When Americans think about the contributions of immigrants to the defense of the nation we should recall there was a time when it appeared unlikely America would even be a nation. Alexander Hamilton played an important role in America’s early years and Thomas Paine galvanized public opinion with Common Sense, but Friedrich von Steuben played the most critical military role of any immigrant during America’s fight for independence. In a way, he was America’s first employment-based immigrant.
In 1777, Friedrich von Steuben, a former Prussian officer, met with Benjamin Franklin, the colonies’ ambassador to France, and Franklin’s chief agent in Paris, Silas Deane, and impressed them enough that they, in effect, recruited him to help the Continental Army. While Steuben had served admirably as a Prussian officer, by 1777, he was out of a job and agreed to travel to the colonies, present himself with Franklin’s recommendations to the Continental Congress and, it was hoped, become a paid officer for General Washington.
Franklin and Deane’s introduction to the Continental Congress overstated Steuben’s background. Moreover, Steuben did not possess the money to travel to the colonies. Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, a French playwright and friend of Steuben, gave him a loan.
What Steuben lacked in wealth and status, he made up for with other qualities. Nearing the age of 50, Steuben had amassed experience from many of Europe’s best military minds. “What set Steuben apart from his contemporaries was his schooling under Frederick the Great, Prince Henry and a dozen other general officers,” writes Paul Lockhart, author of The Drillmaster of Valley Forge. “He had learned from the best soldiers in the world how to gather and assess intelligence, how to read and exploit terrain, how to plan marches, camps, battles and entire campaigns. He gleaned more from his 17 years in the Prussian military than most professional soldiers would in a lifetime. In the Seven Years’ War alone, he built up a record of professional education that none of his comrades in the Continental Army—Horatio Gates, Charles Lee, the Baron Johann de Kalb and Lafayette included—could match.”
In December 1777, when Baron Friedrich von Steuben arrived in America, a colonial victory over the strongest empire on the globe looked uncertain. “Since losing a series of battles and being driven from New York the previous summer, Washington and his closest advisers had been uncharacteristically flummoxed by Gen. Sir William Howe, who led the 30,000 strong British expeditionary force in North America,” writes Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, authors of Valley Forge. “Throughout the spring and summer of 1777, Howe had orchestrated a series of feints that forced Washington into exaggerated countermeasures. He had dispatched some companies of his exhausted Continentals from their camp in Morristown, New Jersey, through rainstorms in searing heat as far north as the Hudson Highlands and as far south as the lower Delaware River.”
General George Washington, the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, chose to winter his troops at Valley Forge. Although the army had achieved surprising victories at Trenton and Princeton, the British occupied Philadelphia and Washington had yet to decide how next to deploy the Continental Army. In fact, the larger problem remained the state of the Army itself.
Steuben found the Continental Army at Valley Forge in bad shape. “What [Steuben] discovered was nothing less than appalling,” according to Thomas Fleming, author of Washington’s Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge. “He was confronting a wrecked army.” How wrecked? “The baron found soldiers without uniforms, rusted muskets without bayonets, companies with men missing and unaccounted for,” writes Erick Trickey for the Smithsonian. “Different officers used different military drill manuals, leading to chaos when their units tried to work together. If the army had to fight on short notice, von Steuben warned Washington, he might find himself commanding one-third of the men he thought he had. The army had to get into better shape before fighting resumed in the spring.”
Steuben grasped the key problems the army needed to overcome if it was to have a chance to defeat the well-trained and more experienced British Army. “Without ever having seen them fight, Steuben intuited that the resiliency the Americans had exhibited to this point in the war was offset by their professional limitations,” writes Drury and Clavin. “At less than three years old, the Continental Army lacked an institutional memory; its soldiers were no more adept at fighting a practiced, dedicated foe than its commissary officers were at feeding and clothing them. What few drills the army practiced were a mélange of the whims of individual state commanders whose influences, such as they were, ranged from bits of French, English and Prussian field guides to homegrown backwoods fighting techniques.”
Steuben understood his role could decide the outcome of the war. “It was only the Americans’ spirited tenacity that had prevented them from being completely swept away by polished British and Hessian soldiers at Brandywine and Germantown,” according to Drury and Clavin. “Such hardiness had been responsible for the surprise victories in Boston and at Trenton and Princeton. But Steuben knew that the Continentals’ tendency to expose the flanks of their long files of Indian style marching columns, for instance, or their inability to form swiftly into disciplined lines of fire, would ultimately lead to catastrophe.”
Steuben decided he needed to instruct the troops in drilling to instill discipline and professionalism in both soldiers and officers. He chose to “train” the trainers, teaching a twenty-man squad that could then be used to instruct other troops. He started with the proper standing position and moved to “dressing their ranks” or proper alignment, then the marching step. “The speed of the marching was entirely new to the soldiers . . . Finally, the men were taught how to face 90 degrees to the right, 90 degrees to the left, and to face to the rear, which must always be done by spinning 180 degrees clockwise on both heels,” writes Lockhart.
Baron von Steuben demonstrated drilling himself and punctuated his instruction with entertaining profanity in French or German, translated to the troops. He oversaw the drilling and showed unique insight into the character of the American troops, notes Lockhart. He understood American soldiers where not like European soldiers who were mostly peasants and naturally deferential, ready to obey those with higher social rank. “The genius of this nation is not to be compared . . . with that of the Prussians, Austrians or French,” Steuben wrote to a Prussian friend following the war. “You say to your soldier, ‘Do this,’ and he does it; but I am obliged to say, ‘This is the reason why you ought to do that,’ and then he does it.”
George Washington recorded favorable first impressions of Steuben but it was the former Prussian officer’s results that most gained Washington’s confidence. “Washington had ordered the cessation of all drilling not overseen by Steuben or his subinspectors,” according to Drury and Clavin. And this confidence in Steuben extended beyond drilling. “So meticulous was Steuben’s process, so indefatigable his diligence, and so burgeoning his influence that Washington was soon issuing a series of general orders suitable for, and nearly indistinguishable from, the Prussian army’s boot camp directives.”
The change was remarkable. “They went from a ragtag collection of militias to a professional force,” according to historian Larrie Ferreiro. “[It was] Steuben’s ability to bring this army the kind of training and understanding of tactics that made them able to stand toe to toe with the British.”
In addition to preparing the Continental Army to defeat the British army and win independence, Steuben made two other important contributions to America. First, he wrote the field guide for the army. “[That] spring the resulting Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States would be circulated among general Smallwood’s troops in Delaware as well as Continental regiments in New Jersey,” writes Lockhart. “The work eventually constituted the United States Army’s primary field guide for decades and its unique rationale—that European military methods could be integrated into a thoroughly independent-minded Army—may be Steuben’s greatest gift to his adopted country.”
Steuben also contributed as a leader on the battlefield. He undertook the defense of Virginia and was at Yorktown for the final victory over the British. “Steuben’s division was still in the trenches two days later, on the nineteenth, the day designated for the surrender ceremony,” according to Lockhart. “The Baron planted the American flag on one of the captured British redoubts with his own hands. A small satisfaction, perhaps, but satisfaction nonetheless. After he had done so much to make this day possible – both by training the victorious army and by holding Virginia until Lafayette could take his place – Steuben no doubt felt that he deserved the honor.”
Steuben made two critical recommendations that became another contribution to his adopted country. First, he formulated plans for a small professional army that could be supplemented by reserves. Such an army could act as a deterrent to European powers. “His notion of a small peacetime army, supplemented in times of war with a national militia, would . . . serve as the underlying foundation of the American military establishment for many decades to come,” writes Lockhart.
Second, he recommended a military academy and suggested a curriculum. “West Point, and indeed all of the American service academies are products of the Baron’s agile mind,” according to Lockhart. “Above all other contributions tower the concepts of discipline and professionalism in the army as a whole and in the officer corps in particular.”
“The Baron de Steuben’s is the classic ‘coming to America’ story writ large,” writes Paul Lockhart. “Like so many immigrants before and since, he cut himself loose from the Old World and journeyed to the new intending to reinvent himself. He did just that.” Friedrich von Steuben may have been America’s first employment-based immigrant, and, like many immigrants, his achievements benefited America.