Who Was Baron von Steuben? An Unknown Revolutionary War Hero

In our third installment in the miniseries "The Heroes of Valley Forge," we learn about Baron von Steuben, a conman and spy for the French government whose intense training regimen led Washington's American troops into victory at Valley Forge.

Tom Clavin
5-minute read
Episode #72

Aside from George Washington himself, perhaps the most remarkable character in the story of Valley Forge is the Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Agustin von Steuben. In American history he has gone down as a great Prussian general who arrived in America to train its armies. The fact is he was a conman and a spy for the French government. But yes, he played a tremendous role in America winning his independence.

Von Steuben was indeed an officer in the Prussian army. With the possible exception of Great Britain, Prussia in the 1760s and ‘70s had the finest military in the world. It was said that Prussia was an army with a country, as opposed to a country with an army. At the head of it was Frederick the Great. As his name implies, he was an excellent and successful general. He personally trained his troops, who exhibited the best discipline. Von Steuben saw combat as part of this army. But he never rose past the rank of captain, and for several reasons, including scandal, von Steuben was broke and unemployed by the time the fake baron arrived in America.

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In June 1777, von Steuben was a 47-year-old drifter looking for a job. In Paris, Benjamin Franklin, trying to negotiate a military alliance with France, saw an experienced officer. The portly Falstaffian von Steuben might impress the ragtag Continentals, so Franklin created a new portrait of the former captain, who suddenly was a lieutenant general and right-hand man to Frederick the Great. The French government offered him a second job, as a spy to report back on what was really happening in the revolution across the ocean. With his newly enhanced resume and rank, von Steuben set sail.

When he arrived on American shores, von Steuben made quite the impression: With money borrowed from Beaumarchais, Steuban had purchased his Percherons and—unfamiliar with the color of Continental uniforms—outfitted his entourage in dazzling scarlet jackets and black bicornes sporting plumes and cockades. The horses and stylish retinue would serve as a sign of “Gen.” Steuben’s importance, and the entourage included his tall, lanky 17-year-old military secretary Pierre Éntienne du Ponceau, rumored to be Steuben’s lover and the only member of the party who spoke English. Also traveling with the baron were his personal French chef, his African servants, and his chief aide-de-camp, the former French army lieutenant Louis de Pontièr.

Von Steuben and his entourage made their way to Valley Forge, where in February, Washington warmly greeted the grandiose lieutenant general. And there and then, an amazing transformation took place: von Steuben adored George Washington and fell in love with this bedraggled but devoted army and with the cause of liberty. The conman and spy became a believer. The Baron von Steuben was determined to train these half-naked troops into one of the finest fighting forces in the world.

The conman and spy became a believer. The Baron von Steuben was determined to train these half-naked troops into one of the finest fighting forces in the world.

Establishing discipline would be Steuben’s primary hurdle, a task for which he was well suited. For perhaps the first time, there was an experienced officer at hand who could instill a dedicated professionalism in the Continental Army. Neither Prussian nor American soldiers simply spring from the earth fully formed, and Steuben’s years developing the clockwork efficiency of an unremarkable group of German peasants and serfs has enabled him to provide the leadership the average American soldier required. The would-be drillmaster would take on the task of molding the raw material the colonies had provided to George Washington into effectives with a distinctly martial enthusiasm.