- 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
Within a few days the baron was, in the words of DuPonceau, “in a manner domesticated in the family,” dining at headquarters three times a week to discuss the details of his task, ft was Herculean: to impose upon a collection of regiments that had been trained by three different drill books a uniform system of drill and maneuver. And only two months could be counted on for its accomplishment, since active hostilities might be expected to begin by the first of May. The baron at once went to work at preparing the new regulations.
Training was begun gradually, with a hundred of the most intelligent and soldierly men of American birth, who were selected from the entire army and attached temporarily to the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard. When these had received some days of training, they were replaced by a second hundred, and so on until the whole army had been leavened by men who knew something of the new drill. The officers were required to attend these exercises and remained as admiring, and often amused, spectators. They were amazed to see one whom they believed to have been a lieutenant general doing work which they had followed the custom of the British Army by relegating to their sergeants. (Only President Laurens and Washington knew that the baron’s rank in the Prussian service had been merely that of lieutenant in the general staff and that he had not come directly from the Prussian Army.) And he went at the work with such a will and such a mixture of French, German, and English vituperation that they could not always restrain their laughter.
“ Viens , Valker, mon ami, mon bon ami ,” he would exclaim in utter frustration to Captain Benjamin Walker, who acted as his interpreter. “ Sacré! Goddam die gaucheries of dese badauds . Je ne puis plus . I can curse dem no more.”
But there was no mistaking the man’s skill and judgment as an instructor. He had based his system on the Prussian but had confined it to absolute essentials, reducing the commands in the manual of arms to ten and prescribing an easy, natural step halfway between the old quick and slow times. Loading and firing, the use of the bayonet, in which the American troops had always been weak, and the precise execution of essential loot movements were what he dwelt upon.
Within less than a month he had the whole army drilling by the new regulations: by regiments in the morning under sub-inspectors, and in the afternoon by brigades, to each of which he gave an hour of his personal attention.
Nor were the baron’s activities confined to the drill ground. He gave instruction in guard mounting, conducted a school for adjutants in the evening, and created a sadly needed standard of punctuality by requiring the brigade majors to set their watches by that of the adjutant general, who took the time from the clock at headquarters. Noncommissioned officers who failed to set an example of personal cleanliness were reduced to the ranks. Privates were told that even in rags they could shave, wash their faces and hands and keep a clean camp.
These reforms were not carried through without some opposition and heartburning. On the strength of the baron’s earliest accomplishments Washington had the approval of all the brigade commanders when, near the beginning of March, he recommended to Congress that von Steuben be appointed inspector general with the permanent rank of major general; and he announced in a general order that, pending the action of Congress, the baron was to be respected and obeyed as such. But in April, when the brigade commanders were called upon to render exact accounts of arms, accouterments, and clothing, to hold regimental inspections weekly, brigade inspections fortnightly, and the granting of furloughs was restricted to the commander in chief and his deputies, they complained of a “progressive encroachment” on their rights and prerogatives. But the improvement of the army in every respect was so great and so rapid—even its creator was surprised by it—that there was little if any grumbling when, on May 5, Congress formally ratified his appointment and rank.
But even von Steuben’s energy and genius might have failed if the able and energetic Nathanael Greene had not accepted the post of quartermaster general soon after he began his work. For hungry men, half-clad, make dull pupils. It was not long before Greene had reformed the transportation system and had food coming into the camp with greater regularity and in sufficient quantities. Supplies of clothing followed, and then arms, equipment, and ammunition. With full stomachs, spring weather, and satisfaction in their sound training, the spirit of the men rose from dogged endurance to optimism and gaiety. Washington himself was able to relax so far as to join some of his officers in a game of cricket. And with the last of the month came the official news of the treaty of alliance with France.
That splendid event was celebrated at Valley Forge on May 6 with a grand review which demonstrated the excellence of the army’s new training. Wheeling to the right by platoons, the brigades marched in five columns to the parade ground, where they formed line with speed and precision. Gone forever was the old, straggling march by files which had caused the fatally slow deployment at Brandywine.