Baron von Steuben was born in the fortress town of Magdeburg on September 17, 1730, the son of Royal Prussian Engineer, Capt. Baron Wilhelm von Steuben, and his wife, Elizabeth von Jagvodin. When his father entered the service of Empress Anna, young Friedrich came with him to the Crimea and then to Kronstadt, staying until the Russian war against the Turks under the General Burkhard Christoph von Münnich. In 1740 Steuben's father returned to Prussia and Friedrich was educated in the garrison towns Neisse and Breslau by Jesuits. It is said that at age 14 he served as volunteer with his father in one of the campaigns of the War of the Austrian Succession.
Baron von Steuben joined the Prussian Army at age 17. He served as a second lieutenant during the Seven Years' War in 1756, and was wounded at the 1757 Battle of Prague. He served as adjutant to the free battalion of General Johann von Mayr and was promoted to first lieutenant in 1759. In August 1759 he was wounded a second time at the Battle of Kunersdorf. In June 1761, he was appointed deputy quartermaster at the general headquarters. Later that year he was taken prisoner by the Russians at Treptow. He subsequently attained the rank of captain, and served as aide-de-camp to Frederick the Great; in 1762 he was one of 13 young officers chosen to participate in a special course of instruction delivered by the king himself.
Upon the reduction of the army at the end of the war, in 1763, Steuben was one of many officers who found themselves unemployed. Towards the end of his life, Steuben indicated in a letter that "an inconsiderate step and an implacable personal enemy" led to his leaving the Prussian army.
In 1764 Steuben became Hofmarschall to Fürst Josef Friedrich Wilhelm of Hohenzollern-Hechingen, a post he held until 1777. In 1769 the Duchess of Wurttemberg, niece of Frederick the Great, presented him with the "Cross of the Order of De la Fidelite". In 1771 he began to use the title baron. That same year he accompanied the prince to France in 1771, hoping to borrow money. Failing to find funds, they returned to Germany in 1775, deeply in debt.
In 1763 Steuben had been formally introduced to the future French Minister of War, Claude Louis, Comte de Saint-Germain in Hamburg. They met again in Paris in 1777. The Count, fully realizing the potential of an officer with Prussian general staff training, introduced him to Benjamin Franklin. Franklin, however, was unable to offer Steuben a rank or pay in the American army. The Continental Congress had grown tired of foreign mercenaries coming to America and demanding a high rank and pay. Promoting these men over qualified American officers caused discontent in the ranks. Von Steuben would have to go to America strictly as a volunteer, and present himself to Congress. Steuben left these first meetings in disgust and returned to Prussia. Steuben found waiting for him allegations that he engaged in homosexual relationships with young men while in the service of Prince Josef Friedrich Wilhelm of Hohenzollern-Hechingen. The allegations were never proven, but Steuben knew they would stymie his chances at an officer's position in Europe. Threatened with prosecution for his alleged homosexuality, Steuben returned to Paris. Rumors followed him from Prussia to America that he was homosexual, but there never was an investigation of von Steuben and he received a Congressional pension after the war.
Upon the Count's recommendation, Steuben was introduced to future president George Washington by means of a letter from Franklin as a "Lieutenant General in the King of Prussia's service", an exaggeration of his actual credentials that appears to be based on a mistranslation of his service record. He was advanced travel funds and left Europe from Marseilles on Friday, September 26, 1777 on board the frigate Flamand.
The Baron, his Italian greyhound, Azor (which he took with him everywhere), his young aide de camp Louis de Pontière, his military secretary, Peter Stephen Du Ponceau (then called Pierre Etienne Du Ponceau), and two other companions, reached Portsmouth, New Hampshire on December 1, 1777, where they were almost arrested for being British because Steuben had mistakenly outfitted them in red uniforms. They were extravagantly entertained in Boston. On February 5, 1778 Steuben and his party arrived in York, Pennsylvania, where the Continental Congress had relocated after being ousted from Philadelphia by the British advance. Arrangements were made for Steuben to be paid following the successful completion of the war according to his contributions. He arrived at Valley Forge on February 23, 1778, and reported for duty as a volunteer. One soldier's first impression of the Baron was "of the ancient fabled God of War ... he seemed to me a perfect personification of Mars. The trappings of his horse, the enormous holsters of his pistols, his large size, and his strikingly martial aspect, all seemed to favor the idea. He turned the volunteers into a great army"
Washington appointed von Steuben as temporary inspector general. He went out into the camp to talk with the officers and men, inspect their huts, and scrutinize their equipment. Steuben established standards of sanitation and camp layouts that would still be standard a century and a half later. There had previously been no set arrangement of tents and huts. Men relieved themselves where they wished and when an animal died, it was stripped of its meat and the rest was left to rot where it lay. Steuben laid out a plan to have rows for command, officers and enlisted men. Kitchens and latrines were on opposite sides of the camp, with latrines downhill side. There was the familiar arrangement of company and regimental streets.
On May 5, 1778, on General Washington's recommendation, Congress appointed Steuben inspector general of the army, with the rank and pay of major general. Internal administration had been neglected, and no books had been kept either as to supplies, clothing or men. Steuben became aware of the "administrative incompetence, graft, war profiteering" that existed. He enforced the keeping of exact records and strict inspections. His inspections saved the army an estimated loss of five to eight thousand muskets.
Steuben picked 120 men from various regiments, to form an honor guard for General Washington, and used them to demonstrate military training to the rest of the troops. These men in turn trained other personnel at Regimental and Brigade levels. Steuben's eccentric personality greatly enhanced his mystique. In full military dress uniform, he twice a day trained the soldiers who, at this point, were themselves greatly lacking in proper clothing.
As he could only speak and write a small amount of English, Steuben originally wrote the drills in the German dialect of Prussian, the military language of Europe at the time. His secretary, Du Ponceau, then translated the drills from Prussian into French, and a secretary for Washington translated it to English. They did this every single night so Washington could command his soldiers in the morning. Colonel Alexander Hamilton and General Nathanael Greene were of great help in assisting Steuben in drafting a training program for the Army. The Baron's willingness and ability to work with the men, as well as his use of profanity (in several different languages), made him popular among the soldiers. It is here he met his reputed future lover, Captain Benjamin Walker. Upon meeting Walker for the first time he exclaimed "If I had seen an angel from Heaven I should not have more rejoiced." Within weeks, Walker was Steuben's aide-de-camp.
Steuben introduced a system of progressive training, beginning with the school of the soldier, with and without arms, and going through the school of the regiment. This corrected the previous policy of simply assigning personnel to regiments. Each company commander was made responsible for the training of new men, but actual instruction was done by sergeants specifically selected for being the best obtainable.
In the earlier part of the war, the U.S. used the bayonet mostly as a cooking skewer or tool rather than as a fighting instrument. Steuben's introduction of effective bayonet charges became crucial. In the Battle of Stony Point, U.S. soldiers attacked with unloaded muskets and won the battle solely on Steuben's bayonet training.
The first results of Steuben's training were in evidence at the Battle of Barren Hill, May 20, 1778 and then again at the Battle of Monmouth in June 1778. Steuben, by then serving in Washington's headquarters, was the first to determine that the enemy was heading for Monmouth.
During the winter of 1778–1779, Steuben prepared Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, commonly known as the "Blue Book". Its basis was the training plan he had devised at Valley Forge. It was used by the United States Army until 1814, and affected U.S. drills and tactics until the Mexican War of 1846.
In 1780 Steuben sat on the court-martial of the British Army officer Major John André, captured and charged with espionage in conjunction with the defection of General Benedict Arnold. He later traveled with Nathanael Greene, the new commander of the Southern campaign. He quartered in Virginia since U.S. supplies and soldiers would be provided to the army from there. Steuben would help in the defense of Virginia with approximately 1000 militia fighting a delaying action in the Battle of Blandford. During the spring of 1781, he aided Greene in the campaign in the south, culminating in the delivery of 450 Virginia Continentals to Lafayette in June.
He was forced to take sick leave, rejoining the army for the final campaign at Yorktown, where his role was as commander of one of the three divisions of Washington's troops. In 1783, General Von Steuben joined General Knox at Vail's Gate, near West Point, in the fall of 1782 and in early 1783 moved to the Verplanck homestead, at Mount Gulian, across the Hudson River from Washington's headquarters in Newburgh. Steuben gave assistance to Washington in demobilizing the army in 1783 as well as aiding in the defense plan of the new nation. In May 1783 Steuben presided over the founding of the Society of the Cincinnati. He was discharged from the military with honor on March 24, 1784.
Steuben became a U.S. citizen by act of the Pennsylvania legislature in March 1784 (and later by the New York authorities in July 1786). With the war over, Steuben resigned from service and first settled with his longtime companion, William North, for whom he created a special room at his retreat he called The Louvre on Manhattan Island, where he became a prominent figure and elder in the German Reformed Church. From 1785 until his death, in 1794, he served as president of the German Society of the City of New York, a charitable society founded in 1784 to assist German immigrants.
Even with the new U.S. Congress giving him large sums of money, he became largely indebted. In 1790, Congress awarded him a pension of $2,500 a year, which he kept until his death.
On December 23, 1783, the State of New Jersey presented him with the use of an estate in Bergen County now known as Steuben House, which had been confiscated from Loyalist Jan Zabriskie in 1781. Located in the formerly strategic New Bridge Landing, the estate included a gristmill and about 40 acres of land. Legislators initially conditioned the grant, requiring Steuben to "hold, occupy and enjoy the said estate in person, and not by tenant." Gen. Philemon Dickinson of the New Jersey Militia informed the baron of this gift and responded to his inquiries that "there are on the premises an exceeding good House, an excellent barn, together with many useful outbuildings, all of which I am told, want some repairs...there is...a Grist-mill; a good Orchard, some meadow Ground, & plenty of Wood. The distance from N York by land 15 miles, but you may keep a boat & go from your own door to N York by water—Oysters, Fish & wild fowl in abundance—Possession will be given to you in the Spring, when you will take a view of the premises." Von Steuben spent considerable sums to repair wartime damages to the house and restore its commercial operations under former aide Walker.
On September 5, 1788, the New Jersey Legislature gave Baron von Steuben full title to the former Zabriskie estate. A month later, recognizing his financial embarrassment, Steuben wrote another former aide-de-camp and companion, William North, recognizing: "The jersey Estate must and is to be sold. Walker is my administrator, all debts are to be paid out of it." On November 6, 1788, Steuben again wrote North (at his new home in Duanesburg), noting "My Jersey Estate is Advertised but not yet Sold, from this Walker Shall immediately pay to you the money, you so generously lend me and all my debts in New-York will be payed. I support my present poverty with more heroism than I Expected. All Clubs and parties are renounced, I seldom leave the House." Steuben eventually sold the New Jersey property to a son of the previous owner, and it remained in the Zabriskie family until 1909. It is the only remaining eighteenth-century building that von Steuben owned.
Von Steuben moved upstate and settled in Oneida County on a small estate in the vicinity of Rome, on land granted to him for his military service and where he had spent summers. He was later appointed a regent for what evolved into the University of the State of New York.
Von Steuben was probably a homosexual. His exits from the court of Hohenzollern-Hechingen and from Paris were under clouds of accusation of homosexual activity. Von Steuben arrived in the United States with his 17-year-old secretary, Peter Stephen Du Ponceau, who is rumored to have been his lover. At Valley Forge, he began close relationships with Benjamin Walker and William North, then both military officers in their 20s, which are assumed by many to have been romantic. Because homosexuality was criminalized at the time, records of his relationships are limited to references in correspondences.
Von Steuben died on November 28, 1794, at his estate in Oneida County, and was buried in a grove at what became the Steuben Memorial State Historic Site; the estate became part of the town of Steuben, New York, which was named for him.
Steuben did not marry and had no children. He did not care much for his European relatives. Thus, he left his estate to his companions and aides-de-camp, Captains Benjamin Walker and William North, with whom he had had an "extraordinarily intense emotional relationship ... treating them as surrogate sons".
Generally, Von Steuben Day takes place in September in many cities throughout the United States. It is often considered the German-American event of the year. Participants march, dance, wear German costumes and play German music, and the event is attended by millions of people. The German-American Steuben Parade is held annually in September in New York City. It is one of the largest parades in the city and is traditionally followed by an Oktoberfest in Central Park as well as celebrations in Yorkville, Manhattan, a German section of New York City. The German-American Steuben Parade has been taking place since 1958. Chicago also hosts a von Steuben Day parade, which is featured in the U.S. film Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Philadelphia hosts to a smaller Steuben Parade in the Northeast section of the city. Steubenville, Ohio, has the recreated Fort Steuben, named after our beloved Baron.
The Steuben Society was founded in 1919 as "an educational, fraternal, and patriotic organization of American citizens of German background". In the difficult post-World War I years the Society helped the German-American community to reorganize. It is now one of the largest organizations for Americans of German descent.
A warship, a submarine, and an ocean liner (later pressed into military service) were named in von Steuben's honor. In World War I the captured German ship SS Kronprinz Wilhelm was renamed as USS Von Steuben, and in World War II there was the Dampfschiff General von Steuben, an ill-fated German luxury passenger ship which was turned into an armed transport ship during the war. During the Cold War, the U.S. Navy submarine USS Von Steuben was named for him.
Several locations in the United States are also named Steuben, most of them in his honor. Examples include Steuben County, New York, Steuben County, Indiana, and the city of Steubenville, Ohio. Several buildings are named for Steuben, among them Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center in Chicago, Illinois, as well as one of the cadet barracks buildings at Valley Forge Military Academy and College.
Von Steuben was one of four European military leaders who assisted the U.S. cause during the Revolution and was honored with a statue in Lafayette Square, just north of the White House, in Washington, D.C. The statue by Albert Jaegers was dedicated in 1910. A copy was dedicated in Potsdam, Germany in 1911, and destroyed during World War II. A new cast was given in honor of German-American friendship in 1987, and to celebrate the 750th anniversary of the founding of Berlin. It was installed in the Dahlem district, in what had been the U.S. sector of the formerly divided city. Additional casts are in Potsdam, and in Steuben's home town of Magdeburg. Statues of Steuben by J. Otto Schweizer can be found in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania and Utica, New York; in addition to an equestrian statue by Schweizer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A bust of Steuben is in the garden of the German Embassy in Washington, D.C.
The Steuben House, presented to Steuben as a gift for his services in the Continental Army, is located at New Bridge Landing in River Edge, New Jersey. The house and surrounding farmland were seized in 1781 from a Loyalist family. The house looks much as it did after Steuben renovated it. The State of New Jersey took possession of the historic mansion and one acre of ground for $9,000 on June 27, 1928. It was opened as a public museum in September 1939. The Bergen County Historical Society opens the building for special events. It is under the jurisdiction of the Historic New Bridge Landing Park Commission.
Other tributes include Steuben Field, the stadium of the Hamilton College football team. Von Steuben, acting as Alexander Hamilton's surrogate, laid the cornerstone of the school. Upon graduating, all Hamilton seniors receive as a gift from the college a cane with a tricorn hat at its top in reference to von Steuben.
The various depictions of Steuben in popular U.S. media include portrayals by Nehemiah Persoff in the 1979 U.S. TV miniseries The Rebels, Kurt Knudson in the 1984 TV miniseries George Washington, being voiced by Austrian-American Arnold Schwarzenegger in the animated series Liberty's Kids, and by David Cross on the "Philadelphia" episode of Drunk History.
In 2007, a popular documentary DVD was released by LionHeart FilmWorks and director Kevin Hershberger titled Von Steuben's Continentals: The First American Army. The 60-minute, live-action documentary details the life, uniforms, camp life, food, weapons, equipment and drill of the Continental soldier 1775–1781, as taught and developed by Baron von Steuben.