Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, edited by James
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Baron Von Steuben - A Stan Klos Biography
Frederick William Augustus
Henry Ferdinand von Steuben
STEUBEN, Frederick William Augustus Henry Ferdinand
von, known in this country as BARON STEUBEN, German soldier, born in
Magdeburg, Prussia, 15 November, 1730; died in Steubenville, New York, 28
November, 1794. His father, a captain in the army, took him when a mere child
into the Crimea, whither he was ordered. The boy was only ten years old when the
father returned to Prussia. He was educated in the Jesuit colleges at Neisse and
Breslau, and distinguished himself as a mathematician.
At fourteen he served with his father in the war of
1744, and was present at the siege of Prague. At the age of seventeen he entered
as cadet in an infantry regiment, and in two years was promoted to ensign, and
four years afterward to lieutenant. He served in the seven years' war and was
wounded in the battle of Prague.
In 1754 he was made adjutant-general in the free corps
of General John von May, but after the death of the latter he re-entered the
regular army in 1761, and was taken prisoner by the Russians at the capitulation
of Colberg. In 1762 he was made aide to Frederick the Great, and took part in
the celebrated siege of Schweidnitz, which closed the military operations of the
seven years' war.
Resigning his post in the army, he was presented with
the canonry of the cathedral of Haselberg on a salary of 1,200 florins, and
afterward was made grand marshal to tile Prince of Hohenzollern, with an
additional salary of 1200 florins. Although he received brilliant offers from
the king of Sardinia and emperor of Austria to enter their service, he declined,
and, with a salary that enabled him to live in elegant ease, he felt no desire
to re-enter military life.
But in 1777, while on his way to England to visit some
English noblemen, he spent some time at Paris. Meeting here Count St. Germain,
the French minister of war, who, knowing that the great weakness of the American
colonists lay in their ignorance of military tactics and want of discipline,
endeavored to persuade him to come to this country and instruct the soldiers.
But the baron declined to give up his honors and his ample income and risk
everything on our desperate fortunes.
The French minister, however, brought about an interview
with Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane. The manner with which the former
received him offended him, and this, with other reasons, caused him to abandon
the project altogether. Recalled by Germain, he at length yielded to the
latter's solicitations and promises, and resolved to cast his fortunes with the
Embarking in a French gun-boat under the name of Frank,
he set sail from Marseilles, 11 December, 1777, and after a stormy passage of
fifty-five days, during which the forecastle took fire three times while there
were 1,700 pounds of powder aboard, and a mutiny was suppressed, he arrived at
Portsmouth, New Hampshire The entire population went out to receive him.
He at once wrote to congress, offering his services to
the colonies, saying that the motive that brought him here was to "serve a
nation engaged in the noble work of defending its rights and liberties," and
adding that, although he had "given up an honorable title and lucrative rank,"
he asked "neither riches nor honors." To Washington he expressed the same
sentiments, and said he wished to serve simply as a volunteer.
He immediately began his journey inland for the south. A
Tory landlord, in the course of the journey, declared that he had neither bed
nor provisions for the party. Steuben leveled his pistol at the man's head and
demanded both. They were quickly furnished, and in the morning the baron
liberally rewarded his host in continental money.
Presenting himself to congress, he proposed to enter the
army as a volunteer, and, if his "services were not satisfactory or the colonies
failed to establish their independence, he was to receive nothing." If, on the
other hand, they were successful and he remained in the army, he expected "to be
refunded the income he had given up, and remunerated for his services."
This generous offer was accepted, and he departed for
Valley Forge, where the American army lay encamped. When the aide-de-camp of
Frederick the Great reached the wintry encampment and saw the half-starved
soldiers creep out of their huts, poorly armed and only half clad, he was
astounded and said "no European army could be kept together a week in such a
A less noble and less resolute nature would have
abandoned his enterprise at the outset. He began at once, and from that day our
whole military system assumed new shape. The awkwardness of the men, at times,
would throw him into terrible rage, but his kindness, care, and liberality
toward the suffering soldier made him beloved by all.
In May, 1778, congress, acting under the advice of
Washington, made him inspector-general of the army with the rank of
major-general, and he at once entered on his duties and appointed sub-inspectors
throughout the army. A thorough system of discipline and economy was
established, until the whole army became a single machine in his hands.
It is impossible to give in detail the great work he
accomplished. It was unseen by the country in general, for it was unattended
with outward display, but it can be safely said that no major-general in the
field did half so much toward our success as this great organizer and
The result of this discipline was seen in the next
campaign, in the battle of Monmouth, when he rallied the retreating and
disordered troop of General Charles Lee like veterans. He commanded here the
left wing, and Alexander Hamilton, who saw the steady action of the troops under
Baron Steuben, said he " had never known till that day the value of discipline."
In the trial of Lee that followed, the testimony of
Steuben offended the former, and he made some disparaging remarks in regard to
it. Steuben instantly challenged him, but Lee apologized, and nothing came of
Steuben now wished to take command in the field as
major-general, but the American officers manifested so much opposition to it, on
account of being outranked, that he withdrew his request and devoted himself to
his old monotonous work, much of which seemed to him more befitting a
drill-sergeant than a major-general.
In the autumn of 1780 he published a manual for the
army, furnished with diagrams to explain his rules. It was entitled "
Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States."
Each chapter was written first in poor German, then translated into poor French,
then put into good French, and lastly into good English, in which last condition
it was entirely unintelligible to Steuben. It nevertheless served its purpose,
became the law and guide of the army, and, even after the war, was adopted by
several of the states. In this year he was selected as one of the court-martial
to try Major John André.
After the defeat of General Horatio Gates at Camden he
was sent to Virginia to aid General Nathanael Greene, then operating in North
Carolina. Although he now had his desire--a separate command--it was of little
consequence to him, as his chief duty was to forward troops to Greene as fast as
he could raise them. The result was, when Arnold invaded Virginia he had only
150 men under him, and he was compelled to see the traitor ravage the country
before his eyes; but he did everything in his power to harass him.
Soon afterward Cornwallis was besieged in Yorktown, and
Steuben took his place as major-general in the line. He was in the trenches when
the proposition to surrender was received. Lafayette came to relieve him; but
this he refused, declaring that European etiquette required that the officer
that received the first overtures of surrender must, out of respect to his
command, keep his post till the terms of capitulation were agreed upon or
After the close of the war he was sent to Canada to
demand the surrender of the posts on the frontier, but, not succeeding, he
returned to headquarters. He now retired to private life and resided in New York
City, where he remained for several years.
Congress refused to fulfill its contract with him to pay
him for his services, but he was given grants of land in Virginia, Pennsylvania,
and New Jersey. The latter he declined to accept when he found it consisted of
the confiscated estates of an old Tory who would be left destitute, and, in the
kindness of his heart, interceded for him.
He was given also a whole township near Utica, New York,
and, after seven years' delay, congress at length allowed him a pension of
$2,400. He now retired to this land, and, clearing off sixty acres, built a
log-house, seen in the illustration, and settled down for life, though he
returned every winter to New York City.
On 22 November, 1795, as he was making preparations for
this annual visit, he was struck with paralysis, and three days afterward he
died. As he had requested, he was buried near his house, with his military cloak
around him and the star of honor that he always wore on his breast. Only about
thirty farmers attended his funeral.
Colonel North, his favorite aide, to whom he left all
his property, erected a Simple monument over his grave, to which many visitors
annually resort. Numerous anecdotes are told of him, illustrating the tenderness
and generosity of his nature. These traits were especially exhibited at the
breaking up of the army at Newburg.
His life has been written by Francis Bowen, in Sparks's
"American Biography," and by Friedrich Kapp (New York, 1860).
Edited Appletons Encyclopedia by John
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