June 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 4
How Baron von Steuben used a tough winter to make a solid army out of a collection of untrained volunteers
On the first day of December, 1777, a group of four foreign gentlemen landed from the French ship Le Flamand at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. They had had a rough voyage, 66 days at sea diversified by a mutiny of the crew and three occasions when the vessel was on fire. But they were not traveling in search of comfort and safety: they had come to offer their services to the army of the infant United States of America.
Their leader, a genial Prussian gentleman of 48, was Frederick William Augustus Henry Ferdinand, Baron von Steuben, who bore letters of introduction from Benjamin Franklin at Paris to General Washington and to the president of the Continental Congress. A veteran of the Seven Years’ War, he was dressed, like the members of his staff, in a scarlet uniform turned up with blue, which he had understood to be in accordance with American Army regulations. The splendid star of the Baden-Durlach Order of Fidelity glittered on his breast, and he was accompanied by an Italian greyhound named Azor.
He was generally believed lo have held the rank of lieutenant general in the Prussian service. But upon landing he wrote with becoming modesty to General Washington that he would serve as a volunteer rather than cause trouble about rank. Washington’s brilliant generalship in the Trenton-Princeton campaign of the previous winter had spread his reputation as a strategist throughout Europe, and the baron went on to say that after serving under Frederick the Great he would serve under nobody else but Washington. In reply he received a cordial letter of welcome from the American commander in chief and began to travel southward to join him.
The baron’s letter had found Washington at the close of a campaign of skillful maneuver which had resulted in the evacuation of the whole of New Jersey by the British but had ended in the defeats of the Brandywine and Germantown and the loss of Philadelphia; and in late December the lack of men and the want of powder, clothes, shoes, and even food had forced his retirement to a permanent camp at Valley Forge. There, with his flanks protected by the Schuylkill River and Valley Creek, and his front covered by a double line of entrenchments, he had placed his men in log cabins in which, as his general order optimistically assured them, they would live warm and dry.
So perhaps they might have done, if there had been enough straw for bedding, if many of them had not lost their blankets in the past seven months of march and battle, and if the want of everything else had not persisted. But three days after the army’s arrival there Washington was writing to Henry Laurens, president of the Continental Congress, that there was only one commissary in the camp and he had “not a single hoof of any kind to slaughter and not more than twenty-five barrels of flour!” The army had been in camp for three weeks before it became possible to issue a four days’ supply of fresh provisions; and as the winter wore on there was no improvement.
Confusion reigned in the supply departments. Discouraged by Congress’ curtailment of his authority, the able and devoted Joseph Trumbull had resigned as commissary general. Major General Thomas Mifflin had quit as quartermaster general in November. No successor had been appointed to that vital post; and a lack of wagons, teams, and drivers combined with bad roads, deep snows, and floods on the Susquehanna to stall such cargoes as sifted through the web of red tape that was spun by congressional committees.
The army was not able to haul its own supplies. Without grain and hay, and with snow covering the pastures, the horses of the artillery and the train died on the picket lines in such numbers that twice a week fatigue parties had to be charged with burying them. As for the men, there was good ground for the jeer in the Tory New York Gazette and Daily Mercury that the Continental Congress need never lack rags for its paper money: its army could furnish plenty. Out of 9,000 men reported present early in February, 3,989 were too scantily clad and ill-shod to be fit for duty.
Over headquarters brooded the fear of mutiny. In mid-February young John Laurens wrote to his father that hunger had brought the troops to the verge of it. Baron de Kalb, a veteran of the Seven Years’ War in the French service, who had become a Continental major general in the past summer, said that no European soldiers would have endured such hardships. March was nearing its end when Washington wrote: “Contrary to my expectations, we have been able to keep the soldiers from mutiny or dispersion, although in the single article of provisions, they have encountered enough to occasion one or the other.”
There were desertions: 1,134 American soldiers had slipped into the British lines at Philadelphia by March 25. But only one in ten of them had been born in the colonies. The rest were Irish, English, Scots, Germans, Canadians, and Frenchmen. Those who remained with the colors were not the kind to mutiny. For one thing, they had enlisted for three years instead of the one-year term of the previous Continental armies. More important still, many of them were veterans of the campaigns of 1775 and 1776. In the past summer and fall, between the Hudson and the Delaware, they had outmarched not only the heavily laden Hessians but the British infantry. Neither the defeat at the Brandywine nor the repulse at Germantown had demoralized them. In their fortified lines at White Marsh they had for three days defied Sir William Howe’s vastly superior numbers to attack them. And the results of all this were a glowing esprit de corps and a sense of personal devotion to, and a confidence in, their commander in chief.
This confidence Washington knew better than to try beyond endurance. Few commanders have been better judges of the qualities and shortcomings of their men. Congress had granted him emergency powers by which he might support his troops by foraging. But fears that such a course would alienate the civilian population made him unwilling to use them until he could see no prospect of the betterment of conditions through the regular channels of supply. Then, just short of the breaking point, he had sent out two strong detachments: one under Nathanael Greene along the Brandywine to strip that Tory country naked of all that the British had not already taken; the other into New Jersey under Anthony Wayne. Such means could not produce plenty in the camp, but they averted disaster.
Such was the state of affairs when Baron von Steuben arrived at Valley Forge. He had traveled slowly, had lingered in Boston, where he had been lavishly entertained, and had doubtless become aware of an undercurrent of criticism of Washington’s conduct of the war. According to Continental propaganda Washington had at his disposal 60,000 men. Why, then, the fireside critics demanded, did he keep them cooped up in a permanent camp instead of driving the British out of Philadelphia, where they were living at ease only a score of miles away? With his wide experience of war, it cannot have escaped von Steuben’s observation that the position of the army at Valley Forge was so strong as to completely discourage General Howe from attacking it, and at the same time so close to Philadelphia that frequent demonstrations against the British lines forced Howe to depend on sea-borne supplies from New York to feed his troops.
Washington welcomed him wholeheartedly, riding several miles out from the camp to meet him. Having been “laid under” and “haunted and teased to death” by the importunity, arrogance, and dissatisfaction of foreign officers who demanded commissions of the highest rank, the modesty of the baron’s letter had delighted him.
From the first he made an excellent impression on all who met him. Again he protested, “I am only a volunteer”; and if he had been allowed to do so, he would have refused the guard of honor of 25 men that was assigned to him. Prussian though he was, and with Prussian training, he was shocked at the number of men detailed for such duty when sentinels on post were reduced to standing in their hats to keep their almost naked feet out of the snow and the hutmates of a man drawn for guard duty clubbed their garments so that he might be sufficiently clad against the cold.
His spontaneous geniality and kindliness were not long in winning the liking and confidence of both officers and men. Frequently he and his staff fed the sentinel at his door. He gave many dinners for the officers of lower grades, who were often as hungry as their men; and in the spirit of ironical humor that prevailed in the camp he made a feast to which only guests in ragged breeches were invited.
Washington was quick to recognize in him exactly the temperament and professional qualities required for a task which had long needed to be performed: namely to give the army a uniform system of drill and training. Thus far three methods had been in use among the various organizations: the British, the French, and the Prussian; and the result had been a confusion that had been nearly fatal on certain occasions. The foreigners were similarly handicapped one way or the other. But in the Seven Years’ War von Steuben had led a Freikorps composed of volunteers, which dealt in swift raids and other special perilous missions. So he was not unprepared for some of the Americans’ irregularities and soon recognized many of them as the defects of the highest soldierly qualities. With a quick perception of their intelligence and eagerness to learn, he soon discovered that the best way of teaching them was by explaining the reasons for what he taught.
Something of the impression that Washington made upon him at this time may be guessed from DuPonceau’s description of the commander in chief. The ardent young Frenchman wrote of his first meeting with him: “I could not keep my eyes from that imposing countenance; grave, yet not severe; affable without familiarity. Its predominant expression was calm dignity, through which you could trace the strong feelings of the patriot, and discern the father, as well as the commander of his soldiers.”
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.
But the complete demonstration of the baron’s training occurred a month later (June 28) at Monmouth Court House, when General Charles Lee’s treachery or faintheartedness had turned a promising attack into something dangerously close to a rout. At Washington’s command the discouraged soldiers, bewildered by Lee’s senseless order to retreat, turned and fought, often hand to hand, a delaying action that gained the necessary time for their main body to deploy and form for battle. Then, on the American left, Stirling’s men repulsed the combined attack of the British light infantry and the 42nd Foot, the Royal Highlanders, and fell upon their flank with the bayonet when they retreated. On the right, Greene’s troops drove back with their fire two regiments of the line, and both battalions of the Guards.
With his attacks stalled everywhere along the whole front, Sir Henry Clinton withdrew his forces a distance of about two miles and went into bivouac. Most of his men had shot away all of their eighty rounds of ammunition. It was about five in the afternoon, and they had been marching and fighting since sunrise in heat that had sent the thermometer to 97 degrees in the shade. The Americans followed them and opened artillery fire on the British lines. But they, too, were exhausted. Darkness was at hand by the time their dispositions for an attack had been completed. They slept on their arms and awoke next morning to discover that the enemy had stolen away.
Sir Henry Clinton always maintained that he had fought a mere rear guard action at Monmouth Court House. But actually the rear guard phase had ended with Lee’s disorderly retirement. What followed was a pitched battle, and victors do not leave the vanquished in possession of the battle ground. Washington wrote truly to Congress: “We forced the enemy from the field and encamped on their ground.”