1730 - 1794
The United States might never have become a nation were it not for the services of one particular gay general in the first difficult years of the American Revolution. In 1777, the rebellion was going badly. Thirteen disparate and mutually suspicious colonies were not yet one unified and disciplined force. The army desperately needed training and, in Paris, Benjamin Franklin found the one man he believed could save them: Baron Friedrich von Steuben.
Steuben was a particularly valuable aide to the greatest military genius of his era, King Frederick II of Prussia. Steuben’s acceptance in Frederick’s all-male court was the first historical suggestion of his homosexuality as Frederick was Europe’s most notorious gay ruler at the time.
Though it is unknown whether Benjamin Franklin knew of Steuben’s homosexuality, he was convinced that the Prussian penchant for order and discipline was precisely what the American forces needed to prevail in their uphill fight against the well-trained British army.
At first Steuben declined Franklin’s entreaties. But when it became clear the Prussian clergy intended to prosecute him for homosexual activities the pending scandal proved a convincing argument for him to accept Franklin’s offer. Since the reason for Steuben’s self-imposed exile did not become widely known until after the Revolutionary War, it is unlikely the Americans were aware of it when Franklin concluded his negotiations with Steuben. Since the Continental Congress was unable to pay for even Steuben’s travel expenses, let alone a salary for his services, the French government secretly agreed that it would compensate him.
Steuben arrived in America in the company of a handsome 17-year-old French nobleman who served as his secretary and translator. Unfortunately his teenage protégé quickly proved so ignorant of military ways that he was an inept interpreter. General George Washington intervened by assigning two French-speaking colonels from his own staff – the 20-year-old Alexander Hamilton and the 24-year-old John Laurens – to assist Steuben. The assignment proved prescient in that Hamilton and Laurens have been surmised by historians to have been lovers.
After his initial review of the troops presented to him, Steuben set about writing a drill book and Washington ordered 100 top soldiers selected from the infantry to form a model training brigade. The uniform drills of the Continental Army began on the morning of March 19, 1778. Steuben led them himself – a fact that greatly impressed the enlisted men who saw him not as an effete European adventurer, but as a military man who was going to win battles.
Three days after the first drills were performed a duly-impressed George Washington ordered Steuben’s training be extended to his entire command. Five weeks after the first drill Washington appointed Steuben the first Inspector General of the Army. A year later Congress enacted his “Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States.” In 1780 he received his coveted field appointment as a division commander in the war’s final siege at Yorktown.
Steuben’s impact on the Revolutionary cause was incalculable. Indeed, some historians have counted Steuben, along with General Washington himself, as the only two men whose services were “indispensible” to the success of the Revolution. He retired to upstate New York after the Revolution, living off a pension granted to him by a grateful nation for his services during the war. He died in 1794 at the age of 62. Near his grave is a plaque with the inscription “Indispensible to the Cause of American Independence.” In spite of this, the acceptance of General Steuben and his contributions to the fledgling American military did not mean there was even tacit acceptance of homosexuality. In fact on March 11, 1778, just sixteen days after Steuben arrived at Valley Forge; Lt. Gotthold Enslin became the first known soldier to be dismissed from the U.S. military for being homosexual.
Sexual Orientation Gay
Gender Identity Cisgender
Faith Construct Protestant
Nations Affiliated Germany United States
Era/Epoch Enlightenment (1685-1815) Revolutionary War (1775-1783)
Field(s) of Contribution
Commemorations & Honors
Duchess of Wurttemberg, niece of Frederick the Great, presented him with the "Cross of the Order of De la Fidelite (1769)
Statue Dedicated in Lafayette Square Across From the White House (1910)
Captured German Ship SS Kronprinz Wilhelm During World War I Renamed USS Von Steuben (1917)
President of the German Society of the City of New York (1785-1794)
Steuben Society Founded (1919)
German Luxury Passenger Ship Dampfschiff Renamed General von Steuben (1930)
Annual Von Steuben Day in September (1957)
US Navy Submarine USS Von Steuben Commissioned (1963)
Steuben Memorial State Historic Site Listed on the National Register of Historic Places (2009)