By PABLO VILLA
The Army’s 239-year history is laden with momentous battles and monumental figures.
But perhaps no personality had as great an impact on that story than the man called in to help start it — Friedrich von Steuben.
Steuben’s portrait doesn’t grace any currency. His name may not evoke the same familiarity as Washington, Lincoln or Kennedy. He doesn’t have a granite tribute brimming with tourists on the National Mall. But his contribution to the annals of the Army — and the United States — is astonishing.
Many historians have deemed Steuben the “father of the American military” for his role in building Gen. George Washington’s Continental Army from a bedraggled bunch to a regimented, disciplined force that went toe-to-toe with the British on battlefields in Monmouth, Stony Point and Yorktown en route to American independence. While his military experience before the Revolutionary War as a Prussian officer was largely embellished, Steuben’s guidance upon his arrival at Valley Forge, Pa., on Feb. 23, 1778, led to major changes, some of which pervade throughout the Army to the present day. He trained Soldiers in the use of the bayonet. He established standards for camp layouts and sanitation. But Steuben’s biggest gift to the Army was the creation of the American noncommissioned officer.
“He said that the sergeant was the most important soldier in the Army,” said William Troppman, a historian and interpretive ranger at Valley Forge National Historical Park. “He shared his knowledge, and he believed the best men should teach it.”
Steuben hand-picked 150 to 200 men at Valley Forge to learn his Prussian drill techniques. His drill manuals — the original “Blue Books” — were written in French and translated into English by Alexander Hamilton and Nathanael Greene. The trained NCOs then drilled the thousands of other Continental Soldiers camped at Valley Forge throughout the course of four months. This model of efficiency helped lead America to independence and laid the foundation of training that the Army continues to this day.
As such, you won’t find many NCOs who make it through their Army careers without hearing the name Friedrich von Steuben. That NCOs are referred to as the “Backbone of the Army” is a testament to his diligent toils during the Revolutionary War.
Here are the seven things all NCOs should know about Steuben’s contribution to American independence and the formation of the NCO Corps:
1. What’s in a name
The man who would help the Continental Army shift the direction of the Revolutionary War was christened Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben on Sept. 24, 1730, in Magdeburg, Prussia, about 80 miles southwest of Berlin.
The verbose name paid tribute to the exalted men who stood witness as Steuben’s godfathers: Ludolf von Luderitz, royal forester in Magdeburg; Gerhard Cornelius von Walrave, colonel of artillery and a Catholic of Dutch birth who would become the highest-ranking engineer officer in the entire Prussian army; and Augustin von Steuben, the younger Steuben’s paternal grandfather.
A fourth sponsor wasn’t present, but his name became the one that Steuben was most commonly known by. That man was Friedrich Wilhelm I, king of Prussia. His agreement to be listed as a godfather was a testament to the standing of the Steuben family in the eyes of the Hohenzollern dynasty, which ruled the land that would eventually become Germany from 1415 to 1918.
2. A military life; a false baron
Steuben was born Sept. 17, 1730, near Magdeberg to Wilhelm August von Steuben and his wife, Elizabeth von Jagvodin. The elder Steuben, a captain in the Prussian military’s engineering arm, was ordered to Russia by King Friedrich I before his son’s first birthday to help rebuild the army of Czarina Anna Ioannovna for their efforts in the War of Polish Succession (1733–1735) and the Russian-Turkish War (1735–1739).
The family returned to Prussia in 1740 with the younger Steuben ready to take on a military life. He became an officer in the Prussian military at age 16 and was aide-de-camp to King Frederick the Great, the son of Friedrich Wilhelm I, during the Seven Years War.
In 1762, the army was reduced in size, leaving Steuben to take on jobs intermittently. In 1769, Steuben began using the title of baron, based on a false family history prepared by his father, and spent most of the next eight years looking for work.
3. A chance meeting; a damaging accusation
While in Karlsruhe, Germany, in May 1777, Steuben learned about the political challenges unfolding for Britain in America from Peter Burdett. Burdett was a scout working for America’s commissioner in Paris, Benjamin Franklin, who was looking for European military officers to whip the colonies’ upstart militias into a real army.
Though Burdett became quickly enthralled by Steuben’s military background, Franklin wasn’t as enthused upon meeting Steuben in Paris on June 25, 1777. But fellow American commissioner Silas Deane was encouraged by Steuben’s potential. Steuben’s case was aided further by a glowing recommendation from Claude Louis, Comte de St. Germain, the French minister of war.
The initial effort to get Steuben to America faltered when Franklin balked at paying for Steuben’s travel. Steuben stomped out of Paris with news that an officer’s commission awaited him at the Margrave of Baden in Karlsruhe. But what Steuben found waiting for him were allegations that he engaged in improper relationships while under the service of Prince Josef Friedrich Wilhelm of Hohenzollern-Hechingen. The allegations were never proven, but Steuben knew they would stymie his chances at an officer’s position in Europe. His prospects were bleak enough to send him back to Paris and onto a ship bound for America in September 1777.
Steuben carried letters written by Franklin, Deane and others that deliberately inflated his rank and experience with the understanding that he would initially serve as a volunteer without rank and pay — one claimed he was a “Lieutenant General in the Prussian army.” The group hoped these letters would persuade Washington and the Continental Congress to allow Steuben to aid the American cause.
4. From Portsmouth to Valley Forge
Steuben made landfall at Portsmouth, N.H., in December 1777. He went before the Continental Congress on Feb. 5, 1778, in York, Pa., where it conducted business after its ouster from Philadelphia. Congress accepted Steuben’s services and sent him to work under the command of Washington.
Steuben reached Valley Forge on Feb. 23 and quickly impressed Washington, who commissioned Steuben with the rank of inspector general and asked him to oversee the training of the army.
“When he arrived (at Valley Forge), he conducted a tour of inspection of the encampment grounds,” Troppman said. “He came up with a plan for the organization of the Army under one system. Gen. Washington knew that there needed to be a thorough reorganization or overhaul of the Army, but things weren’t quiet enough for a long time in order to do that. In the winter and spring of 1778, the enemy is quiet enough — or things are quiet enough in that area — that they could conduct a thorough plan.”
5. The model company
In March 1778, Steuben came up with a plan to form what he called a model company. He selected 180 to 200 Soldiers and drilled them under a system of infantry drill.
The training was meticulous and was hindered by a language barrier; Steuben didn’t speak English. Instead, his daily drill instructions were written in French and were translated into English by his assistants. In the drills, Soldiers learned how to properly handle a musket, how to maneuver on the battlefield and scores of other lessons.
This model company then drilled other Soldiers in the regiments. Those Soldiers trained the brigade, then the division level and so on. Troppman said Steuben’s motivational techniques were “something to behold.”
“He gave the men more and more pride in what they were doing,” Troppman said.
The training culminated with a grand display May 6, 1778. Word of the colonies’ alliance with France had reached Valley Forge, and the camp hosted a celebration to mark the moment and to show off the work of Steuben. That day, officers and civilians witnessed thousands of American Soldiers march up the parade grounds to the signal guns of 13 artillery pieces. The Soldiers conducted mock battles, worked the flanks and rolled up artillery. The end of their demonstration featured a feu de joie, a fire of joy, in celebration of the alliance with France.
6. The Blue Book
When Steuben needed a way to spread his training approach, he wrote the Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States. The manual, which was completed in 1779, is known as the Blue Book and served as the Army’s standard training tome into the 19th century.
More importantly, the manual offered lessons and knowledge for Soldiers in leadership positions.
“His major impact during the war was instilling a degree of professionalism into Washington’s citizen-soldier army,” said Kennedy R. Hickman, a museum professional and historian who writes about military history for About.com. “While much of the attention on Steuben’s work at Valley Forge focuses on his efforts to teach proper military skills and drill, it should be noted that he also imparted basic knowledge, such as where latrines should be located and how camps should be constructed. This type of instruction was important for reducing disease and improving the overall health of the army.”
Many of Steuben’s writings are still in use in today’s manuals, such as FM 3-21.5, Drill and Ceremony. The usefulness of the Blue Book led to the publication of the first official Noncommissioned Officer Guide in 1904. The latest edition of the guide, FM 7-22.7, was published in December 2002 and provides important information, such as the history of the NCO Corps, the importance of NCO professional development and the roles of the NCO.
Yet at their core, the duties and responsibilities of NCOs in 1779 have largely remained the same to this day.
7. Later years
Steuben held field command in Virginia in 1780 but struggled in this post because of the unreliability of the militias that were in his command.
After the war, Steuben hoped to return to a profitable station in Europe, but to no avail. He settled in New York City but had severe financial issues when Congress initially denied his pension, which was ultimately granted in 1790.
Four years later, Steuben moved to Remsen, Oneida County, N.Y., to live on land given to him for his service. He died there Nov. 28, 1794. Steuben’s tomb monument sits on the site, which is now the Steuben Memorial State Historic Site, a state park on the National Register of Historic Places since 2009.
Today, apart from his military contributions, Steuben’s legacy is also celebrated nationwide through Von Steuben Day, a German-American event traditionally celebrated in mid-September. The Chicago version of the event was famously incorporated into the 1986 film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.