Central Illinois is in the grip of one of the worst blizzards in many years, and I am snowbound and working at home today. This type of weather brings to my mind Valley Forge and the military miracle wrought in a few short weeks by an out of work Prussian captain, whose English was largely limited to swear words.
Friedrich Wihelm von Steuben was an impecunious former Prussian officer when he was introduced to Benjamin Franklin in 1777 in Paris. Von Steuben had fought bravely and skillfully in the Prussian Army during the Seven Years War, but was released from service at the conclusion of the war in 1763, and had since that time been unemployed as a soldier. He called himself a baron but had no right to the title. Franklin saw that there was a bit of the con artist in von Steuben, but he also saw that he was a talented and highly trained officer, someone who the Americans had great need of. Franklin wrote a letter of introduction to Washington for von Steuben in which he described the erst-while captain as a former Prussian lieutenant-general.
Unlike other foreign volunteers to come to America, von Steuben made a favorable impression on Washington and Congress by not demanding rank or pay. He simply wished to be placed to work as an unpaid volunteer. On February 23, 1778 he reported at Valley Forge, and quickly began to earn the title by which he is known to history: Drillmaster of the Revolution.
Von Steuben quickly realized that the rag tag Continentals needed to learn both discipline and drill. He also realized that these men were not professional soldiers fighting for pay, but volunteers fighting for the liberty of their nation. He would later write to a friend in Europe and explain that with the American soldier it was not only necessary to tell him what to do, but to explain to him why he should do it. He simplified the Prussian manual of arms, and picking a “model company” of 120 men chosen from every regiment at Valley Forge, began to drill them. (more…)