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This Day in History: Baron von Steuben arrives at Valley Forge

On this day in 1778, Baron von Steuben arrives at Valley Forge. His task? To better train and organize the soldiers in the American army.

In some ways, it’s a bit odd that Steuben landed in Valley Forge—of all places. He was a former Prussian officer who’d been looking for work with the British, French or Austrian armies. He’d been unsuccessful, and he found himself meeting with Silas Deane and Benjamin Franklin, the American ambassadors to France. He was told that he could go to America as a volunteer, but he’d have to earn his own pay and rank.

Steuben apparently did not take that too well! He left the meeting in disgust. But lacking other alternatives, he eventually returned and volunteered his services.

And we are all very happy that he did.

Baron von Steuben at Valley Forge, by Augustus G. Heaton

It took several months, but Steuben eventually made it to America and was able to meet with the Continental Congress. He’d brought a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin. That letter described him as having a “a true Zeal for our Cause, and a View of engaging in it and rendring it all the Service in his Power.” Congress sent Steuben to meet with General George Washington, then in winter camp at Valley Forge. He arrived there on February 23.

Steuben later described the army that he found encamped at Valley Forge. “No European army,” he said, “could have held together in such circumstances.”

Washington liked Steuben, and the Prussian got to work. He wrote drills for the army—in French, because he didn’t speak English. His secretary then translated them. The army, to that point, had not been trained in any kind of organized way. To the degree they were trained, they had often been trained differently in different states. Some organization was badly needed. Fighting in those days was harder than you might think, partly because the weapons took so much time load and fire. Without coordination, the army had trouble being effective.

One author and retired Army officer, Michael Schellhammer, describes the complications accompanying just one of the maneuvers that a soldier might have to accomplish:

“Once the soldiers were in line of battle it took fifteen separate actions to prime and load a flintlock musket and two more to fire it on command. All of this was very difficult to master on the drill field. Imagine how it was to pull all of that off amid the smoke, noise, and confusion of battle; when enemy musket balls whizzed through the air and tended to break a man’s concentration. Thorough drill was the means that gave the soldiers the ability to perform these maneuvers the same way, without thinking, every time, especially under fire.”

Steuben’s efforts paid off. When the Army left Valley Forge, it was far more organized and professional than it had been. Maybe even better, Steuben created a drill manual, which was later approved by the Continental Congress. This “Blue Book” became the first manual for the United States Army and remained in use until 1812! In short, Steuben not only improved the army then existing at Valley Forge. He created a system whereby the army was better for the rest of the Revolution—and beyond.

We often hear about the sufferings at Valley Forge—and there were many. But there were benefits, too. The time that the army spent with Steuben was one of them.

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