1730 - 1794

"In Europe, you say to your soldier, 'Do this' and he does it. But I am obliged to say to the American, 'This is why you ought to do this' and then he does it."

 - Baron Friederich Wilhelm von Steuben in his personal diary

In 1777 the rebellion in England's colonies - destined to become the American Revolution - 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 Wilhelm von Steuben. von Steuben was a particularly valuable aide to the greatest military genius of his era, King Frederick II of Prussia. Because the King was Europe’s most notorious gay ruler at the time, his ready acceptance into the King’s all-male court was the first historical suggestion that von Steuben was, himself, gay. Though it is unknown whether Franklin knew of von Steuben’s gay identity, 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 von Steuben declined Franklin’s entreaties.  But when it became clear the Prussian clergy intended to prosecute him for gay activities, the pending scandal proved a convincing argument for him to accept Franklin’s offer. Since the reason for von 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 von Steuben. Since the Continental Congress was unable to pay for even von Steuben’s travel expenses, let alone a salary for his services, the French government secretly agreed that it would compensate him. Von 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 von 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, von Steuben set about writing a drill book. To assist, Washington ordered 100 top soldiers selected from the infantry to form a model training brigade. The uniform drills of the fledgling "Continental Army" began on the morning of March 19, 1778. von 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 help them win battles. Three days after the first drills were performed, a duly-impressed Washington ordered von Steuben’s training be extended to his entire command. Five weeks after the first drill, Washington appointed von 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. von Steuben’s impact on the Revolutionary cause was incalculable. Indeed, some historians have counted von Steuben, along with General Washington himself, as the only two men whose services were “indispensible” to the success of the Revolution.

Lesson Plan


Gender Male

Sexual Orientation Gay

Gender Identity Cisgender

Ethnicity Caucasian/White

Faith Construct Protestant

Nations Affiliated Germany United States Afghanistan Afghanistan

Era/Epoch Enlightenment (1685-1815) Revolutionary War (1775-1783)

Field(s) of Contribution


Social Sciences

US History

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)


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Original Biography Author
Victor Salvo
Biography Edited By
Owen Keehnen
Resources Coordination
Carrie Maxwell