The Best Kept Secret of George’s Army

No history of the American Revolutionary War would be complete without documenting the valuable contribution made by the two European generals who assisted Washington.

Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette brought with him from France many things that proved to be invaluable to the new nation not only in their military struggle against the British, but in their search for a philosophy that would serve to guide their democratic direction.

baron von steuben

Baron von Steuben portrait by Ralph Earl

The second military man from Europe was Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, a Prussian-born military officer who served as inspector general and Major General of the Continental Army. He also served as Washington’s Chief of Staff. Both of these men made valuable contributions with their knowledge and experience gained in the European wars.

The army at Valley Forge was in shambles. There was inadequate training. discipline or structure. These soldiers were farmers and shop keepers. Steuben developed the first ever military manual. He developed a more satisfactory camp layout based on European standards. He took a rag tag group of men and turned them into a fighting force that could successfully do battle with the British. After the war, he spent the rest of his life in America continuing to make valuable contributions to what ever he turned his hand.

Lafayette served as a major-general under Washington, wounded in battle but continued to provide Washington with the results of his military skills. He was one of the generals responsible for the final defeat of the British at Yorktown. After the war, he would journey back and forth between America and France serving in a diplomatic capacity.

Although Lafayette had an impeccable background, on the other hand Friedrich Wilhelm von Stuben had a shady past. After the wars in Europe were winding down, he began casting about for a job. Steuben traveled unsuccessfully in Europe presenting himself as a capable military leader. Not only was it rumored that he was a homosexual, but was accused of sexual relations with young boys.

He was now very much in debt and to improve his resume, began to use the title “baron” perhaps based on a falsified lineage prepared by his father. In 1777, while in Paris, he met Benjamin Franklin who both encouraged him to consider America and actually helped him get there. On September 26, 1777, along with his Italian greyhound, a young aide de camp Louis de Pontiere, his military secretary Pierre Etienne Duponceau and two other companion reached Portsmouth, New Hampshire and shortly there after, found his way to Boston. Was this group seen by the sophisticated upper classes as a gaggle of gays, or was this presentation passed with no notice believing that the aristocracy had a very different set of rules?

He soon volunteered his services with no pay to General Washington. He now had his foot in the door and his upward mobility was based on his military talents, experience and ability. As time passed, he continued to make himself more and more valuable to the cause.

In 1777, the general public was far less sophisticated on the subject of homosexual behavior than that which is known in the 21st century. What did Washington know and when did he know it? What about the troops? Was Steuben in the closet? What about his young friends?

My belief is that Washington perceived far more than the obvious. There is no question that the “baron” had measurable abilities and military skills. The more he was able to demonstrate his capabilities, the more Washington would have continued to accept him.

After the war was over, Steuben became an American citizen and settled on Manhattan Island. He became a prominent figure in the German Reform Church. He continued to have serious money problems, but Congress would bail him out time and again. Finally, congress gave him a pension of $2,500 a year for the rest of his life.

Each year in September, the German-American Steuben Parade is held in New York City, one of the largest held anywhere. Chicago also hosts a Steuben Day Parade.

In 1919, the Steuben Society was founded. In WW2, an American navy ship was named the USS General von Stueben and there is a life size statue erected of him at Valley Forge. Other statues can be found in Utica, New York, Washington and in Steuben’s home town of Magdeburg. If nothing else, those advocating gays in the military can use the baron as an example for their cause.

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Alfred Jones has a Ph.D in psychology, advance studies in law and education. He is an Egyptian scholar having taught in the UK, USA and China. He is a former consultant to the San Jose California Egyptian Museum. Author of 7 books and over 20 articles for professional journals.

Historic Mysteries