The Gay Prussian Baron Who Created the U.S. Army

Strangely, many historians regard a gay Prussian Baron; and not George Washington, as the father of the United States Army.

To explain, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben; a Prussian mercenary created the first sets of rules, regulations, and procedures for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. The Continental Army was the first United States Army.

Bizarrely, Von Steuben; an aristocrat and a pupil of Frederick the Great, created the blueprint for a democratic fighting force. Moreover, Von Steuben did not believe in democracy, although he became an American patriot. Instead, Baron Steuben helped Washington win the Revolution because he needed a job.

The Unemployed Baron who helped Washington Win the Revolution

Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin Von Steuben; who also known as Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand Von Steuben, was a second-generation soldier and Prussian aristocrat.

The Baron was lucky enough to attend the 18th Century’s greatest military school – the Prussian Army. Von Steuben received a graduate course in tactics, military administration, strategy, organization, and command as an officer in the Seven Years War.

Steuben received valuable experience as an adjutant and chief of staff to General Johann Von Mayer. The Baron received valuable experience in supply, logistics, and administration as a deputy quartermaster for the Prussian Army.

Finally, Von Steuben learned staff work as an aide to Frederick the Great, the King of Prussia. In the 1760s, many people regarded Frederick as the greatest general of age. As an aide, Steuben took Frederick’s personal courses in the art of war (military command and strategy).

However, Von Steuben found all that education and experience useless in 1763 when Frederick downsized the Prussian Army at the end of the Seven Years’ War. Von Steuben was one of many Prussian officers Frederick demobilized (laid off) to cut expenses.

The Bored Baron

Von Steuben spent the next 12 years in ceremonial positions at German courts while looking for an officer’s position.

The Baron sought positions with the British, French, and Austrian armies and failed. In 1777; however, Von Steuben heard of a magnificent opportunity. The United States was in revolt against the British Empire but had no organized army and few experienced officers.

Predictably, every unemployed mercenary and officer in Europe ran to join the Continental Army. However, Von Steuben had an inside track for a position with the American Army.

Von Steuben was a friend of the French Minister of War, Louis de St. Germain. In 1777, St. Germain wanted to support the Americans to get revenge on France’s archenemy; the British Empire.

However, France and Britain were at peace, so St. Germain needed plausible deniability for any military aid to the rebels. A former aide to Prussia’s King, a key British ally, offered perfect deniability for a French secret mission to aid American rebels.

The Secret Mission

On 26 September 1777, St. Germain dispatched Von Steuben to America to join George Washington’s army. Oddly, Steuben brought his dog, Azor, his aide-de-camp, and a military secretary with him on the trip.

The trip was dangerous because the Baron had to land in Maine and make his way to Washington’s camp at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. Along the way, the Baron faced the risk of capture by British patrols, loyalists (pro-British Americans), and Britain’s indigenous allies.

Bizarrely, American soldiers mistook Von Steuben and his aides for British officers and almost arrested them. Von Steuben’s red uniform, which reminded them of British regulars, confused the Americans.

However, the patriots released Von Steuben, and he made his way to Pennsylvania where he presented local American leaders with a letter from Benjamin Franklin. The letter falsely identified the Baron as “His Excellency, Lieutenant General Von Steuben, Apostle of Frederick the Great.”

The letter was a blatant lie because the highest rank Von Steuben had held in the Prussian Army was captain. Additionally, the Baron had no connection with the Prussian government. The letter was a fraud because Franklin knew Von Steuben was neither a general nor a representative of Frederick.

The most probable rationale for the letter was to deceive British captors into thinking Von Steuben was a Prussian representative, instead of a French agent. However, the letter also fooled the Americans who sent Von Steuben to Valley Forge.

The Father of the United States Army

Washington welcomed Von Steuben because he had an army to train and few experienced soldiers. Washington was so desperate for expert help he put Von Steuben, who could not speak English, to work.

At Valley Forge, Steuben trained the troops, and wrote what became the manual or drill book for the American Army Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States. Von Steuben wrote in French, and others; including Alexander Hamilton, then a young staff officer, translated the Regulations to English. The Regulations served as the Bible of the United States Army for generations.

At Valley Forge, Von Steuben formed and trained a model company to demonstrate the latest European military methods to Americans. Through constant drill, Steuben transformed a motley crew of farm boys, runaway slaves, and militiamen into a crack infantry unit rivaling the feared British Regulars.

Washington was so impressed by Von Steuben’s efforts that he made the Baron Inspector General and later chief of staff. As inspector general, Steuben organized the army and formalized procedures.

Von Steuben later trained and organized General Nathanael Greene’s Southern Army and commanded an American division at the battle of Yorktown. There, Steuben helped defeat Lord Cornwallis’s British Army and win America’s independence.

The Gay Father of the United States Army

Some historians think Von Steuben was gay, and that homosexuality was the actual reason the Baron left the Prussian Army. Most 18th Century Europeans and Americans regarded homosexuality as a sin and a crime.

Whether Washington knew of Steuben’s sexuality is unknown. However, Washington was so desperate for experienced officers he ignored Von Steuben’s personal life.

Washington’s acceptance for Steuben gave the Continental Army a valuable military resource and needed professionalism. Thus, Washington’s lack of prejudice helped win the Revolution.

The Unemployed Hero

Like many of the soldiers who won the Revolution, Steuben found himself broke and unemployed after the war.

The American government, or Continental Congress, promised Von Steuben the pay of a major general after the war. However, the Congress and America’s economy were dysfunctional, and no pay was forthcoming.

In 1783, the grateful State of New Jersey gave Von Steuben the confiscated estate of a loyalist in Bergen County, now Steuben House. Unfortunately, Steuben was still broke.

In 1786 Steuben wrote a pamphlet suggesting Massachusetts adopt an oligarchy or aristocratic state government after Shay’s Rebellion.  

In 1790, Congress; now operating under the new Constitution, awarded Von Steuben a $2,500 a year pension. That and the sale of Steuben House gave the Baron enough money to build a small estate near Rome, New York. Moreover, New York State rewarded Steuben with a land grant and a regency of what became the University of the State of New York.

The Baron’s estate is now the town of Steuben, New York. Steuben died on the estate on 28 November 1794 and was buried in a grove in what is now the Steuben Memorial State Historic Site.

Although he left the army in 1783, Steuben remained active in American affairs. For instance, the Baron organized and led one of America’s first veterans’ groups, the Society of the Cincinnati. He also founded one of America’s first groups to help immigrants; the German Society of the City of New York and became a leader in the German Reformed Church.

Steuben lived long enough to know of the first victory of regular American soldiers using his methods. That victory was the triumph of the Legion of the United States (a predecessor to the US Army) over Native Americans at the Battle of Fallen Timbers.

So yes, the Father of the United States Army was a gay Prussian baron. Hence, the United States is free today because George Washington could accept a gay Prussian baron as an officer.