Baron Frederick William Augustus von Steuben (1730-1794), a German officer who fought with the colonists in the American Revolutionary War, was best known as the drillmaster of the Army.
On Sept. 17, 1730, Frederick William von Steuben was born in Prussia, the son of an army officer. At the age of 16 he entered the service of the king of Prussia as a lieutenant and served with distinction for 17 years. Part of that time he was an aide-de-camp to the king, Frederick the Great, which provided him with valuable experience in the organization, training, supplying, and disciplining of an army.
In 1763, at the close of the Seven Years War, Steuben left the army and during the next 14 years found employment at the courts of several of the rulers of German principalities. Wishing to return to military life, he sought unsuccessfully to gain a commission in various armies. In Paris in 1777, he met Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane, the representatives of the American colonies in France. Impressed by his training and experience, they sent him to America with a letter recommending him to the Continental Congress. The Congress accepted Steuben's offer of his services, and in February 1778 he joined the Army under Gen. Washington in winter quarters at Valley Forge.
The Army was in a desperate state—cold, hungry, ill-clad, discontented; it was this ragged body of men that Washington ordered Steuben to train. Knowing no English and acting through interpreters, Steuben drilled the men, taught them tactics, and instilled discipline. His success was astonishing, and soon he had transformed the "rag, tag, and bobtail" into a body of soldiers who could march, maneuver in column and line, do the manual of arms, carry, load, and fire the musket, and use the bayonet. In the process, he had raised the morale of the Army. He also drew up tables of organization for infantry, artillery, cavalry, and engineers.
In May 1778 a grateful Congress conferred upon Steuben the title of inspector general with the rank of major general. The following year Steuben wrote a manual on infantry drill, Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States; called the "Blue Book," this became the military bible of the Army until 1812. Alexander Hamilton summed up the consequence of Steuben's work at the Battle of Monmouth (June 28, 1778) with the observation that he "had never known til that day the value of discipline."
After 2 years' training troops, Steuben longed for a command. He received this in 1780, when he was sent to Virginia to take over a division. In 1784 he left the Army, became a citizen by acts of the Pennsylvania and New York legislatures, and settled down on a 1,600-acre farm in Oneida County, N.Y., a grant by the state in recognition of his wartime service. He died in Steubenville, N.Y., on Nov. 28, 1794.
Further Reading on Baron Frederick William Augustus von Steuben
The standard biography is John McAuley Palmer, General Von Steuben (1937). Still useful is Joseph B. Doyle, Frederick William Von Steuben and the American Revolution (1913).
Additional Biography Sources
Steuben: the baron and the town, Remsen, NY: Remsen-Steuben Historical Society, 1994.
Ueberhorst, Horst, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, 1730-1794: soldier and democrat, Mèunchen; Baltimore: Moos, 1981.