Friedrich Wilhelm Ludoff Gerhard Augustin von Steuben was born on September 17, 1730 to a Calvinist family in Magdeburg, Prussia. His father was a military officer in the Prussian army and the family wasn’t at all wealthy. But as an example of their good standing, the young Steuben had for a godfather, King Friedrich Wilhelm I. It was indeed an honor, one that wouldn’t pay, but still an honor.
By the time Steuben had turned 16 years old, he was a member of the infantry and in 6 years time he would be a lieutenant. The Seven Years War found Steuben battling Austrians at Prague in May 1757. It was a bloody ordeal with Steuben ending up wounded and many of his comrades dead. More battles would come and another wound as well. But this time Steuben received a promotion to captain. His career was about to come to an abrupt halt though. With the war’s end, downsizing of the army took place. Steuben was one of the unfortunate soldiers who found himself caught up in it. He was demoted, transferred and finally dismissed in 1763. His career had gone up in smoke and he was only half way through life.
Steuben turned to the job of courtier. With this position he befriended Margravine Friederike Dorothea. The connection helped Steuben a great deal and he was able to get a position as chamberlain to Prince Josef Friedrich Wilhelm. Steuben was responsible enough to refuse to handle the prince’s finances. He was, and would be throughout his entire life, plagued with the inability to hold onto money. But when the prince went broke anyway, Steuben set out with the family to France. It was the prince’s hope that he would be able to hide his identity and not be obligated to entertain visitors. That was his hope, it didn’t necessarily mean it was going to happen. By 1775 Steuben and the family returned home penniless, after four years in ‘exile’.
As a civilian Steuben received honors such as the Order of Fidelity. He was also bestowed with the title Baron (contrary to what we hear, Steuben was in reality a genuine baron). He would now refer to himself as Baron de Steuben (he would also go on to change is name). Soon the life of a soldier was beckoning to Steuben and so the Prussian set out to answer the call, even going to foreign countries offering his services. He struck out four times.
In 1777 Steuben met an Englishman named Peter Burdett. Burdett informed Steuben of the American Revolution and the need for experienced officers. Burdett thought Steuben showed promise and wrote to Benjamin Franklin. Steuben left for Paris to meet with Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane. Deane heartily welcomed Steuben, but Franklin was less than impressed. The meeting ended rather disappointingly for Steuben. When he asked if America might see her way clear to pay for his voyage, Franklin made it clear that it couldn’t be done. Deane on the other hand would’ve gladly done so (this attitude wouldn’t endear him to Congress who had already given the pair a chewing out for sending so many officers with commissions in hand). Steuben angrily left. But later that year, friends would help send Steuben to America, along with letters from Franklin, Deane and others embellishing Steuben’s past.
With Steuben went his ‘staff’ to further enhance his image as the famed and high ranking officer he hadn’t been. His large dog Azor was also along for the ride. The group arrived in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. They then ventured to Boston, and then to York, Pennsylvania to see Congress, who eagerly awaited him.
Steuben arrived in February 1778. Congress made him a temporary captain and Steuben set out for Valley Forge to meet George Washington. Washington was happy with the adept new recruit. Steuben, who was still having trouble with English, found friends in Washington’s French speaking aides, Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens. Steuben was given the duties of inspector general although he held the office unofficially. In April, Thomas Conway would resign and Steuben would officially take over the office and also be made major general. Steuben got along well with the Continental soldiers. He held a high opinion of them for having held out so long under the circumstances. Soon Steuben was ready train the young army. He drilled…and drilled…and drilled.
While he may have been popular with the common soldier, Steuben wasn’t happily accepted by some high ranking officers. They didn’t like the fact that he was always so ready to tell them how to treat their men, sincere as he was. His frankness could also offend people. Washington tried to smooth things over in one episode, but Steuben ended up a little irritated. In one episode an angry General Charles Lee tried to tarnish Steuben’s reputation. When Steuben challenged him to a duel, Lee apologized therefore avoiding the duel.
At the Battle of Monmouth, Steuben was present to witness his “model company” fight the British. They proved themselves and did Steuben proud. In 1779 Steuben published the “Blue Book“. Throughout the war Steuben would threaten Congress with his resignation much of the time over money which he was in dire need of. Steuben, ever the spendthrift, had once resorted to pawning his things to pay for an aides medical bills. In 1780 Washington gave Steuben the longed for field command.
When Nathanael Greene took over the American forces in the South, it was left up to Steuben to provide Greene with supplies and recruits. Unfortunately, Steuben and Virginia didn’t hit it off so well. When nothing worthwhile could be accomplished, Steuben gave up. Steuben was present at the Siege of Yorktown. On 19 October 1781 Steuben refused to leave the trench he was stationed in, until the surrender of Cornwallis took place later that day (Prussian tradition dictated this). After Yorktown, Steuben continued to train troops, gaining even the compliments of Comte de Rochambeau.
Steuben still struggled with English. The following is a conversation between Martha Washington and Steuben.
“Yesterday I was invited to go a fishing…I sat in the boat two hours, though it was very warm, and caught two fish.”
“Of what kind, baron ?”
“Indeed, I do not recollect perfectly, but one of them
was a whale.”
“A whale, baron, in the North river!”
“Yes, on my word, a very fine whale, as that gentleman informed
me. Did you not tell me it was a whale, major [his aide]?”
“An eel, baron!”
“I beg your pardon, my lady, but the gentleman certainly called it a whale”
After the war Steuben was in bad health. He wanted to settle down in peace. Americans granted Steuben numerous properties, some which the baron ended up selling to pay for debts. He did build a cabin on his New York land, with the dream of later constructing a mansion. But debt, as always, continued to plague him. On 25 November 1794, John Mulligan found Steuben in pain and very ill. A doctor arrived on the 27th, but Steuben was on his last legs having lost consciousnesses that day. On the 28th Baron de Steuben died.