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The Magnificent Fraud
How a lying poseur gave America its army
February/March 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 1
Washington soon appointed Baron von Steuben the army’s “acting” inspector general. Steuben accepted the offer with alacrity. He understood Washington wanted to see what he could accomplish before giving him full backing.
The baron had already gone to work. He had toured Valley Forge, talking to officers and enlisted men. To his reputation as a military expert, Steuben added the charm of his rough-and-ready personality. There was little of the famous Prussian harshness and formality to him. Letters from friends in Europe attest to the warmth of his relationships. With the help of the interpreter Duponceau and occasional assistance from the aides John Laurens and Alexander Hamilton, who were fluent in French, the baron’s second language, Steuben persuaded everyone to be candid. What he discovered was appalling. He was confronting a wrecked army. A less courageous (or less bankrupt) man would have quit on the spot.
In his reminiscences, Steuben described the disorder that pervaded the Continental Army. Because of the ebb and flow of short enlistments, there was no such thing as a complete regiment or company. “Sometimes a regiment was no stronger than a brigade. . . . [Another] regiment consist[ed] of thirty men and a company of one corporal!”
It was also impossible to estimate the army’s size. A muster-master general, as in the English system, received monthly reports from the captains of each company, who simply listed those absent and present “to the best of his knowledge and belief.” No one checked to find out if a captain was lying or careless. When Steuben asked one colonel how many men were in his regiment, he replied, “Something between two and three hundred.” Most captains were equally ignorant of how many men they commanded at any given moment.
Steuben chose a company with 12 men listed as present and asked the whereabouts of each man listed as absent. One soldier was the valet to a commissary general in the northern army, 200 miles away. Four others were in different hospitals. Two were drivers of wagons. Others were employed elsewhere as a baker, blacksmith, or carpenter. “The soldiers were scattered about in every direction,” Steuben concluded. “The army was looked upon as a nursery for servants.” If this force had to go into action on short notice, the baron said, Washington would be lucky to find a third of the men he had on paper.
Equally appalling was the state of the army’s weapons and uniforms. Neither captains nor colonels were required to report on the condition of their men’s guns or clothing. Steuben found muskets “covered with rust, half of them without bayonets.”
As for the uniforms, many of the enlisted men were literally naked. Officers had coats “of every color and make.” Steuben saw one officer mounting guard in “a dressing gown, made of an old blanket or woolen bedcover.” Consistent organization was nowhere to be seen. Regiments ranged from 3 platoons to 21. Almost every colonel followed a different system of drill.
Worse, there were no regulations to keep order in the camp or to direct how and when to mount guards. Sometimes guards were left on their posts for two and three days running. Marching in compact formations was totally unknown. The standard advance was in Indian-file columns, which often extended the line of march for miles and made for fatal delays in deploying men into a battle line.
Steuben blamed much of this disorder on the Continental Army’s imitation of the English system, in which an officer had little sense of responsibility for his men. Sergeants were assigned the task of drilling the troops and maintaining a semblance of order in camp. As the officers saw it, their duty consisted of mounting guard and putting themselves at the head of their companies or regiments when the army went into action. Steuben had a vastly larger vision of the officer’s job.
Accompanied by Duponceau, Steuben made frequent visits to Washington’s headquarters, where he confided his proposals for reform to the commander in chief. It soon became clear that there was no hope of one man’s doing the job. To back up the baron, Washington selected 14 inspectors—one for each infantry brigade—from among the most talented and intelligent majors in the army. They would be Steuben’s assistants. But the question remained: Where to begin?
Steuben decided the key to reviving the army was a manual that would enable the troops, with sufficient practice and instruction, to march and maneuver with precision and confidence first on a drill field and then on a battlefield. No such manual existed. Steuben decided he would write one.
The baron still knew only a few English words. He had to write the chapters of his manual in French, which Duponceau translated into rudimentary English. Late in the night, after a laborious day at headquarters, Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens added military terminology that was beyond Duponceau’s knowledge.
As soon as chapter one was finished, Steuben had it distributed to the entire army, in itself no small task. There was no printing press at Valley Forge to speed the process. Copies had to be made in longhand.
Reading the manual was only a first step. It would have been difficult enough to start a new form of drill by describing it to an army full of trained drillmasters. Such beings did not exist in the American army. Moreover, there was no hope of overcoming with a mere announcement the fixed opinion that officers should not descend to drilling their troops, even if the decree was backed by General Washington.