Baron von Steuben: Arrival at Valley Forge

The most important arrival at Valley Forge, during the tempestuous winter of 1778 was that of the Baron Steuben, who arrived towards the latter part of February. He was a seasoned soldier from the old battle-fields of Europe, having served in the Seven Years' War, been aide-de-camp to the great Frederick, and connected with the quartermaster-general's department. Honors had been heaped upon him in Germany. After leaving the Prussian army he had been grand marshal of the court of the Prince of Hohenzollern-Hechingen, colonel in the circle of Suabia, lieutenant-general under the Prince Margrave of Baden, and knight of the Order of Fidelity; and he had declined liberal offers from the King of Sardinia and the Emperor of Austria. With an income of about three thousand dollars, chiefly arising from various appointments, he was living pleasantly in distinguished society at the German courts, and making occasional visits to Paris, when he was persuaded by the Count de St.-Germain, French Minister of War, and others of the French cabinet, to come out to America and engage in the cause they were preparing to defend. Their object was to secure for the American armies the services of an officer of experience and a thorough disciplinarian. Through their persuasions he resigned his several offices, and came out at forty-eight years of age, a soldier of fortune, to the rude fighting-grounds of America, to aid a half-disciplined people in their struggle for liberty. No certainty of remuneration was held out to him, but there was an opportunity for acquiring military glory; the probability of adequate reward should the young republic be successful; and it was hinted that, at all events, the French court would not suffer him to be a loser. As his means, on resigning his offices, were small, Beaumarchais furnished funds for his immediate expenses.

The baron had brought strong letters from Dr. Franklin and Mr. Deane, our envoys at Paris, and from the Count St.-Germain. Landing at Portsmouth in New Hampshire, December 1, he had forwarded copies of his letters to Washington. "The object of my greatest ambition," writes he, "is to render your country all the service in my power, and to deserve the title of a citizen of America by fighting for the cause of your liberty. If the distinguished ranks in which I have served in Europe should be an obstacle, I had rather serve under your Excellency as a volunteer, than to be an object of discontent among such deserving officers as have already distinguished themselves among you.

"I would say, moreover," adds he, "were it not for the fear of offending your modesty, that your Excellency is the only person under whom, after having served under the King of Prussia, I could wish to pursue an art to which I have wholly given myself up."

By Washington's direction, the baron had proceeded direct to Congress. His letters procured him a distinguished reception from the President. A committee was appointed to confer with him. He offered his services as a volunteer, making no condition for rank or pay, but trusting, should he prove himself worthy and the cause be crowned with success, he would be indemnified for the sacrifices he had made, and receive such further compensation as he might be thought to merit.

The committee having made their report, the baron's proffered services were accepted, with a vote of thanks for his disinterestedness, and he was ordered to join the army at Valley Forge. That army, in its ragged condition and squalid quarters, presented a sorry aspect to a strict disciplinarian from Germany, accustomed to the order and appointments of European camps; and the baron often declared that under such circumstances no army in Europe could be kept together for a single month. The liberal mind of Steuben, however, made every allowance; and Washington soon found in him a consummate soldier, free from pedantry or pretension.

The evils arising from a want of uniformity in discipline and manceuvres throughout the army had long caused Washington to desire a well-organized inspectorship. He knew that the same desire was felt by Congress. Conway had been appointed to that office, but had never entered upon its duties. The baron appeared to be peculiarly well qualified for such a department. Washington determined, therefore, to set on foot a temporary institution of the kind. Accordingly he proposed to the baron to undertake the office of inspector-general. The latter cheerfully agreed, Two ranks of inspectors were appointed under him,--the lowest to inspect brigades, the highest to superintend several of these. Among the inspectors was a French gentleman of the name of Ternant, chosen not only for his intrinsic merit and abilities, but on account of his being well versed in the English as well as the French language, which made him a necessary assistant to the baron, who, at times, needed an interpreter. The gallant Fleury, to whom Congress had given the rank and pay of lieutenant-colonel, and who had exercised the office of aide-major in France, was soon after employed likewise as an inspector.

In a little while the whole army was under drill; for a great part, made up of raw militia, scarcely knew the manual exercise. Many of the officers, too, knew little of manceuvring, and the best of them had much to learn. The baron furnished his sub-inspectors with written instructions relative to their several functions. He took a company of soldiers under his immediate training, and, after he had sufficiently schooled it, made it a model for the others, exhibiting the manceuvres they had to practise.

It was a severe task at first for the aide-de-camp of the great Frederick to operate upon such raw materials. His ignorance of the language, too, increased the difficulty, where manceuvres were to be explained or rectified. He was in despair, until an officer of a New York regiment, Captain Walker, who spoke French, stepped forward and offered to act as interpreter. "Had I seen an angel from heaven," says the baron, "I could not have been more rejoiced." He made Walker his aide-de-camp, and from that time had him always at hand.

For a time there was nothing but drills throughout the camp; then gradually came evolutions of every kind. The officers were schooled as well as the men. The troops, says a person who was present in the camp, were paraded in a single line with shouldered arms, every officer in his place. The baron passed in front, then took the musket of each soldier in hand, to see whether it was clean and well polished, and examined whether the men's accoutrements were in good order.

He was sadly worried for a time with the militia; especially when any manceuvre was to be performed. The men blundered in their exercise; the baron blundered in his English; his French and German were of no avail; he lost his temper, which was rather warm, swore in all three languages at once, which made the matter worse, and at length called his aide to his assistance to help him curse the blockheads, as it was pretended, but, no doubt, to explain the manceuvre. (On one occasion, having exhausted all his German and French oaths, he vociferated to his aide-de-camp, Major Walker, "Viens, mon ami Walker,--viens, mon bon ami. Sacre--G--dam de gaucherie of dese badauts--je ne puis plus--I can curse dem no more." --Carden, "Anecdotes of the American War," p.341.)

Still the grand marshal of the court of Hohenzollern mingled with the veteran soldier of Frederick and tempered his occasional bursts of impatience; and he had a kind, generous heart, that soon made him a favorite with the men. His discipline extended to their comforts. He inquired into their treatment by the officers. He examined the doctors' reports, visited the sick, and saw that they were well lodged and attended.

He was an example, too, of the regularity and system he exacted. One of the most alert and indefatigable men in the camp, up at daybreak, if not before, whenever there were to be any important manceuvres, he took his cup of coffee and smoked his pipe while the servant dressed his hair, and by sunrise he was in the saddle, equipped at all points, with the star of his order of knighthood glittering on his breast, and was off to the parade alone, if his suite were not ready to attend him.

The good strong sense of the baron was evinced in the manner in which he adapted his tactics to the nature of the army and the situation of the country, instead of adhering with bigotry to the systems of Europe. His instructions were appreciated by all. The officers received them gladly and conformed to them. The men soon became active and adroit. The army gradually acquired a proper organization, and began to operate like a great machine; and Washington found in the baron an intelligent, disinterested, truthful coadjutor, well worthy of the badge he wore as a knight of the Order of Fidelity.

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