- Historic Sites
Drill Master At Valley Forge
How Baron von Steuben used a tough winter to make a solid army out of a collection of untrained volunteers
June 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 4
On the first day of December, 1777, a group of four foreign gentlemen landed from the French ship Le Flamand at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. They had had a rough voyage, 66 days at sea diversified by a mutiny of the crew and three occasions when the vessel was on fire. But they were not traveling in search of comfort and safety: they had come to offer their services to the army of the infant United States of America.
Their leader, a genial Prussian gentleman of 48, was Frederick William Augustus Henry Ferdinand, Baron von Steuben, who bore letters of introduction from Benjamin Franklin at Paris to General Washington and to the president of the Continental Congress. A veteran of the Seven Years’ War, he was dressed, like the members of his staff, in a scarlet uniform turned up with blue, which he had understood to be in accordance with American Army regulations. The splendid star of the Baden-Durlach Order of Fidelity glittered on his breast, and he was accompanied by an Italian greyhound named Azor.
He was generally believed lo have held the rank of lieutenant general in the Prussian service. But upon landing he wrote with becoming modesty to General Washington that he would serve as a volunteer rather than cause trouble about rank. Washington’s brilliant generalship in the Trenton-Princeton campaign of the previous winter had spread his reputation as a strategist throughout Europe, and the baron went on to say that after serving under Frederick the Great he would serve under nobody else but Washington. In reply he received a cordial letter of welcome from the American commander in chief and began to travel southward to join him.
The baron’s letter had found Washington at the close of a campaign of skillful maneuver which had resulted in the evacuation of the whole of New Jersey by the British but had ended in the defeats of the Brandywine and Germantown and the loss of Philadelphia; and in late December the lack of men and the want of powder, clothes, shoes, and even food had forced his retirement to a permanent camp at Valley Forge. There, with his flanks protected by the Schuylkill River and Valley Creek, and his front covered by a double line of entrenchments, he had placed his men in log cabins in which, as his general order optimistically assured them, they would live warm and dry.
So perhaps they might have done, if there had been enough straw for bedding, if many of them had not lost their blankets in the past seven months of march and battle, and if the want of everything else had not persisted. But three days after the army’s arrival there Washington was writing to Henry Laurens, president of the Continental Congress, that there was only one commissary in the camp and he had “not a single hoof of any kind to slaughter and not more than twenty-five barrels of flour!” The army had been in camp for three weeks before it became possible to issue a four days’ supply of fresh provisions; and as the winter wore on there was no improvement.
Confusion reigned in the supply departments. Discouraged by Congress’ curtailment of his authority, the able and devoted Joseph Trumbull had resigned as commissary general. Major General Thomas Mifflin had quit as quartermaster general in November. No successor had been appointed to that vital post; and a lack of wagons, teams, and drivers combined with bad roads, deep snows, and floods on the Susquehanna to stall such cargoes as sifted through the web of red tape that was spun by congressional committees.
The army was not able to haul its own supplies. Without grain and hay, and with snow covering the pastures, the horses of the artillery and the train died on the picket lines in such numbers that twice a week fatigue parties had to be charged with burying them. As for the men, there was good ground for the jeer in the Tory New York Gazette and Daily Mercury that the Continental Congress need never lack rags for its paper money: its army could furnish plenty. Out of 9,000 men reported present early in February, 3,989 were too scantily clad and ill-shod to be fit for duty.
Over headquarters brooded the fear of mutiny. In mid-February young John Laurens wrote to his father that hunger had brought the troops to the verge of it. Baron de Kalb, a veteran of the Seven Years’ War in the French service, who had become a Continental major general in the past summer, said that no European soldiers would have endured such hardships. March was nearing its end when Washington wrote: “Contrary to my expectations, we have been able to keep the soldiers from mutiny or dispersion, although in the single article of provisions, they have encountered enough to occasion one or the other.”