The Impact of General von Steuben

Baron von Steuben drilling Washington's army at Valley Forge. Source: Library of Congress

Baron_Steuben_by_Peale,_1780Dear Mr. History: 

Does General von Steuben deserve the fantastic amount of fame he gets for training the Continental Army at Valley Forge?  The Continentals had been fighting for over two years by the time he showed up, so why did they need training?  What was Steuben’s true impact?  Sincerely, Stumped About Steuben

Dear Stumped:

Surely you jest, sir.  Except for Washington, no one had more influence in the creation of a professional United States Army than Major General Friedrich von Steuben.  Even his name was cool: Von Steuben.  If he were around today he’d be a rock star.

But your question is a good one, because many histories would have you believe that the Continental Army was an inept, undrilled mob before Steuben’s arrival.  But it was no mob that scored the American victories in open battle at Harlem Heights, Trenton, and Princeton.  Was it an undrilled mob that fell back before the British attack on Long Island? Actually, it kind of was, and this indicates the problem Washington faced when his troops went into camp at Valley Forge in December 1777; for every instance where the Continentals maneuvered as well as their Redcoat and Hessian opponents, there was an equally embarrassing case where Continental formations became unglued; sometimes on the same battlefield.  What was the problem?

Part of the problem was that battle in the eighteenth century was really, really, really complicated.  Commanders had to successfully combine maneuvering and firing to win.  Take the battle of Germantown for example.  Gen. Washington developed a good plan for his army of 11,000 soldiers to conduct a night march in four separate columns and converge in a vise on Gen. Howe’s British camp of 9,000 men at Germantown.  Like in any action, for any brigade of four regiments to deploy from their march column, the brigade commander had to analyze the field and issue clear orders to form a line of battle.  Then all 8 platoons in each regiment had to wheel twice in the correct sequence, for a total of 64 movements, to form the line.  Captains, lieutenants and sergeants kept the ranks in alignment and ensured that the soldiers moved in perfect synchronization.  And deploying from column to line was just one maneuver – regiments also had to march obliquely, countermarch, change front, and many other movements with multiple moving parts.  Now imagine that occurring uncounted times throughout Washington’s Germantown force of 15 brigades with over 50 regiments across a battlefield that was nearly 15 square miles in size, filled with obstacles like woods, fences, and farms.  This only starts to describe what I meant by “really, really, really complicated.”

We’re not done, because so far in my little tableau nobody has fired any bullets.  Once the soldiers were in line of battle it took fifteen separate actions to prime and load a flintlock musket and two more to fire it on command.  All of this was very difficult to master on the drill field.  Imagine how it was to pull all of that off amid the smoke, noise, and confusion of battle; when enemy musket balls whizzed through the air and tended to break a man’s concentration.  Thorough drill was the means that gave the soldiers the ability to perform these maneuvers the same way, without thinking, every time, especially under fire.

Another part of the problem was that very few regiments did any of this the same way.  Drill methods were the purview of regimental commanders, and they used everything from the British Army manual Regulations to a variety of colonial treatises produced for militia use. Drill was not uniformly practiced or enforced, so every unit had varying levels of competence.  Steuben would later complain, “Each colonel exercised his regiment according to his own ideas, or those of any military author that might have fallen into his hands,” and, “march and maneuvering step was as varied as the color of our uniforms.”

Baron von Steuben drilling Washington's army at Valley Forge. Source: Library of Congress
Baron von Steuben drilling Washington’s army at Valley Forge. Source: Library of Congress

Thanks in part to this disparity in drill and battle skills, the American attack at Germantown broke down.  Parts of Washington’s plan initially worked well and many Continental units fought with admirable skill, but others, not so much.  Units got lost on the march, some did not press their attacks, gaps opened in the lines, dense fog and battle smoke added to the confusion and brigades literally collided with and fired at each other.  In contrast, Howe’s forces recovered quickly under fire and launched a coordinated counterattack.  The Americans gave the day to the British.

Two months after Germantown the army marched into Valley Forge.  By that time Congress, Gen. Washington, and many senior officers knew that the army needed to fix its problems with training and discipline.  Congress had recently appointed Maj. Gen. Thomas Conway as the army’s Inspector General to oversee these matters, but Conway was a schemer, rapidly falling from the favor of Washington and Congress, and ultimately a deadbeat.  For his Inspector General, at a time when the army desperately needed the best training, Washington needed a rock star.

In February 1778, just after Conway fell from grace and the Army should begin training for the next campaign, Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin the Baron von Steuben arrived at Valley Forge as a new volunteer from Prussia.  For years historians believed that his title “Baron von Steuben,” was a fabrication composed to impress the Americans, but according to historian Paul Lockhart, his family name actually included the noble “von” moniker and he truly was a baron.  But the titles garnered him no wealth, and Steuben came to America as a nearly broke, former captain in Frederick the Great’s army.

Steuben was initially without official rank or position in Washington’s army, and spent his first few weeks at Valley Forge going all over the camp and talking with soldiers through interpreters (he barely spoke English). He soon realized that the Continental Army relied more on initiative and flexibility than the British and that American soldiers followed leaders out of respect, not blind obedience.  He understood that British methods for drill and discipline, with their roots in European class hierarchies, would never be fully effective in the more egalitarian American society.  Another part of the problem with the Continentals, he also realized, was that most officers left drill and discipline to sergeants, in the British Army manner.  Luckily Steuben had a keen understanding of how to train soldiers because he cut his teeth leading drill as a young Prussian officer cadet.  And with the need for training and a competent Inspector General, he was truly the right man in the right place at the right time.  In early March 1778 Washington assigned him as acting Inspector General, in an unofficial capacity, while that loser Conway took his time in stepping down from the position.

Steuben began his training program immediately with a “model company” composed of men picked from each brigade in the army.  He created a standard method of drill by combining and streamlining the most effective aspects of European tactics.  Then Steuben taught his drill techniques to the soldiers of the model company, beginning with the basics of standing and facing, then marching with a uniform speed and step, then combining all the skills while in ranks.  Steuben took care to explain the importance of the tasks, which helped his students learn “the Prussian exercise,” as they called it.  Although the instruction included the “Manual Exercise” for musket handling and bayonet use, Steuben’s primary emphasis was on maneuvering.  A natural showman, the barrel-chested Baron exuded confidence as he instructed the troops with the aid of a silver-tipped swagger stick and was an immediate hit with the Americans.  The training methods made the most of Steuben’s drill master skills and perfectly suited the somewhat independent character of the American soldier.

Steuben trained at an aggressive pace – faster than that in most European armies.  After the entire model company mastered the techniques he expanded the program to the army’s brigades with the help of newly-appointed sub-inspectors.  In early April, barely a month after beginning the program, entire regiments were successfully drilling as whole units.  The program so impressed Washington that he banned all other drill until Steuben’s methods could proliferate throughout the army.  Morale soared as the soldiers gained confidence.  “Discipline flourishes and daily improves under the indefatigable efforts of Baron Steuben – who is much esteemed by us,” wrote the veteran Lt. Col. Alexander Scammell in April.  Some believed that any of the European officer volunteers could have done the same thing as Steuben, but that was a superficial consideration of training.  It was Steuben’s unique combination of perspective, personality, adaptability, dedication and experience that enabled him to train an entire army in such a short span of time.

Tangible proof of the value of Steuben’s training came on May 20, 1778, when a force of 2,000 men under Brig. Gen. Lafayette was out scouting British lines near Philadelphia.  About 10,000 British troops forayed out to corner the Americans, but Lafayette avoided the trap using maneuvers that would have been beyond the Continentals’ capabilities before Steuben’s training.  When signal guns alerted the rest of the army at Valley Forge to Lafayette’s predicament, it took only fifteen minutes for the Continentals to fall out of their huts, prepare for action, and form a line of battle.

Congress formally appointed Steuben as a major general in May 1778, and his impact continued long after the Continentals left Valley Forge.  The Baron worked tirelessly to capture his drill and instructions on paper in a single manual.  At the end of March 1779, Congress approved publication of Steuben’s drill in Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, Part I, the first manual for the United States Army.  The “Blue Book,” so nicknamed because of the color of its cover, contained instructions on every aspect of operating a military organization including tactics, administration, encampments, inspections, maintaining arms and equipment, artillery, treatment of the sick, drum commands, and the proper duties of every rank from regimental commanders to private soldiers.  “A captain cannot be too careful of the company the state has committed to his charge.  He must pay the greatest attention to the health of his men, their discipline, arms, accoutrements, ammunition, clothes, and necessaries,” was just part of the Blue Book’s instructions for junior officers, which made it much more than a mere drill manual – it’s the foundation of a professional army.

Continental training continued long after Valley Forge, and over the next two years Washington and Steuben constantly implemented the Blue Book with new recruits and existing regiments alike.  The value of Steuben’s methods showed itself time and again.  At battles like Monmouth, Stony Point, Cowpens, and Guilford Court House, the now thoroughly trained Continentals consistently maneuvered with skill, and often stunned their Crown opponents.  Von Steuben obtained a field command in 1780 and his talents in siege warfare helped the Americans win the battle of Yorktown.  But by then the actions listed above, that were the Baron’s true legacy, had actually already taken place.

If that’s not enough proof of Steuben’s impact, then consider that the Army used the Blue Book until 1812, eighteen years after the Baron died and went to the big drill field in the sky.  Generations of American military leaders have carried on his principals that officers and sergeants should act as public servants and take genuine interest in their soldiers’ welfare.  And since the techniques he applied at Valley Forge – dedication, adaptability, enthusiasm, and humor – have been part of almost all military training I’ve ever received (at least, the good training), I think there’s a little Von Steuben in anybody who has ever worn the United States uniform.

To read up on Steuben and his impact on the Continental Army, you can’t do better than Paul Lockhart’s excellent The Drillmaster of Valley Forge: The Baron de Steuben and the Making of the American Army, or The Continental Army, by Robert K. Wright Jr..  And if you want to see just how complicated eighteenth century maneuvers were, several reproductions of the Blue Book are in print.  I use Baron von Steuben’s Revolutionary War Drill Manual, from Dover Publications.

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10 Comments

  • Baron von Steuben is indeed a very interesting character whose contributions to the military drill and instruction were incredibly important. However, he could also be a very difficult character whose command capabilities were very questionable. In fact, by the time he was finished botching his Virginia command during Cornwallis invasion, the state government was ready to charge Steuben with cowardice and run him out of the state. That Von Steuben was able to assume command of a division at Yorktown was a gift from Washington to help restore Von Steuben to good standing. We tend to look very kindly upon Von Steuben and his contributions to the revolution but I’m not sure he was really all that popular at the time. A difficult man to be certain.

      • Yes Twistification, after Guilford Courthouse Cornwallis went to Wilmington to restock and determine what to do next. He decided on Virginia while Greene went south to fight Rawdon. I think Cornwallis arrived in VA right around the first of june, 1781. It was at this point that Tarleton famously raided Monticello.

        However, the British had actually been in Virginia since January 1781 with 2,000 men under Benedict Arnold. Baron Von Steuben was the ranking Continental officer in Virginia at that time. The history of the raid and Von Steuben’s role are actually considered a minor sideshow of the war. Which is a good thing since it went so poorly. Von Steuben was poorly suited to dealing with the people of Virginia and the relationship eventually deteriorated to such a degree that Von Steuben had his men remove the Continental arms and ammunition from harm’s way (Simcoe’s Rangers) but leave the state of Virginia’s military stores open for the British to take. His action seemed explainable only by assumption that Steuben had run from the fight. In reality, I believe it was actually due to his petty attitude. But, either way, it ain’t pretty and the folks in VA were not impressed. His own men deserted him rather than remain with such a detestable fellow.

  • One of my favorite posts Michael!

    I think adaptability is probably the best characteristic of Von Steuben. He recognized that the American soldier was a different breed from a more hierarchically minded European soldier. He noted that Americans wanted to know WHY they were required to perform a particular drill or action and that an explanation was necessary to convince this unique brand of men.

    • All good points Wayne and Twistification!

      You’re absolutely correct – Steuben’s adaptability was a significant aspect of what made him such an effective trainer. Some European officers thought that they could have trained as well as Steuben, and we’ll never truly know the validity of such thought. But we do know that Steuben’s ability to streamline European drill and train in a manner that spoke to his audience was absolutely key to rapidly training the Army from March to May 1777. As someone who’s both gone through a lot of military training and trained others, I can tell you that Steuben’s task was incredibly difficult.

      No arguments about Steuben’s battlefield performance. From what I’ve studied, it appears to me that he was more suited to a supporting role rather a combat command. Other senior Continental officers, especially Greene and Wayne, were certainly better field commanders. As I alluded to in the article, nobody is going to remember Steuben for his battle performance.

      But his impact as Inspector General remains significant beyond the drill field. Through late 1778 and much of 1779 Steuben was one of Washington’s primary advisors on restructuring the Continental Army, which was vital to its ability to fight effectively. In the spring of 1779 he thoroughly inspected every division in the main Army, regiment by regiment, to ensure that their training, equipment, and personnel met Blue Book standards. His inspection reports make fascinating reading. In some he is clearly satisfied and complimentary. In others, not so much, and you can tell that some regimental commander definitely had a bad day. Having gone through a lot of inspections myself as both a soldier and commander, I appreciate the pain they surely experienced.

      All of this added up to “readiness,” to use a modern military term, which was (and still is) any unit’s overall ability to accomplish its missions. The ability to gauge readiness was as important in the Revolution as it was now. For example, in late May 1779, Gen. Sir Henry Clinton advanced up the Hudson River and Washington needed to rush divisions from their camps in New Jersey to block the British offensive. He put Gen. St. Clair’s Pennsylvania Division on the march first because they had recently completed Steuben’s inspections program and been pronounced ready for action. This was sound methodology that contributed to Washington’s own confidence in his army and enabled him to develop plans that matched definitively known capabilities. This points to the maturity of the Continental Army.

      Steuben may not have shined on the battlefield, but his importance to the professionalization of the Continental Army, and how it laid a foundation for the future U.S. Army, is difficult to overstate.

  • Let us not forget that he wanted almost nothing in return for his services. The man dedicated himself to the new America before it was “cool” and stuck his neck out for American freedom. He would’ve been hung with the rest of them had the war been lost.

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