February 23, 2015

February 23, 1778: Baron von Steuben Arrives at Valley Forge

 Baron von Steuben training the troops at Valley Forge
Baron von Steuben must have cut a strange figure at Valley Forge. He wore full military dress as he trained the soldier, and always had his faithful greyhound, Azor at his side. (The men themselves, of course, were barely clothed.) When displeased, he would swear at them, first in German, and then in French. If that wasn't enough, he would call his translator over. "Over here!" he would shout. "Swear at them for me!"

Steuben had gotten the post -- initially unpaid -- through an introduction to Benjamin Franklin by the French Minister of War. Franklin had sent a letter of introduction to General George Washington, stating that Steuben had been "Lieutenant General in the King of Prussia's service." It wasn't true. Steuben had actually been an aide-de-camp to the King. The error had been caused by a mistranslation of Steuben's military record. It was an honest mistake, but Steuben didn't jump to correct it.

He wasn't actually a Baron, either. That claim was based on a lineage that his father had prepared, and it wasn't true. It certainly didn't hurt with the introductions, however.

Regardless of his credentials, he was just what the Revolutionary forces needed. He started a systematic course of training, with the soldiers learning to fight with and without arms before being assigned to a regiment. He made sure that specific sergeants were responsible for the training, and that they were the best teachers available.

Steuben also taught the men to use bayonets. Up until then, they'd been relying on ammunition. The bayonets had been used as tools, and especially as cooking skewers.

He also set up a system of camp sanitation. Before he arrived on the scene, the camps were a mess. Huts and tents were everywhere, with human waste and animal carcases strewn everywhere. Steuben set up a system of rows and streets, and established the kitchen and the latrines on opposite sides of the camp. The latrines were on the downhill side.

When the Revolution was over, Steuben became a US citizen, and the grateful nation awarded him a pension of $2500 a year. It wasn't enough to cover his debts, but fortunately, the State of New Jersey also offered him an estate -- confiscated from a British Loyalist -- and he was able to sell that to pay off what he owed. Steuben retired to a small estate in Rome, New York, another gift in return for his military service. He had no wife or children, and, when he died his estate when to two men who had served as his aides-de-camp. They had been like sons to him.

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