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Baron Steuben

Baron Steuben


Baron SteubenAt the commencement of the American Revolution, peace prevailed in Europe, and the consequent want of employment and adventure induced many French and German military men to look to this country as a proper field for the display of military talent. Many of them were also filled with enthusiasm for the idea of liberty always associated with America. Among them was the drillmaster of the Revolutionary Army, Baron von Steuben, who divides with Lafayette the honor of being the intimate and trusted friend of Washington.


Frederic William Augustus, Baron von Steuben, was born at Magdeburg, Prussia, on the 15th of November, 1730. At the age of fourteen, he entered on military life, serving as a volunteer, under his father, at Prague. In the service of Frederic the Great, he rose to be an aide-dc-camp; but in 1763 he withdrew from the Prussian service. Steuben did not forfeit the favor of the king, who accepted his resignation with kindness, and presented him a canonry in the Cathedral of Havelburg, with a salary of 1, 200 florins.


While spending a winter in Paris, Baron Steuben was induced, by Count de St. Germain and Silas Deane, to take part in the conflict then raging in America. The Baron embarked September 26, 1777, On the ship" Le Flamand a vessel of 28 guns. He assumed the name of Monsieur de Franck, and, after a rough and stormy passage, the ship arrived at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on December 1st. The first news he received, on landing, was of the capture of Burgoyne, a happy omen to Steuben, as it showed to him that the cause on which he had embarked was Dot hopeless. The veteran Prussian at once offered his services to General Washington, by whom he was referred to Congress. The President of Congress received him with every mark of distinction, and appointed a committee of five members to confer with him. The committee reported that they were perfectly Satisfied, and Congress voted thanks to him for devoting his military skill to the cause of American freedom, and ordered him to immediately join the army at Valley Forge.


The condition of the Continental troops, during the gloomy winter, at this place, needs no detailed description. 1t was wretched in the extreme. Half-clothed, starving, and in-sheltered from the inclemency of the weather, they owed their preservation to the supineness or ignorance of the enemy. To reduce the raw recruits to a homogeneous mass with the old troops, trained in a variety of military systems j to accustom the whole to the utmost precision of movement and management of arms, and to yield prompt obedience to orders, was the hard task assigned to Baron Steuben. His difficulty was increased by his ignorance of the English language. Beginning at the beginning, practicing the soldiers himself frequently, being perfectly indefatigable in this driest, hardest, least popular kind of work, he reformed the army entirely. The bayonet he brought into use and made it effective. He drew up the system of military tactics which remained in use until that of General Winfield Scott. It was, in the main, the system which prevailed in the Prussian army under Frederic the Great. As recruiting officer in Virginia for General Greene, Steuben did everything man could do to spur the slothful, encourage the timid and revive the despairing. On the 5th of May, 1778, Steuben was appointed Inspector General of the Army, with the rank of Major-General, his pay to commence at the time of his joining the army.


Late in June of this year, the British troops evacuated Philadelphia, and a council of war was held to decide upon the propriety of attacking them in their retreat. Steuben was in favor of this, and his views coincided with the judgment of General Washington. The battle of Monmouth followed on the 28th of June. As Steuben had no command in the army, he was employed during the action in forming the troops and reconnoitering the enemy. To the valuable improvements which had been introduced by him into all the ranks of the army, the successful issue of this action was Undoubtedly due. In July Steuben desired to resign his office of Inspector-General, and to have an active command ill the regular line. When the main army marched from Brunswick, the Baron was appointed to conduct one wing to the North River. Great jealousy was stirred lip on account of this. Congress confirmed Steuben's absolute authority in the Department of Inspection, but passed silently over his request to be transferred to the line. He allowed the matter to rest for the time.


On August 15, 1779, Steuben left the main army on a visit to Providence, in order to introduce among the troops under General Gates his new rules of tactics, which had been adopted. The month of February, 1780, was spent by the Baron at Philadelphia, in concerting measures with the Boa,rd of Trade to place the army on a proper footing for the campaign of the ensuing summer. The measures he proposed were fully approved by Washington, Steuben now went to west Point, and, though not in actual command, he gave his advice and assistance when an attack from the British was expected. The Baron and Lafayette were members of the court-martial appointed for the trial of Major Al1dr~, for the part he took in negotiating with the traitor Arnold. Steuben never failed to manifest the utmost abhorrence of this traitor. It is related that as he was reviewing a regiment, On the roll-call being made, a soldier answered to the name of Benedict Arnold, He was at once called to the front, looking, as he stepped forward, every inch a soldier. "Change your name, brother soldier," said the Baron; "you are too respectable to bear the name of a traitor." "What name shall I take, General?" "Take any other; mine is at your service. I, the soldier accepted the offer, and thenceforth he called himself Baron Steuben.


In the siege of Yorktown, the Baron commanded in the trenches and displayed his ability as an able captain and thorough soldier. On the 19th of April 1783! the cessation of hostilities was proclaimed to the army. Steuben had no home whither to retire i he had sacrificed an independent income in Europe, and this country offered but a slender chance, when he was no longer needed as an officer! of securing even the means of subsistence. On the 4th of June, 1790, Congress passed an act granting to the veteran a life-annuity of $2,000 and a township of land near Utica, New York. He built himself a log hut, and divided the land among his servants. His farm and garden afforded him some amusement, but reading was bis great delight. Baron Steuben died of paralysis on the 28th of November, 1794. He directed that he should be buried in the neighboring forest, his body being wrapped in his military doak, and wearing on his breast the star of the Order of Fidelity, which had been granted to him by the Margrave of Baden. A tablet was erected to his memory by Colonel North, in the Lutheran Church on Nassau Street, New York.


Baron Steuben was rather haughty in his bearing, yet frank and cordial in social intercourse. He would readily grant an interview; was benevolent and full of a high sense of justice. In his habits, Steuben was popular and plain ; he liked agricultural labor, horses and sporting; especially was he fond of books and the pleasures of social company. He never appreciated the value of money. While he had plenty of it, he gave it away with open hands, regardless of the consequences to himself. In knowledge of military science he ranked high among the Revolutionary generals-Warmhearted to the extreme, the soldiers loved him, and many of his officers regarded him with romantic attachment.




"I directed my attention to the organization and discipline of the army. To establish the inspection on the same footing as in France and Prussia would not have answer the purpose. In these services the inspector-general reviews the troops at the beginning and end of a campaign; he examines the state of the men, their arms and accoutrements; exercises and maneuvers them; sees that they adhere to the prescribed regulations; that they follow the system laid down by the minister at war, to whom be makes his reports, and recommends for promotion, pardon and reward.


I found here neither rules, nor regulations, nor system, nor minister at war, nor pardon, nor reward. The inspector. general in prussia and France has nothing whatever to do with the money department; here it was necessary that he or some one else should take charge of it. This mysterious department was a mere farce. The war commissary in France examines the books and accounts of the different regiments and companies here, there were no books and no accounts, and consequently no one to examine them.


All this required an immediate remedy. But how to commence, was the question. "General Conway followed the routine of the inspectors in France; but that did not answer the purpose. It was, therefore, essential to create a department, under some name or other, to organize it so as to rectify the abuses, found some simple but firm system, and put it into execution at once. I found a committee of Congress in camp concerting with the commander~in-chief for regulating several matters connected with the army, such as fixing the number of regiments and companies, which was one of the most essential things to be determined. Congress approved of their resolution on that head; but the means for putting it into execution were yet wanting. There was no established system of maneuvers, no settled regulations for discipline and good order, and no uniformity in the service. General Washington proposed to me to sketch an t a plan for establishing an inspection in order to introduce system and uniformity into all these matters. I sketched a variety of different plans; but it was exceedingly difficult to find an arrangement likely to succeed so as not to disgust the officers belonging to so many different States, and to form a plan in conformity with the spirit of the nation, and with the prejudices, however well or in founded they might be, against foreigners. I was often obliged to abandon ideas I had formed.


I was in want of information and advice, and I was fortunate enough to find a few officers of merit, who gave the every satisfaction they were General Greene, Colonel Laurens, and Colonel Hamilton. Having drawn out my last plan, I communicated it to these three officers, and made the alterations they deemed advisable, before I presented it to the commander-in.chief Time was precious, and I worked day and night. I finally proposed that an inspector-general ought to he appointed at once, who should establish a uniform system for forming the troops for exercising and maneuvering them; for their duties in camp and on the march; and for the duties of guards, pickets and sentries. He should also define and point out the duties of every officer, front the colonel to the corporal; the manner in which returns or lists of the men, arms, accoutrements, clothing, and camp equipage, should be made, and appoint a uniform method of book-keeping, according to which the books of the regiments, of companies, as well as those of the adjutant, paymaster, quartermaster, and clothing- master of each regiment, should be kept i that this inspector should review the troops every month, exercise and maneuver them, examine the returns and books, and make his written return to the commander-in-chief and to the board of war, etc., etc.; that a colonel from each division should be chosen by the inspector-general, whose duty it should be to see that the ordinances and arrangements which the inspector might think proper to establish, with the consent of the commander- in-chief, be duly executed and obeyed.


That a major from each brigade be chosen by the inspector- general to exercise the same functions in the brigade, in addition to those of a brigade-major in the French service. He should also receive all the returns of every description, and examine them accurately before transmitting them to the adjutant-general or chief of the department to which they are addressed, whether that of the quartermaster, clothing-master, paymaster, or commissary. All order for the brigade should be addressed' to that officer to communicate them to the brigade.


That the colonels shall be called inspectors of divisions, and the majors, inspectors of brigades. That the former brigade-majors, who, in imitation of the English army, were merely aides-de-camp to the brigadier-general, and who, for the most part, are young men who never :;aw a guard mounted, should be abolished, and that the brigadier-general be at liberty to take a subaltern officer as aide-de-camp. That the inspectors of divisions be allowed additional pay of thirty dollars, and the inspectors of brigades twenty dollars a month, and some additional rations more than other officers of the same rank.


I added to the above that the inspector-general be obliged to draw up a sort of military code which, when approved by the commander-in-chief and authorized by Congress, shall take effect as an ordinance for the army.


This plan was approved by General Washington and communicated to Congress. Some days after I had delivered it the general asked me if I was willing to undertake its execution myself? I replied that I would do so on condition that the general should give me the support and assistance necessary for so important a task.


Among the many obligations which I owe to General Washington, I shall always esteem it among the greatest, the selection which he made among the officers to aid me in this work. It is with peculiar satisfaction that I again mention the names of my first inspectors of divisions, Colonels Williams, Brooks, Fleury, Sprout, Barber, Harmer, Davies, Sammel and Ternant, and of brigade-majors Fish, English and many others, who would be considered excellent officers in any service in Europe.


I commenced operations by drafting one hundred and twenty men from the line, whom I formed into a guard for the general-in-chief. I made this guard my military school. drilled them myself twice a day; and to remove that English prejudice which some officers entertained, namely, that to drill a recruit was a sergeant' s duty and be neath the station of an officer, often took the musket myself to show the men the manual exercise which I wished to introduce. All my inspectors were present at each drill. We marched together, wheeled, etc., and in a fortnight my company knew perfectly how to bear arms, had a military air, knew now to march; to form in column, deploy, and execute some little maneuvers with excellent precision.


It must be owned that they did not know much of the manual exercise, and I ought to mention the reasons why I departed altogether from the general rule of all European armies, and commenced with the manual exercise in drilling recruits like children learning their alphabet. In the first place, I had no time to do otherwise. In our European armies a mall who has been drilled for three months is called a recruit; here, in two mouths I must have a soldier. Tn Europe we had a number of evolutions very pretty to look at when well executed; but in my opinion absolutely useless so far as essential objects are concerned. In Prussia, to fire and charge several times a minute is a matter of boast the consequence is that the men, when they are using ball cartridge, often load badly. A company is drilled for a long time in platoon-firing, and the more the firing resembles the liaise of a can lion-shot, the better it is.


I have often remarked that the Prussians, after the first charge in action, no longer practice platoon-firing, do not load so often in a minute and fire quite as badly as the Russians, Austrians or French. I, nevertheless, taught my company to carry arms, stand at ease, present arms, to load, take aim, fire by platoons, and to charge bayonets. Another reason that induced me to pay but little attention to this eternal manual exercise, was that several of my predecessors commenced with it, and before they had surmounted these preliminaries, were obliged to quit the service, having lost their influence, and before the young officers had an opportunity of seeing the practical advantage of this elementary instruction. This induced me to reverse the old system, and instead of commencing with the manual and platoon exercise and ending with manceuvres, I commenced with manceuvres and finished with the exercise. I recollect that in the beginning of my second campaign I executed a manceuvre with a portion of the army, which was remarkably well done. After it was over the officers came round me to receive the approbation to which they were accustomed, believing that they had proved themselves perfect tacticians. They were very much astonished when told them that it was now time to begin with the alphabet; that we should drill the men, one by one then by six, and afterward by platoons teach them how to carry themselves, to march well, to use their arms with alacrity and precision, and so on until they had learned everything. No objection was made. I had the satisfaction of seeing without being seen the colonel and his officers drill the men, one by one, and I thought that had I proposed to them to do this at Valley Forge, I should never have succeeded.


Another reason that induced me to omit as much as possible the manual exercise was, that as the army had no special ordinance or fixed rules on the subject, every colonel had introduced a system of drill of his own-one on the English, another on the French, and a third all the Prussian plan and those who had taken the greatest pains were naturally the most attached to their own work. Had I destroyed their productions, they would all have detested me. I therefore preferred to pay no special attention to this subject until had Wall their confidence. It was not so with regard to manceuvres. They had not meddled with them. Fortunately there was not a single good English book that contained the rules of tactics.


To follow the thread of my operations, I had my company of guards exactly as I wished them to be. They were well dressed, their arms clean and in good order, and their general appearance quite respectable.


I paraded them in presence of all the officers of the army, and gave them an opportunity of exhibiting all they knew. They formed in column deployed attacked with the bayonet changed front, etc., etc. It afforded a new and agreeable sight for the young officers and soldiers. Having gained my point, I dispersed my apostles, the inspectors, and my new doctrine was eagerly embraced. I lost no time in extending my operations on a large scale. I applied my system to battalions, afterward to brigades, and in less than three weeks I executed mauceuvres with an entire division in presence of the commander-in-chief.


Steuben's statements are corroborated by the testimony of some eye-witnesses, which furnishes additional proof of the manner in which he went to work. The most interesting narrative of the energy employed by Steuben, and the success of his system, is given by his favorite intimate friend, William North, who was with him from the beginning. He says in his biographical sketch:


Certainly it was a brave attempt! 'Without understanding a word of the English language, to think of bringing men, born free, and joined together to preserve their freedom, into strict subjection; to obey without a word, a look, the man· dates of a master! that master once their equal, or possibly beneath them, in Whatever might become a man! It was a brave attempt, which nothing but virtue, or high-raised hopes of glory, could have supported. At the first parade, the troops neither understanding the command, nor how to follow in a changement to which they had not been accustomed, even with the instructor at their head, were getting fast into confusion. At this moment, Captain B. Walker, then of the Second New York regiment, advanced from his platoon, and offered his assistance to translate the orders and interpret to the troops. 'If,' said the baron, 'I had seen an angel from heaven, I should not have more rejoiced.' The officers in the army who spoke English and French fluently were indeed very few in number-how few were so capable of giving as· silence to the Baron in the formation of his system. 'Walker became from that moment his aide-de-camp. and remained to the end of the Baron's life his dear and most worthy friend. From the commencement of instruction, no time, no pains, no fatigue were thought too great, in pursuit of this great object. Through the whole of each campaign, when troops were to manceuvre, and that was almost every day, the Baron rose at three o'clock; while his senrvant dressed his hair, he smoked a single pipe and drank one cup of coffee, was on horseback at sunrise, and with, or without his suite, galloped to the parade. There was no waiting for a tardy aide·de·camp, and those who followed wished they had not slept. Nor was there need of chiding; when duty was neglected, or military etiquette infringed, the Baron's look was quite sufficient. It was a question, why. in the first instance, our troops had been put to the performance of the great manceuvres. I beg pardon for calling them great; but they were great to us, for we were ignorant. Bland's exercise anu Symmes' military guide were almost the only poor and scauty sources from which we drew. To the question, it was answered that in fact there was no time to spare in learning the miulltiae-the troops must be prepared for instant combat j that on a field of battle, how to display or fold a column, or to change a front, was of the first consequence; that the business was to give the troops a relish for their trade, a confidence in their skill in the performance of complicated evolutions; that, even if time permitted, the officers, copying the bad example set them by the British, of referring all instruction to the sergeants, would feel themselves degraded in attending to an awkward squad. 'But the lime will come,' said he, 'when a better mode of thinking will prevail then we will attend to the abc of the profession. 1 This prophecy was amply fulfilled. A year or two afterwards the Baron said to me, 'Do you see there, sir, your colonel structing that recruit? I thank God for that -FRIEDRICH KAPP.


Baron Steuben

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