- 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
There were desertions: 1,134 American soldiers had slipped into the British lines at Philadelphia by March 25. But only one in ten of them had been born in the colonies. The rest were Irish, English, Scots, Germans, Canadians, and Frenchmen. Those who remained with the colors were not the kind to mutiny. For one thing, they had enlisted for three years instead of the one-year term of the previous Continental armies. More important still, many of them were veterans of the campaigns of 1775 and 1776. In the past summer and fall, between the Hudson and the Delaware, they had outmarched not only the heavily laden Hessians but the British infantry. Neither the defeat at the Brandywine nor the repulse at Germantown had demoralized them. In their fortified lines at White Marsh they had for three days defied Sir William Howe’s vastly superior numbers to attack them. And the results of all this were a glowing esprit de corps and a sense of personal devotion to, and a confidence in, their commander in chief.
This confidence Washington knew better than to try beyond endurance. Few commanders have been better judges of the qualities and shortcomings of their men. Congress had granted him emergency powers by which he might support his troops by foraging. But fears that such a course would alienate the civilian population made him unwilling to use them until he could see no prospect of the betterment of conditions through the regular channels of supply. Then, just short of the breaking point, he had sent out two strong detachments: one under Nathanael Greene along the Brandywine to strip that Tory country naked of all that the British had not already taken; the other into New Jersey under Anthony Wayne. Such means could not produce plenty in the camp, but they averted disaster.
Such was the state of affairs when Baron von Steuben arrived at Valley Forge. He had traveled slowly, had lingered in Boston, where he had been lavishly entertained, and had doubtless become aware of an undercurrent of criticism of Washington’s conduct of the war. According to Continental propaganda Washington had at his disposal 60,000 men. Why, then, the fireside critics demanded, did he keep them cooped up in a permanent camp instead of driving the British out of Philadelphia, where they were living at ease only a score of miles away? With his wide experience of war, it cannot have escaped von Steuben’s observation that the position of the army at Valley Forge was so strong as to completely discourage General Howe from attacking it, and at the same time so close to Philadelphia that frequent demonstrations against the British lines forced Howe to depend on sea-borne supplies from New York to feed his troops.
Washington welcomed him wholeheartedly, riding several miles out from the camp to meet him. Having been “laid under” and “haunted and teased to death” by the importunity, arrogance, and dissatisfaction of foreign officers who demanded commissions of the highest rank, the modesty of the baron’s letter had delighted him.
From the first he made an excellent impression on all who met him. Again he protested, “I am only a volunteer”; and if he had been allowed to do so, he would have refused the guard of honor of 25 men that was assigned to him. Prussian though he was, and with Prussian training, he was shocked at the number of men detailed for such duty when sentinels on post were reduced to standing in their hats to keep their almost naked feet out of the snow and the hutmates of a man drawn for guard duty clubbed their garments so that he might be sufficiently clad against the cold.
His spontaneous geniality and kindliness were not long in winning the liking and confidence of both officers and men. Frequently he and his staff fed the sentinel at his door. He gave many dinners for the officers of lower grades, who were often as hungry as their men; and in the spirit of ironical humor that prevailed in the camp he made a feast to which only guests in ragged breeches were invited.
Washington was quick to recognize in him exactly the temperament and professional qualities required for a task which had long needed to be performed: namely to give the army a uniform system of drill and training. Thus far three methods had been in use among the various organizations: the British, the French, and the Prussian; and the result had been a confusion that had been nearly fatal on certain occasions. The foreigners were similarly handicapped one way or the other. But in the Seven Years’ War von Steuben had led a Freikorps composed of volunteers, which dealt in swift raids and other special perilous missions. So he was not unprepared for some of the Americans’ irregularities and soon recognized many of them as the defects of the highest soldierly qualities. With a quick perception of their intelligence and eagerness to learn, he soon discovered that the best way of teaching them was by explaining the reasons for what he taught.
Something of the impression that Washington made upon him at this time may be guessed from DuPonceau’s description of the commander in chief. The ardent young Frenchman wrote of his first meeting with him: “I could not keep my eyes from that imposing countenance; grave, yet not severe; affable without familiarity. Its predominant expression was calm dignity, through which you could trace the strong feelings of the patriot, and discern the father, as well as the commander of his soldiers.”