Birthday: September 17, 1730
Nationality: American, German
Died At Age: 64
Sun Sign: Virgo
Also Known As: Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand Steuben, Baron von Steuben, Frederick William, and Freiherr von Steuben
Born Country: Germany
Born in: Magdeburg, Germany
Famous as: Military Officer
father: Wilhelm Augustin von Steuben
mother: Elizabeth Maria Justina Dorothea von Jagvodin
Died on: November 28, 1794
place of death: Steuben County
Grouping of People: Homosexuality
awards: Cross of the Order of De la Fidelite
Who was Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben?
Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand Steuben, also known as Baron von Steuben, Frederick William, and Freiherr von Steuben, was a military officer who served in Prussia and later in America during the American Revolutionary War. Originally from the Duchy of Magdeburg, Friedrich received his education from the Jesuits in the garrison towns Neisse and Breslau. When he was 17 years old, he began his military career in the Prussian Army. During the Seven Years’ War, he gradually rose through the ranks to eventually become captain and was made aide-de-camp to Frederick the Great. However, after the end of the war, he became unemployed due to the reduction of the army. Von Steuben subsequently entered the service of Fürst Josef Friedrich Wilhelm of Hohenzollern-Hechingen. In 1771, he started putting the title “baron” before his name. After meeting Benjamin Franklin in Paris, he travelled to America to serve in the Continental Army. Considered to be one of the fathers of the Continental Army for teaching the recruits the importance of military drills, tactics, and discipline, he was appointed inspector general and major general. Von Steuben authored ‘Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States’, which became the standard United States drill manual until the War of 1812.
Childhood & Early Life
Born Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben on September 17, 1730, in Magdeburg, Duchy of Magdeburg, Kingdom of Prussia, Holy Roman Empire, Baron von Steuben was the son of Royal Prussian Engineer Captain Baron Wilhelm von Steuben and Elizabeth von Jagvodin.
Friedrich travelled to Crimea with his father after the older man joined the service of Empress Anna of Russia. They later went to Kronstadt, remaining there until the Russo-Turkish War.
In 1740, following their return to Prussia, Friedrich began his studies under the Jesuits in the garrison towns Neisse and Breslau. Although he received a significant portion of his military education from a Catholic order, he was a vocal critic of Roman Catholicism throughout his life.
Born a Protestant, he converted to Reformed German Church after making America his home. It is believed that when he was 14 years old, he participated in one of the campaigns of the War of the Austrian Succession as a volunteer with his father.
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Early Military Career
At the age of 17, von Steuben enlisted in the Prussian Army. In 1756, he was made a second lieutenant during the Seven Years' War. A year later, he sustained an injury at the Battle of Prague. He then was made adjutant to the free battalion of General Johann von Mayr.
In 1759, he became a first lieutenant. At the Battle of Kunersdorf in August 1759, he received his second serious battle injury. Later that year, he was made deputy quartermaster at the general headquarters.
In 1761, he was appointed adjutant of Major General Von Knobloch after becoming a prisoner of the Russians at Treptow. He eventually rose to the rank of captain and was aide-de-camp to Frederick the Great. When the war ended in 1763, von Steuben lost his job like several other officers due to the Prussian Army decreasing its size.
Work in Hohenzollern-Hechingen
Between 1764 and 1777, von Steuben served as Hofmarschall to Fürst Josef Friedrich Wilhelm of Hohenzollern-Hechingen. In 1769, he was awarded the Cross of the Order of De la Fidelite by the Duchess of Wurttemberg, niece of Frederick the Great.
In 1771, he began placing his ancestral title “baron” before his name. That year, he travelled to France with the prince, looking for people to lend them money. They were unsuccessful and went back to Germany in 1775, extremely in debt.
In 1777, von Steuben met Benjamin Franklin through the French Minister of War Claude Louis, Comte de Saint-Germain. However, Franklin could not give von Steuben an assurance of rank and pay in the American Army and told him that he had to travel to America strictly as a volunteer and appear before the Congress.
Outraged, von Steuben went back to Prussia, where he discovered that he had been accused of being involved in homosexual relationships with young men during his service under Prince Josef.
He knew that he would be prosecuted for his alleged homosexuality if he stayed in Prussia, so he returned to Paris. Carrying a letter for George Washington from Franklin, he travelled to America with his Italian Greyhound Azor, his young aide-de-camp Louis de Pontière, his military secretary Peter Stephen Du Ponceau, and two other companions.
The Continental Army
In his letter to Washington, Franklin falsely identified von Steuben as a “Lieut. Genl. in the King of Prussia’s Service” who was empowered with “Zeal for our Cause.” In December 1777, he reached America and later presented himself in front of the Congress in York, Pennsylvania.
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Fascinated by his fabricated credentials and pleasing personality, as well as Washington’s recommendations, the Congress put him in charge of the training of their forces positioned at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Von Steuben set up and instructed a model drill company that was emulated throughout the ranks.
In May 1778, he was made inspector general of the army with the rank of major general. In 1780, he received the first field command in America when he was appointed a division commander in Virginia and took part in the siege of Yorktown (1781), where the British were decisively defeated.
He also participated in Battle of Monmouth (1778) and Battle of Blandford (1781) and spent the final years of the war as Washington’s chief of staff.
After the Revolutionary War concluded, von Steuben made New York City his home. His life there was so lavish and expensive that the significant grants of money from the Congress, alongside the grant of 16,000 acres of land by the state of New York, were not enough. He soon accumulated a large debt. Eventually, he was given a life pension of $2,500, which sustained him for the rest of his life.
Personal Life & Homosexuality
Von Steuben was accompanied to America by his 17-year-old secretary, Peter Stephen Du Ponceau. At Valley Forge, he developed deep bonds with military officers Benjamin Walker and William North, both of whom were in their 20s at the time.
As homosexuality was a criminal offence in von Steuben’s time, his relationships were only mentioned in correspondences. Von Steuben adopted both Walker and North and named them his heirs. He also left his vast library, collection of maps, and $2,500 in cash to another of his “sons”, John W. Mulligan.
Death & Legacy
On November 28, 1794, von Steuben passed away at his estate in Oneida County and was laid to rest in a grove at what later was turned into the Steuben Memorial State Historic Site. At present, the estate is located in the town of Steuben, New York, which was named so in his honour.
Von Steuben did not have a wife or an offspring. He was not also bothered with the well-being of his European relatives. As a result, he gave his estate to his companions and aides-de-camp, Captain Benjamin Walker and Major General William North, with whom he shared an "extraordinarily intense emotional relationship ... treating them as surrogate sons."
Von Steuben’s Day is celebrated on a weekend in mid-September in multiple cities all over US. In 1919, the Steuben Society was set up as "an educational, fraternal, and patriotic organization of American citizens of German background”. In the aftermath of the First World War, it brought together the German-American community.