American Revolution: Baron Friedrich von Steuben

The Army's Drillmaster

Baron Friedrich von Steuben

Public Domain

Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand von Steuben was born September 17, 1730, at Magdeburg. The son of Lieutenant Wilhelm von Steuben, a military engineer, and Elizabeth von Jagvodin, he spent some of his early years in Russia after his father was assigned to assist Czarina Anna. During this period he spent time in the Crimea as well as Kronstadt. Returning to Prussia in 1740, he received his education at the Lower Silesian towns of Neisse and Breslau (Wroclaw) before serving as a volunteer with his father for a year (1744) during the War of the Austrian Succession. Two years later, he officially entered the Prussian Army after turning 17.

Seven Years' War

Initially assigned to the infantry, von Steuben sustained a wound at the Battle of Prague in 1757. Proving an adept organizer, he received an appointment as battalion adjutant and earned a promotion to first lieutenant two years later. Wounded a the defeat at Kunersdorf in 1759, von Steuben again returned to action. Elevated to captain by 1761, von Steuben continued to see extensive service in the Prussian campaigns of the Seven Years' War (1756-1763). Recognizing the young officer's skill, Frederick the Great placed von Steuben on his personal staff as an aide-de-camp and in 1762 admitted him to the special class on warfare that he taught. Despite his impressive record, von Steuben found himself unemployed at the end of the war in 1763 when the Prussian Army was reduced to peacetime levels.


After several months of seeking employment, von Steuben received an appointment as hofmarschall (chancellor) to Josef Friedrich Wilhelm of Hohenzollern-Hechingen. Enjoying the comfortable lifestyle provided by this position, he was made a knight of the aristocratic Order of Fidelity by the Margrave of Baden in 1769. This was largely the result of a falsified lineage prepared by von Steuben's father. Shortly thereafter, von Steuben began using the title "baron." With the prince short on funds, he accompanied him to France in 1771 with the hope of securing a loan. Unsuccessful, they returned to Germany where through the early 1770s von Steuben remained in Hodenzollern-Hechingen despite the prince's increasing decaying financial position.

Seeking Employment

In 1776, von Steuben was forced to leave due to rumors of alleged homosexuality and accusations of his having taken improper liberties with boys. Though no proof exists regarding von Steuben's sexual orientation, the stories proved sufficiently powerful to compel him to seek new employment. Initial efforts to obtain a military commission in Austria and Baden failed, and he traveled to Paris to try his luck with the French. Seeking out the French Minister of War, Claude Louis, Comte de Saint-Germain, who had met previously in 1763, von Steuben again was unable to obtain a position.

Though he had no use for von Steuben, Saint-Germain recommended him to Benjamin Franklin, citing von Steuben's extensive staff experience with the Prussian Army. Though impressed with von Steuben's credentials, Franklin and fellow American representative Silas Deane initially turned him down as they were under instructions from the Continental Congress to refuse foreign officers who could not speak English. Additionally, Congress had grown wearisome of dealing with foreign officers who often demanded high rank and exorbitant pay. Returning to Germany, von Steuben was again confronted with allegations of homosexuality and was ultimately lured back to Paris by an offer of free passage to America.

Coming to America

Again meeting with the Americans, he received letters of introduction from Franklin and Deane on the understanding that he would be a volunteer without rank and pay. Sailing from France with his Italian greyhound, Azor, and four companions, von Steuben arrived at Portsmouth, NH in December 1777. After almost being arrested due to their red uniforms, von Steuben and his party were lavishly entertained in Boston before departing Massachusetts. Traveling south, he presented himself to the Continental Congress at York, PA on February 5. Accepting his services, Congress directed him to join General George Washington's Continental Army at Valley Forge. It also stated that payment for his service would be determined after the war and based upon his contributions during his tenure with the army. Arriving at Washington's headquarters on February 23, he quickly impressed Washington though communication proved difficult as a translator was required.

Training an Army

In early March, Washington, seeking to take advantage of von Steuben's Prussian experience, asked him to serve as inspector general and oversee the training and discipline of the army. He immediately commenced designing a training program for the army. Though he spoke no English, von Steuben began his program in March with the aid of interpreters. Beginning with a "model company" of 100 chosen men, von Steuben instructed them in the drill, maneuver, and a simplified manual of arms. These 100 men were in turn sent out to other units to repeat the process and so on until the entire army was trained.

In addition, von Steuben introduced a system of progressive training for recruits which educated them in the basics of soldiering. Surveying the encampment, von Steuben greatly improved sanitation by reorganizing the camp and repositioning kitchens and latrines. He also endeavored to improve the army's record-keeping to minimize graft and profiteering. Highly impressed with von Steuben's work, Washington successfully petitioned Congress to permanently appoint von Steuben inspector general with the rank and pay of a major general. This request was granted on May 5, 1778. The results of von Steuben's training regimen immediately showed in the American performances at Barren Hill (May 20) and Monmouth (June 28).

Later War

Attached to Washington's headquarters, von Steuben continued to work to improve the army. In the winter of 1778-1779, he wrote Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States which outlined training courses as well as general administrative procedures. Moving through numerous editions, this work remained in use up to the War of 1812. In September 1780, von Steuben served on the court-martial for British spy Major John André. Accused of espionage in relation to the defection of Major General Benedict Arnold, the court-martial found him guilty and sentenced him to death. Two months later, in November, von Steuben was sent south to Virginia to mobilize forces to support Major General Nathanael Greene's army in the Carolinas. Hampered by state officials and British raids, von Steuben struggled in this post and was defeated by Arnold at Blandford in April 1781.

Replaced by the Marquis de Lafayette later that month, he moved south with a Continental force to join Greene despite the arrival of Major General Lord Charles Cornwallis army in the state. Criticized by the public, he halted on June 11 and moved to join Lafayette in opposing Cornwallis. Suffering from ill health, he elected to take sick leave later that summer. Recovering he rejoined Washington's army on September 13 as it moved against Cornwallis at Yorktown. In the resulting Battle of Yorktown, he commanded a division. On October 17, his men were in the trenches when the British offer of surrender was received. Invoking European military etiquette, he ensured that his men had the honor of remaining in the lines until the final surrender was received.

Later Life

Though the fighting in North America was largely concluded, von Steuben spent the remaining years of the war working to improve the army as well as began designing plans for the postwar American military. With the end of the conflict, he resigned his commission in March 1784, and lacking potential employment in Europe decided to settle in New York City. Though he hoped to live a genteel life of retirement, Congress failed to give him a pension and granted only a small amount of his expense claims. Suffering from financial hardships, he was aided by friends such as Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Walker.

In 1790, Congress granted von Steuben a pension of $2,500. Though less than he had hoped, it allowed Hamilton and Walker to stabilize his finances. For the next four years, he split his time between New York City and a cabin near Utica, NY which he built on land given to him for his wartime service. In 1794, he permanently moved to the cabin and died there on November 28. Buried locally, his grave is now the site of Steuben Memorial State Historic Site.


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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Baron Friedrich von Steuben." ThoughtCo, Oct. 29, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, October 29). American Revolution: Baron Friedrich von Steuben. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Baron Friedrich von Steuben." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 1, 2023).