The Magnificent Fraud

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Even in these first lessons, Steuben was teaching something far more important than the mechanics of drilling and marching and handling a musket. He was showing these men and the spectators that doing these things right made a soldier proud. Marching in exact formations gave him a sense of confidence in himself and his brothers in arms. The baron was inculcating the idea that being a soldier required far more hard work and attention to details than civilians imagined.

To perform courageously on a battlefield, a soldier had to prepare for that ultimate test by acquiring pride and a readiness to obey orders instantly. He had to keep his weapons in pristine condition. His uniform must also be neat and well fitting; when he looked in a mirror, he should see a soldier .

The baron was not satisfied with transforming the drill and marching procedures of the Continental Army. He wanted to see a psychological, even a spiritual change in the relationships between the officers and men. He wrote succinct summaries of the duties of each officer in a regiment, from the colonel to the lieutenants. Perhaps the most important were the instructions to the captain. To this day the opening lines remain the cornerstone of the U.S. Army’s philosophy of leadership: “A captain cannot be too careful of the company the state has committed to his care. . . . His first object should be, to gain the love of his men, by treating them with all possible kindness and humanity. . . . He should know every man of his company by name and character. He should often visit those who are sick, speak tenderly to them, see that the public provision, whether of medicine or diet, is duly administered and procure them besides such comforts and conveniences as are in his power. The attachment that arises from this kind of attention to the sick and wounded, is almost inconceivable. . . .”

Steuben realized, of course, that the army would not achieve these practical and spiritual transformations instantaneously. Even his model company did not always perform up to his expectations. When that happened, the troops got a glimpse of another side of the ex–lieutenant general: his volcanic temper. He showered his pupils with oaths in French and German, adding to this choice collection the only English curse he had acquired: “Goddamn!”

During one of these blowups, caused when the model company misunderstood some complicated command, perhaps “To the rear, march!,” and one half collided with the other half, the baron’s temper rose to apoplectic heights. Duponceau was frantic at his inability to communicate Steuben’s orders. The men stumbled around, trying to sort themselves back into orderly ranks.

Out of the spectators on the edge of the parade ground stepped a New York captain named Benjamin Walker, who asked in perfect French if he could help the great lieutenant general communicate with his pupils. “If I had seen an angel from heaven,” Steuben later said, “I could not have been more rejoiced.” Captain Walker instantly became his aide-de-camp, and in a few minutes the company was performing the maneuver perfectly.

As other companies and regiments began doing the baron’s exercises, they too were sometimes treated to a barrage of multilingual Steuben curses. Nevertheless, there was a genuine affection between this odd German general and the men in the ranks. They told stories of how he occasionally, having cursed the slow learners until he was exhausted, turned to Walker for help: “Viens, Walker, mon ami, mon bon ami! Sacré! Goddamn de gaucheries of dese badauts. Je ne puis plus. I can curse dem no more.”

The baron’s long years as a bachelor also made him the right man in the right place when it came to making Valley Forge more hospitable. He hated to dine alone, and whenever possible he had guests to dinner. One of his first parties mocked the army’s lack of decent clothing with a soldierly bravado that delighted the guests. No one was admitted to the feast unless he showed up in a torn pair of breeches.

As Duponceau recalled in his memoir, the guests all “clubbed” their rations, and Steuben’s German manservant saw to the cooking. “We dined sumptuously on tough beefsteak and potatoes, with hickory nuts for dessert,” the young Frenchman wrote. Instead of wine, they procured some cheap whiskey from one of the camp’s sutlers and made “salamanders”—a potion that required the drinkers to set the liquid on fire and gulp it down, flames and all.

“Such a set of ragged, and, at the same time, merry fellows, were never brought together,” Duponceau concluded.

As March ebbed into April, Baron von Steuben spread his reforms to every brigade and division of the Continental Army. The process began with an order from General Washington on Tuesday, March 24: “At Nine o’clock precisely all the brigades will begin their exercises.” Steuben had already conferred with his brigade inspectors, and at nine they went to work, dividing each regiment into squads of 20 men, who were drilled on their brigade’s parade ground. Steuben, looking like a veritable god of war on a his huge horse, rode from one brigade to another, correcting here, praising there.

A glimpse of how hard the men worked at this new regimen came from Pvt. Joseph Plumb Martin of Connecticut. He and his company had spent the worst of the winter on foraging duty in the countryside, where they guarded what the commissaries purchased and loaded wagons with hay, corn, meal, and other farm products for Valley Forge. Martin slept in a warm farmhouse and never had to worry about where his next meal was coming from. Back in Valley Forge in early April, he went hungry again and he spent all his time “in learning the Baron de Steuben’s new Prussian exercise.” Life, Martin groused, “was a continual drill.