The Magnificent Fraud

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There is no evidence of any such events taking place at Valley Forge. The baron’s letter was one more piece of theater in what may well be the greatest public deception ever perpetrated in a good cause. The author of the play was that master of the newspaper hoax Benjamin Franklin, with some assistance from his diplomat confrere Silas Deane and from their chief French collaborator, Caron de Beaumarchais, author of the controversial drama The Marriage of Figaro . The latter had been shipping arms and munitions to the Americans for the previous year through his dummy company, Hortalez et Cie, with money provided by the French government. The lively imagination of the chief actor, who thoroughly enjoyed the role they designed for him, also played no small part in the play’s success.

There was a kernel of truth in the drama. Friedrich von Steuben was a Prussian soldier who had served with distinction in the Seven Years’ War and had become an aide-de-camp to Frederick the Great. But he had never advanced beyond the rank of captain. Discharged from the army after the war, he had made a precarious living as chief minister at the court of Hohenzollern-Hechingen, one of the many small principalities into which Germany was divided at the time.

This mini-state in the Black Forest region was presided over by a relative of Frederick the Great, Joseph Friedrich Wilhelm, whose royal expenses constantly outran his annual revenue. Steuben’s pay seldom exceeded more than $400 a year. One of his few consolations during these years was his nomination to a high order of knighthood that carried with it the right to wear the Star of Fidelity on his breast.

This order was bestowed through the favor of Princess Frederica, niece of Frederick the Great. Married to the prince of the neighboring principality, Baden-Durlach, Frederica was extremely fond of the ex-captain and had come to hate her violent husband. It was through her intervention that Steuben had obtained his post at Hohenzollern-Hechingen. There are some grounds for speculating that they had been lovers, and her influence may also have played a part in persuading the prince to bestow the title of baron on his chief minister.

The finances of Hohenzollern-Hechingen more or less collapsed in 1777, and Steuben wandered around Europe, seeking appointments. One old friend tried to rescue him by introducing him to a rich widow. With a trail of IOUs behind him, the baron came to Paris, where Franklin’s agile imagination concocted his career and the idea of offering his services as a volunteer. Congress had sternly warned that it wanted no more foreigners arriving in America with contracts for brigadier and major generalships in their trunks.

The canny Silas Deane added another touch. After Steuben had sailed, Deane wrote to Robert Morris that in the hurry of his departure, the baron had left behind the proofs of his long service in the King of Prussia’s armies, but there was no need to be concerned: Deane and Franklin had examined them, and they were entirely convincing. Beaumarchais added a final fillip to the story with a letter to Morris, asking him to advance the baron money and assuring him that he had “discussed the merits of this officer with the greatest generals that we have.”

General Washington’s actual reception of Baron von Steuben was so low-keyed as to be barely perceptible. Four days after Steuben arrived at Valley Forge, the commander in chief mentioned him in the middle of a long letter to Henry Laurens about several pressing matters. Almost offhandedly, Washington wrote: “Baron Steuben has arrived at camp. He appears to be much of a gentleman, and as far as I have had an opportunity of judging, a man of military knowledge and acquainted with the world.”

Fortunately, we have John Laurens’s letters to his father to give us a better appreciation of the baron’s progress. On March 9, two weeks after his arrival, John wrote: “The Baron Steuben has had the fortune to please uncommonly for a stranger at first sight. . . . All the gen officers who have seen him are pre-possessed in his favor, and conceive highly of his abilities. . . . The General [Washington] seems to have a very good opinion of him and thinks he might be usefully employed in the office of inspector general.”

Next young Laurens undertook what contemporary politicians would call damage control. He told his father that Congress had “mistaken” Baron von Steuben’s rank in Prussia. He was never more than a colonel in Frederick the Great’s service; the title of lieutenant general was acquired when he commanded the troops of the principality of Baden.

The Baron decided there was only one thing to do. He would personally drill a model company.

This revision of the Baron’s biography probably occurred to Steuben when he discovered how many knowledgeable European officers were in the American army. An old soldier such as Baron Johann de Kalb, whom Congress had made a major general, was likely to have a working knowledge of the past and present lieutenant generals in the Prussian army and might start asking questions. De Kalb would be far less likely to know the names of all the Prussian colonels, and a lieutenant general from Baden would be totally unknown to him—and scarcely worthy of comment. Extravagant titles were common in these little states.

President Laurens got the message and soon began describing Steuben as a “lieutenant general in foreign service.” Neither the president nor Congress ever specifically repudiated the Prussian title, which continued to be accepted by most Americans without a smidgen of doubt.