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The Story Of Baron Friedrich Von Stuben


Valley Forge stands as the cornerstone of American history, what hardship our soldiers at times have endured, and what Valley Forge really accomplished for the United States. Here is where Baron Von Steuben succeeded in presenting to the whole army a concrete example of the proper evaluations. Since drill was the largest part of the training, the service performed shed its helpful influence on many later military events.
His drill regulations showed his good sense and humanity. With them are based all subsequent ones in our service, and by drill long needed exercises were put in vogue for the first time. Earlier the marches in general had been limited to crude formations in line and column or files. Von Steuben not only made these movements uniforms but also added the column of platoons, thus lessening the unnecessary length of road space for tactical movements and the opportunity for straggling. He caused the platoon to wheel much as it does now in “platoon right” and to execute the “oblique step” in order to break from, and form, company. The latter was a curious sidling movement in which he made every man in ranks an integral part of the drill as illustrated by the way he discarded sole dependence upon music or the beat of the drum, and made each individual soldier responsible that he regulated his march by watching the gait of the officer or element in front of the platoon. Whenever there was no such officer or element, a sergeant was to be placed six paces to the front. Such were some of the sensible drill movements (which in those days were battle movements also) that Von Steuben found useful.
Von Steuben also stressed the importance of discipline and the daily routine; he went minutely into field and company administration. He prescribed that platoons should camp by battalions. He allowed sumps to be dug no nearer to occupied tents than 300 feet. He charged field officers with seeing that their camps were pitched regularly and properly, especially that kitchens and sumps were put in sanitary places. He outlined methods of getting wood and water by means of an organized system of signals and formations. He established roll calls for “troop” and “retreat” under arms and the “reveille” and “noon” without arms. He charged the noncommissioned officers with the making of an accurate check of their squads at tattoo to see that the men were in bed. At the “troop meeting”, he required company officers to “inspect into the dress of their men”, to see that their accouterments were properly fixed and every article about them in the greatest order.” He inaugurated the Saturday morning inspection, which the captains were to conduct for their individual companies in order to “examine into the state of the men’s necessaries”. Von Steuben immediately couples with the duty of infinite care of the company that the state has committed to the charge of the captain. Then the vital advice of individual treatment, of knowing every man by name and character, is all too well understood by any one who has ever attempted to handle manhood in the mass. And finally the special visitation of the sick rounds out of the thoughtful attitude a company officer should school himself to employ. When analyzed, this simple paragraph spells self-control, high sense of duty, fidelity of performance and loyalty to the inferior as well as to the superior.
Knowing full well that the captain could not, without specific help, bring his company up to standard, Von Steuben assigned the subalterns particular tasks. The lieutenant was to be zealous in regard to the “health and convenience” of the soldier, and the ensign in regard to “neatness and cleanliness”. Von Steuben here discreetly laid emphasis on the development of self-respect and pride, qualities, which are the lading strings of success. Then he capped this by setting a check upon ill treatment, which arises through “pique or resentment”. Understanding how partiality and prejudice may be the ruin of discipline he closed his instructions by putting a special guard on that sort of justice.
Von Steuben spent much time in developing a keen sense of responsibility in the company officer in comparison to that of the field and general officer. He knew that if the individual soldier had affection and regard for his immediate leaders, the higher commands would take care of themselves. He realized that the pride and bearing of the rank and file were the keynotes to achievements in the field, as was demonstrated many times in World War.
Could any set of instructions more grippingly embrace the essentials of discipline? Have so few words ever more perfectly tempered kindness with justice and balanced rule and appeal? By following these simple principles, could not anybody of men whether soldier or civilian, be directed without friction? Why then were these doctrines omitted from later regulations? Why did they have to be ferreted out from a dusty volume whose leaves were yellowed with age and whose print was in old script with it’s “s’s” that looked like “f’s”?
Mainly because training, as we shall see, was discarded for a long time after the Revolution, did the picture of Von Steuben grow indistinct. Naturally only the rigors of necessary discipline were remembered in connection with him. He had thus been tabled in later years as a hard taskmaster. Legislators have held his work up to contempt in that he clearly molded our army into Prussian inflexibility. The substance of such an attitude seems to rest on the fact that he hailed from Prussia. Writer and speaker have been erroneously thankful that the army has survived Von Steuben’s hard lines whereas, in truth, he brought us up out of unsuitable aristocracy, unspeakable chaos and, above all, the misuse of authority. He knew that leading was better than driving and he proved that his human methods were practical and successful.
That he followed his own advice is shown by many instances. For example, once after Arnold’s treason, when Von Steuben was standing by listening to the roll call of a company, he heard a man answer to the name of Arnold. Promptly inviting the soldier to his tent, the baron told the private that he was too good a man to bear a traitor’s name, whereupon he gave his permission to be known as Von Steuben.
Due to such painstaking care and labor, the festering camp began to take on the semblance of order and organization in spite of the lack of supplies. Disease was lessened. Arms remained with the colors. Soldiers on detached service as servants were returned to the fighting force. Officers began to father their organizations. The human touch, zeal and dignity that have since characterized the best American leaders became noticeable. Troops began to be complimented in orders on their drill. By taking the attitude that the “indifferent quality of clothing instead of excusing slovenliness and unsoldierly conduct, ought rather” to excite each man to compensate for those deficiencies by redoubled attention to his personal appearance, Von Steuben was successful in building morale upon less then nothing.
So a foreigner, with such a thick brogue that he was largely unintelligible, against odds of national and provincial jealously and not withstanding the powerful calumny that was usually heaped upon the efficient friends of Washington, earned a substantial reputation. His work could not be ignored. Congress was morally forced to recognize him. Accordingly, Washington’s orders one day announced to the camp that Von Steuben had been made a major general and Inspector General of the Army. We are soon to see some of the direct effects of his efforts.
The spirits of the little army that strove with its emaciated self in pitiful efforts at training were unexpectedly raised by the news of the French Alliance. Washington proclaimed a holiday. The ragged, but clean soldiers had a chance to show on parade their new and well-acquired maneuvers. The commander in chief dined in public with his officers: cannons were discharged, fuses were fired, toasts were drunk and huzzahs were given by the officers and men with great ceremony. The form and precision here displayed heightened the pride of corps throughout the rank and file.
Out of this alliance came the necessity of giving Lafayette a command, for which he had been constantly begging. Washington assigned him 2,500 picked men ostensibly for the purpose of conducting a reconnaissance toward Philadelphia. At Barren Hill this small but vital American force found itself completely surrounded by an overwhelming number of British. The only means of possible escape was the apparently impassable Schuylkill in the patriots’ rear. A ford, however, was accidentally discovered over which the troops would have to pass rapidly while pressed by the enemy. This highly difficult crossing was to be a test of discipline in the American soldiers. As a matter of fact, they were formed by their officers without hesitation or confusion, were marched across the streamwithout crowding and were well on the way before the British discovered the escape. The drill and training acquired under Von Steuben were chiefly accountable for the survival of Lafayette and his command.
With the coming of spring and the prospect of help there came internal relief for the army. Food and clothing grew better, almost sufficient. Greene, at the solicitation of a committee from Congress, had been appointed quartermaster general to succeed Mifflin. Jeremiah Wadsworth had, in addition, been made commissary general. Their services were efficient, though Congress and the country accused them of extravagance. The troops fared for over a year following their appointment better than at any time predicted, summer saw the soldier at last provided with heavy clothing.
When Howe decided to sail back to England without hurting the American army in the field, and Clinton relinquished Philadelphia, Washington, leaving Arnold in that city, pursued the British through New Jersey. Having now the usual increase of “sunshine patriots” he outnumbered the enemy by 1,000. At Monmouth Court House the advance guard of the Americans came upon the rear guard of the British. Washington ordered Lee to attack with the hope of getting the enemy’s wagon train. Evidently through jealousy or defection Lee not only failed to carry out his commander’s intentions but also was actively responsible for the breaking up of the troops and their retirement to the rear. Although they were pursued by the British and, through lack of proper leadership, retreated in more or less disorder, nevertheless they were capable of being reformed quickly into a proper battle line, after what would formerly have been a demoralizing retreat. Again, the work of Von Steuben became the deciding factor. The Americans having rallied drove off the British. But the defeat of Clinton’s forces was impossible, because Lee had wasted the day. The enemy slipped away under cover of darkness to New York. The temperature throughout the action had been very high, reading, some say, ninety-six, so that there were more casualties from the heat than from firearms. Soldiers were found dead without a mark on them. In the north this was the last general engagement of the war, because the British were too strong for Washington to take the offensive again. But the action showed that the American troops, with a fair amount of discipline and training and against nearly an equal force, could give a good account of themselves.

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