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

Day after day, von Steuben trained the troops, beginning with such basic steps as standing at attention and marching in a column. Each morning and afternoon, in fair weather and foul, the Prussian assembled his small troop on the vast parade ground in the center of camp. Circulating among the soldiers and barking instructions like a rabid drill sergeant, he preached the dual discipline of mind and body. Woe betide the soldier who was late to a training session or handled his weapon clumsily on what John Laurens took to calling “our Campus Martius.” Steuben’s face would turn crimson and contort into a mark and his arms would flail as he hollered in his guttural French for his translator: “Come over here and swear for me!” This was invariably followed by a cataract of German and French curses and oaths interspersed with the occasional “Goddamn!” The scene had the unintended effect of reducing the Americans to fits of laughter. Yet as the historian Wayne Bodle notes, Steuben’s training regimen was “a difficult one: specialized, tedious, and in no way glamorous.”

Steuben’s training regimen was 'a difficult one: specialized, tedious, and in no way glamorous.'

Week after week this went on, and the discipline and training took hold. In early May, when it was learned that Franklin was successful and there was an alliance with France, a celebration was held at Valley Forge. The highlight was von Steuben putting the newly trained Continental Army on display. At just past nine on the morning of May 6, a booming cannon report summoned all troops to the parade ground in the center of camp. There the Treaties of Alliance were read aloud before Steuben, and his subinspectors marched the entire Continental Army, brigade by brigade, to the middle of the drilling fields. Steuben had spent the preceding days literally diagramming the movements of each brigade, regimint, company, and platoon, and now, their thousands of flintlocks polished to a gleam, the troops were arranged into two long, parallel columns by the generals de Kalb, Lafayette, and Lord Stirling. Washington, astride his white Arabian and surrounded by mounted aides, watched from beneath an arbor erected atop a small hillock as each of the three spectacular discharges from the 13 assembled field pieces was followed, at Steuban’s signal, by a cascade of musket fire that roared sequentially down the forward battle line from right to left and then up the rear line from left to right. The rapid symphony of fire and smoke was accompanied by full-throated huzzahs from nearly 10,000 men.

The spirits of the commander in chief and his men soared. In late May, Washington wrote to his friend Robert Morris: “I rejoice most sincerely with you on the glorious change in our prospects. Calmness and serenity seems likely to succeed in some measure those dark and tempestuous clouds which at times appeared ready to overwhelm us. The game, whether well or ill played hitherto, seems now to be verging fast to a favourable issue, and I cannot think be lost, unless we throw it away by too much supineness on the one hand, and impetuosity on the other. God forbid that either of these should happen at a time when we seem to be upon the point of reaping the fruits of our toil and labour."

Thus it was that General Washington and his troops felt new confidence and began their march on the British. They were fed, clothed, and trained like professional soldiers. They would meet the British Army under Sir Henry Clinton at Monmouth Court House, and as the climactic pages of Valley Forge depict, the American victory in this, the longest battle of the revolution, turned the tide of the war and led to American independence.