Von Steuben’s Continentals


August 13, 2013
by Michael Schellhammer Also by this Author


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The DVD, “Von Steuben’s Continentals: The First American Army,” is a great introduction to the life of the American soldier during the Revolutionary War.

The video joins the Continental Army in 1779 at an unnamed camp in the Hudson Highlands.  A narrator, played by one of the DVD’s creators, John D. Pagano, summarizes the experiences of Continental soldiers in the first years of the Revolution, which sets the stage for Maj. Gen. Baron von Steuben’s reforms.

Through demonstration with voice-over explanation, the video depicts the drilling of soldiers under officers and sergeants utilizing the methods developed in 1778 by the Baron von Steuben.  The explanation includes a good discussion of Von Steuben’s training methods and why they worked so well with Continental troops.  Re-enactors from the 2nd Virginia and Corps of Sappers and Miners demonstrate several movements from Von Steuben’s manual of arms, usually with quotes from his instruction manual, the famous “Blue Book,” as explanation.  I found this section to be particularly interesting, because it gives the viewer a clear mental image of the how soldiers moved and employed their weapons – including the bayonet – in linear warfare tactics.  This helps a student of the Revolution understand the importance of thorough, uniform drill.  However I also have to fault this section of the DVD, just a bit, because it shows single soldiers performing the same movements from different camera angles several times.  This is probably too much repetition for anyone who’s not actually training to master the movements.  The command “shoulder firelock” is shown so many times that if you throw me a Charleville musket, I could probably execute the move and not have Von Steuben bark at me in German.  By comparison, drilling by a squad is shown little.  Maneuver, where all the pieces of drill came together, is also an important aspect to understanding Von Steuben’s training – but there’s no depiction of maneuver with any explanation.  But that’s a small point, and re-enactors especially will probably find this section very useful.

After this soldier instruction, the video goes on to an informative depiction of the daily life of the Continental soldier, including the duties of officers and sergeants, uniforms, tenting, rations, the role of women, and camp life – right down to a frank look at the use of camp latrines that gets it point across without, shall we say, crossing any boundaries of taste.

And that points to this video’s best feature – it’s realistic re-creations.  I’m sure some readers will note, as I do, that re-enactments shown on television often resemble no more than what they are:  modern re-enactments filmed in open fields on sunny weekends.  That’s not the case in this video.  For example, in the depiction of the battle of Long Island, where the British famously outclassed the Americans, the Continental soldiers look scared and a bit desperate, as I suspect they looked at the actual battle.  In another scene of soldiers standing guard in the rain, they look tired and irritated, as soldiers standing guard tend to do.  The video ends with an enactment of the Corps of Light Infantry’s assault on Stony Point on the night of July 15, 1779.  Though not historically accurate in every respect, this battle scene certainly captures the spirit of Gen. Anthony Wayne’s night bayonet attack.  These realistic re-creations help the viewer understand that a Continental soldier’s life was a difficult one and that battles were not genteel affairs, to say the least.

Overall, I enjoyed “Von Steuben’s Continentals.”  This DVD is about 60 minutes in viewing time, and sells for $5.00 to $19.95 depending on where you buy it, and the money I spent on this video was a good investment.   So I recommend you check out this DVD – it’s a good glimpse into the life, training, and mindset of the Continental soldier.  Now I’m going to go practice the manual of arms under the Von Steuben drill.

Watch a DVD preview (embedded above).


  • These articles are enormously helpful in reading the histories of the period. It’s one thing to have events described and analyzed in all the ways historians do but it’s also important to take the imagination as cloe to reality as possible. The mind’s eye isn’t 20/20 so films like this are important to the consumer of history. There’s a good trailer available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oGfVEqCEHVo. Thank you, Michael.

  • Ordered this. Thanks! Under $10 at Amazon if you choose from the ‘new from’ list.

    May help with my first ever reenactment experience at Battle of the Hook this October…or perhaps instill some better techniques when I fire my Charleville.

    Now I just need to find a clip of the best way to roll a cartridge.


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