The Baron De Steuben and the Making of the American Army
by Paul Lockhart
352 pages, Harper Paperbacks
Review by Kate Kasserman
It made me a very happy little dork to see that Lockhart’s biography of von Steuben (or de Steuben, as he was generally known at the time, because the lingua franca was actually franca back then) had been brought out again in a paperback volume earlier this year. Of all the under-recognized figures from the American Revolutionary War (of which there are many, and I will further contend that even the well-recognized figures are often not too well understood), de Steuben is possibly the most inexplicably overlooked. He’s been a pet of mine for a while, and I’m always glad to see him getting some air time.
De Steuben was thoroughly a product of Prussia’s phenomenal war machine. Born into the lowest, grubbiest orders of the Prussian military aristocracy, he spent his entire life, starting in childhood, soaked in army discipline and war and fighting (of which Frederick the Great supplied, heh, plenty). Because he was cheerful and extroverted and a bit of a blowhard, as well as militarily competent, he climbed his way up the political ladder and managed to become a captain on Frederick the Great’s staff. However, this was also probably his undoing in the old world – de Steuben was likable, not savvy, and about as subtle as an elephant playing the cymbals. He promptly got fired, ending his career. Lockhart makes a reasonable case that what knocked de Steuben fatally out of favor was the far more sophisticated maneuvering of a fellow officer who evidently was notorious for getting worrisomely talented peers axed.
Not having a career was more than a minor inconvenience. De Steuben had no money. If he couldn’t work as a soldier, he was all set to starve in the gutter. He thrashed around a bit trying to hire out his services to ANY other European potentate/warlord/whatever, but no dice. His luck just wasn’t on. He had to fall back on his likability, and he became basically a household manager/social secretary for many years; this burned him, but hey, everyone’s got to eat. And maybe he would’ve stuck with that path (loving the family but hating his situation) if his employer hadn’t gone bust. Oh la, de Steuben naturally hadn’t saved any cash (he never did; he was simply incapable of it, apparently), and so he was now well and truly screwed. Until he heard about an army that just might be hiring. And this is when he becomes our friend.
De Steuben arrived in Valley Forge early in 1778, to an army that was just about ready to go home in disgust (this happened to us routinely, and frequently, during the war). Our supply lines were grossly mishandled, so the army was starving where it sat. Our Congress was practicing the fine arts of feeling sorry for itself and sticking its thumbs up its own butt, so neither officers nor enlisted men even had any money to buy food or clothing on their own. It was just – depressing. Once again, the whole big idea was starting to look like a non-starter.
Until de Steuben came, and gave people something to do. He took a quick look at the disorganization of everything, the moping and puttering about, and did a major *facepalm*. This. Was. So. Not. Prussian. It wasn’t even an army, it was a mob! The only way the soldiers could march was SINGLE FILE, because they just couldn’t work out anything more complicated! He almost, almost just fainted like one of those old Star Trek Evil Computers that explodes from a Captain Kirk logic-bomb.
But then he set about fixing it instead. The main problem the army’s spirit had wasn’t spirit to fight – it was spirit to believe it could accomplish anything. So de Steuben trained them, starting with a hand-picked group of soldiers who learned Prussian drill and then passed on their knowledge to the rest of the army. He knew army discipline better than he knew his mother (probably considerably). And more than simply knowing what a functioning army looked like, he knew precisely, Germanically, how to break it down into an analytic, orderly, step-by-step process. He could explain specifically how to get from A to Z, not just wave vaguely at an ideal Z off in the distance.
He promptly encountered some difficulties unique to the situation. One, er, he didn’t really speak English. Two, Americans were not Prussians. We, generally speaking, had “issues” with “people telling us what to do,” which was perhaps to some extent unfortunate in a military setting, but it allowed de Steuben to develop and display his true genius as a teacher and trainer. He was a practical man who meant to succeed. And so he adapted.
At first it made him turn purple with rage when he’d give a perfectly reasonable instruction (translated by his staff), and the soldier in question would ask, “Why?” This wasn’t an aberration, either. Pretty much everyone did it. “Why do you want me to do that?” “SO YOU DON’T DIE ON AN ENEMY BAYONET YOU FLAMING IMBECILE!” wasn’t quite what the soldiers were looking for – or rather, it was half of what they wanted, because de Steuben discovered that two things made American soldiers learn right quick: one, explaining the “why” (it is faster; it keeps you synchronized with the rest of your line, and the whole line can present a formidable front that an individual cannot); two, cursing a blue streak and heaping amusing opprobrium upon their heads. Between his temper fits (which he learned to turn on and off for effect, quite consciously so) and the intelligence of his training, his troops not only learned from him, they learned to love him. (Subsequent generations of shrieking drillmasters calling their charges pustules have not necessarily been as successful in making themselves adored; but they do remain effective.)
The soldiers didn’t care so much that they were starving any more. You can do without food for a while. De Steuben gave them what they really needed: belief that they could be good enough. Even if they were pustules. It is not overstating matters to say that he saved our army from functionally disbanding in 1778. Before de Steuben, they were marking time until they could get the HELL out of Dodge without being hanged for it. After de Steuben – they wanted to stay. And so we held together, barely.
Lockhart’s biography does an excellent job of providing an overview of de Steuben’s life and shines particularly in dealing with some persistent points of confusion (whether or not he was gay, for example – Lockhart painstakingly traces the fine threads of these rumors, most of which end in nothing substantive, and also lays out the fog of circumstantial evidence, concluding properly with “who the hell knows”). Unlike some works based on careful scholarship, it is quite readable, but very much like many works based on careful scholarship, it is not necessarily colorful. I found myself wishing it had been a bit longer and gone into more detail in the Valley Forge months, or perhaps in the entertaining catfight between de Steuben and then-Governor Jefferson (de Steuben and Jeffy both being prime catfighters). But these are minor complaints in a book that offers a well-rounded examination of a life, and a service, that remain well worth our attention.