, with hickory nuts for dessert,” the young Frenchman wrote. Instead of wine, they procured some cheap whiskey from one of the camp’s sutlers and made “salamanders”—a potion that required the drinkers to set the liquid on fire and gulp it down, flames and all.

“Such a set of ragged, and, at the same time, merry fellows, were never brought together,” Duponceau concluded.

As March ebbed into April, Baron von Steuben spread his reforms to every brigade and division of the Continental Army. The process began with an order from General Washington on Tuesday, March 24: “At Nine o’clock precisely all the brigades will begin their exercises.” Steuben had already conferred with his brigade inspectors, and at nine they went to work, dividing each regiment into squads of 20 men, who were drilled on their brigade’s parade ground. Steuben, looking like a veritable god of war on a his huge horse, rode from one brigade to another, correcting here, praising there.

A glimpse of how hard the men worked at this new regimen came from Pvt. Joseph Plumb Martin of Connecticut. He and his company had spent the worst of the winter on foraging duty in the countryside, where they guarded what the commissaries purchased and loaded wagons with hay, corn, meal, and other farm products for Valley Forge. Martin slept in a warm farmhouse and never had to worry about where his next meal was coming from. Back in Valley Forge in early April, he went hungry again and he spent all his time “in learning the Baron de Steuben’s new Prussian exercise.” Life, Martin groused, “was a continual drill.


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