The Magnificent Fraud

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Steuben decided there was only one way to achieve this transformation. He would set the example by personally drilling a model company. He would show these self-satisfied lieutenants and captains and majors that it was not beneath the dignity of a lieutenant general from the King of Prussia’s army to issue such commands, and the results would, he hoped, convince them that there was something to be said for this portly foreigner’s bizarre ideas.

The baron quickly obtained General Washington’s agreement, and an order from headquarters called for 100 men to be added to the commander in chief’s guard. These soldiers became Steuben’s model company.

Nine days after the Steuben-trained army left Valley Forge, it went toe to toe with the British.

So began a drama of immense historical importance that now and then degenerated into low comedy. The baron’s English remained rudimentary. None of his pupils spoke a word of his two principal languages. Nor did any of the brigade inspectors. His only interpreter was Duponceau, who still had no grasp whatever of military terminology. Laurens and Hamilton could not help; they were needed at headquarters to handle General Washington’s enormous correspondence.

March 19 was D (for drill ) day. The baron arose at 3:00 a.m. and spent some time trying to memorize the English words for the first lesson. On Valley Forge’s grand parade, his 100 men, carefully selected from all 14 brigades, were waiting for him, along with the 14 brigade inspectors. Steuben ordered a dozen men to form a squad and began with a fundamental: how a soldier stood and carried himself. Here are the exact words from Steuben’s manual: “He is to stand straight and firm upon his legs, with his head turned to the right so far as to bring his left eye over the waistcoat buttons; the heels two inches apart; the toes turned out; the belly drawn in a little, but without constraint; the breast a little projected; the shoulders square to the front and kept back; and the hands hanging down the sides, close to the thighs.”

Visit West Point or Annapolis or the Air Force Academy today and you will see cadets standing and walking in this basic posture, exactly as Friedrich von Steuben taught it on March 19, 1778, at Valley Forge.

The baron’s memorized English was soon exhausted, and he resorted to pantomime as he taught the rest of the first day’s lesson: how a soldier came to attention, how he went to parade rest, how he “dressed” to the left and right with precise motions of his head. Next the squad learned to face to the left and right and how to turn at the command “right about face.” In each of these maneuvers, they were told exactly where to place their feet and hands.

Now came a lesson in marching in both the traditional 75 steps a minute and the “quickstep” of 120 a minute. Steuben taught all these things to each soldier in his squad individually and then placed three men in a rank and reissued all the orders in the stentorian tones of the drillmaster he had been in his lieutenant’s days in the Lestwitz Regiment of the King of Prussia’s army.

Soon the ex–lieutenant general created by Ben Franklin’s imagination had his entire squad dressing right and left and facing about and marching by files—another important lesson, in which each man had to maintain an exact distance from his file leader. They also learned the important battlefield maneuver of marching obliquely to the right and left, again with exact instructions on how the feet and shoulders were placed, so no one got bumped and threw the whole squad into confusion.

The brigade inspectors and the rest of the model company had been watching all this with intense interest. For them, Steuben was a celebrity. And here he was, with his Star of Fidelity on his breast, a lieutenant general from the army of Frederick the Great, drilling a squad of soldiers with passion and even ferocity, something they had never seen even a lowly lieutenant do in the American army.

Steuben now broke up the rest of the model company into squads and ordered the brigade inspectors to take over teaching them the manual’s first lesson. The baron walked from squad to squad, adjusting a musket here, demonstrating the footwork of facing about there. Meanwhile, on the edge of the Grand Parade, a crowd was gathering that included officers and enlisted men. They, too, found irresistible the spectacle of the lieutenant general doing a drill sergeant’s work. At the end of the day, Steuben collected the squads into the entire company, and they performed all the evolutions with an élan that left the spectators all but speechless.

On succeeding days Steuben taught each man the position of the soldier under arms. Here the manual was lengthy and exact, specifying the precise height of the firelock (muskets would not be called flintlocks for some years to come), the location of the fingers on the butt, and the need to keep the barrel “almost perpendicular” on the left shoulder.

Next came a simplified version of the manual of arms and the art of firing the musket and reloading swiftly. Then came the equally difficult art of charging with the bayonet, a primary eighteenth-century tactic. The butt of the gun had to be under the right arm, and the rest of the piece firmly gripped by the left hand, while the butt was pressed by the right arm against the soldier’s side.