Authors: Paul Lockhart
The Baron de Steuben and the Making
of the American Army
To my dearest Jo Anna
I miss you more than I can say
If there is a war, I promise you, at the end of the second campaign, that your friend will either be in Hades, or at the head of a regiment.
N THE MAJESTIC
but stark interior of Magdeburg's Reformed Church, one-week-old Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben was christened on September 24, 1730. It was a simple ceremonyâeverything the Calvinists did in church was simple, stripped of pompâbut it was noteworthy for reasons other than its liturgical plainness. Two of the men surrounding the preacher at the carved stone baptismal font that stood before the nearly bare altar wore the uniform of the Royal Prussian Armyâhardly unusual, since Magdeburg was a garrison town, one of the largest in this part of the kingdom of Prussia. Yet these were distinguished soldiers with considerable social ties. The baby's given name reflected the exalted station and honorable life into which he had been born. He was named after his godfathers: Ludolf von LÃ¼deritz, royal forester in Magdeburg; Gerhard Cornelius von
Walrave, colonel of artillery, a Catholic of Dutch birth who would shortly become the highest-ranking engineer officer in the entire army; and Augustin von Steuben, the infant's paternal grandfather and patriarch of the Steuben clan, a prominent theologian.
These three men, and two noblewomen, stood close to young Friedrich's parents, who had been married only one year before, in this same church. The fourth godfather, however, was noticeable primarily by his absence. No one expected that this final sponsor would actually show up for something so mundane as a baptism. He didn't have to. Just the fact that he had agreed to list himself as a godfather, and to allow the boy to be named after him, spoke volumes about the ranking of the Steuben family.
That man was Friedrich Wilhelm I, king in Prussia, the living head of the Hohenzollern dynasty. Friedrich Wilhelmâwho loved his army more than he loved his own children, more than anything other than his serious and vengeful Godâwould not have agreed to stand in as godfather to just
. His doing so for this baby that day showed that the Steuben family was high in his favor, that Friedrich's father was on his way up in the world, and that baby Friedrich would not have an ordinary life. Should he survive into manhood, he would grow up to be a soldier, too, and great things would be expected of him. What no one present that day could have anticipated was that Friedrich von Steuben would win his fame not on the battlefields of central Europe, but in distant America.
, and is, frequently described as “German” or, more specifically, “Prussian.” He was both and neither, though he rarely was so specific in identifying his homeland. Steuben proudly acknowledged his service in the Prussian army, which began early in his life, but he always referred to his origins, his family, and his pretended landownership as “European.” This lack of affinity to a particular place might appear odd to modern minds, but it made perfect sense to Steuben. It reflected the political realities of eigh
teenth-century Germany and the peculiar circumstances of Steuben's life in Europe.
“Germany” per se did not exist before Otto von Bismarck created it with blood and iron in 1871, and in Steuben's time the word was a mere geographical expression, referring to the German-speaking lands of the old Holy Roman Empire. Before NapolÃ©on Bonaparte forced its dissolution at bayonet point in 1806, the Empire was a strange conglomeration of some three hundred quasi-independent “territorial states.” These states varied dramatically in size, power, and prestige, and were ruled by an equally wide variety of titled noblesâelectors, princes, dukes, counts, margraves, landgraves, and so forth. At their head stood the emperor, an elected sovereign, and invariably a member of the ancient Habsburg dynasty. The emperor wielded little real power over the Empire's constituent members; he was more akin to the president of a contentious federation. The individual German princes retained almost total authority over their respective subjects. They maintained their own armies, levied their own taxes, enforced their own laws, and minted their own coin. The princes obeyed the emperor when doing so suited their interests. By the time young Friedrich von Steuben reached adolescence, the princes of the Empire had polarized, coalescing around two rival power centers: to the south, Catholic Austria and the emperor's court at Vienna; to the north, the upstart Protestant kingdom of Prussia.
Prussia was the great political and military success story of eighteenth-century Europe. In the previous century, as the Electorate of Brandenburg, it had been politically influential but poor and sparsely populated, cursed with some of the worst farmland in all Germany. The Thirty Years' War of 1618 to 1648 had all but destroyed the impoverished territory, as marauding armies, economic distress, and plague laid waste to entire villages. In the second half of the seventeenth century, however, clever statecraft on the part of its rulersâthe Hohenzollern dynasty, the very same family that would produce the German emperor Wilhelm II, the infamous Kaiser of First World War notorietyâallowed Brandenburg not only to recover from the
devastation wrought by the Thirty Years' War but even to expand its territories and build up a respectable army.
In Steuben's day, the Hohenzollern ruled over a scattered but vast collection of territories, stretching eastward from the Rhine valley to East Prussia. Now it was known as Brandenburg-Prussia, or simply “Prussia.” Its rulers proudly bore the title of king, a distinction unique among all of the German princes. The second king and Steuben's godfather, Friedrich Wilhelm I (1713â40), single-handedly transformed Prussia into a major military power. Through scrimping and saving, Friedrich Wilhelm created a modern and very large armyâdisproportionately large, given the modest size of his subject population. Plain-living, coarse, and unimaginative, Friedrich Wilhelm shunned the refinements of fashionable French culture, but he made his beloved army the centerpiece of his regime. He attracted much international attention for his personal bodyguard, a regiment of “giant” grenadiers, each of whom exceeded six feet in height. Yet for all that, he was a peaceful ruler. His son and successor, Friedrich IIâbetter known to posterity as “Frederick the Great”âwould not show the same restraint.
Prussia's was a thoroughly militarized society, in which everything was geared toward the needs of the army. It was, in Mirabeau's biting words, an army with a country and not the other way around. Nearly 80 percent of the state budget was earmarked for the use of the army, which was the fourth largest in Europe, even though the kingdom ranked tenth in territorial size and thirteenth in population. All Prussian males, without exception, were registered for conscription at birth. Still, Prussian manpower was a precious national resource, so in order to spare the economy the loss of so much valuable labor, the Prussian kings relied heavily on foreign recruits to fill out the ranks of the army. Roughly two thirds of Prussian soldiers in the eighteenth century were foreigners.
It was on its officer corps that Prussia placed its heaviest demands. Officers were recruited almost exclusively from the lesser nobility, the Junker class. Military service was not required of the Junker, but it was
certainly expected. For a poorer nobleman, a career as an army officer was most honorable, as the Prussian kings cultivated an intimate bond between themselves and their officers, no matter how lowly in rank. Unlike in other European armies, all commissioned officers had direct access to the king, who in turn proudly displayed his solidarity with them by wearing the same plain blue uniforms they wore. The conditions of service were not pleasantâpromotion was slow and the pay inadequate, and officers faced the bleak prospect of a quick death in battle or an impoverished old ageâbut there was no greater honor than to be able to say that one had been even a mere lieutenant in the army of “Old Fritz,” as Frederick the Great came to be known. Military service, in short, was a way of life for the Prussian nobility, and Prussian officers held greater prestigeâat home and abroadâthan their counterparts in the Austrian, French, Russian, or British armies.
It was into this latter-day Sparta that Friedrich von Steuben was born on a Sunday evening, September 17, 1730. His lineage was distinguished but unremarkable, a typical Prussian military family of the Junker class. His grandfather, the theologian and Reformed preacher Augustin von Steuben, married Charlotte Dorothea von Effern, daughter of the Count of Effern and the Countess of Waldeck. Four of their sons pursued military careers. The youngest of these, Wilhelm August von Steuben, followed the conventional path to his Prussian officer's commission. After a brief education at the university town of Halle, sixteen-year-old Wilhelm August entered Prussian military service as an officer-cadet (
) in a cavalry regiment in 1715. His promotion through the ranks was slow but steady, typical for a man of his class. By the time of his marriage to a woman from a prominent Junker family, Maria Justina Dorothea von Jagow, in 1729, he had been promoted to lieutenant of engineers. Wilhelm August and Maria had been stationed at the bustling garrison town of Magdeburg only very briefly when their firstborn, Friedrich, came into the world.
Much about Friedrich von Steuben's youth is shrouded in mystery. He would write and say very little about his childhood, which was unstable and possibly unpleasant. One aspect of his origins, however,
is very clear, though historians have needlessly made it a point of controversy: his social status. Friedrich von Steuben was nobly born.
In eighteenth-century Europe, “noble” was hardly synonymous with “wealthy.” The Prussian Junker, who dominated the officer corps, were little better off than peasants. Nobility derived from bloodline, not from ownership of vast landed estates.
The controversy over Steuben's claim to noble status centers on his theologian grandfather, Augustin von Steuben. Until very recently, German historians believed that Augustin was the grandson of a humble miller named “Steube”; in order to seek preferment, Augustin falsely claimed descent from a defunct branch of the noble lineage, “von Steuben.” Research in Steuben genealogy, however, has uncovered a great deal of evidence indicating that Augustin was indeed nobly born. Moreover, as a favorite preacher of the king of Prussia, he was much too visible to have effected such a blatant deception. His marriage to a woman of unimpeachable aristocratic credentials could not have taken place if Augustin had not been noble. Four of Augustin's eight children got married, each into prominent Junker families; all eight of those children were sponsored at baptism by high-ranking German nobles.
Young Friedrich's mother and both of his maternal grandparents came from established Junker families; his paternal grandmother stemmed from an even more refined aristocratic line; the details of his paternal grandfather's lineage may be unclear, but they were
noble. Measured by any yardstick, Friedrich von Steuben was indeed a nobleman.
Yet Friedrich was no ordinary Junker. His baptismal tie to the king signalled that.
That bond with the king was a great boon to Friedrich's father, allowing him to rise to a captaincy at a relatively young age. But that
did not mean his life would be any easier. Quite the contrary: since Wilhelm August had talent, his services were very much in demand, but the minuscule size of the Prussian engineering arm meant that there were few opportunities for advancement beyond the rank of captain. He would be denied even the simple pleasure of raising his family in Magdeburg. In 1731, before Friedrich had celebrated his first birthday, the king sent Wilhelm August to Russia with a small group of handpicked officers to help the tsarina Anna rebuild her army. It was a great personal honor for Captain Steuben, who accompanied the Russian army on campaign against the Turks and earned a citation for bravery in the War of the Polish Succession (1733â38).
Life for line officers in the Prussian army was hard work, dull and unprofitable. It was doubly so for their families, and the Steuben family had it harder than most. They were not entirely isolated, for there were plenty of Germans near themâGerman-born officers made up a large proportion of Tsarina Anna's officer corps, and in fact German was the common language of command in the Russian army. But the Steubens were far, far away from their relations, some of whom they would never see again: both of Wilhelm August's parents would pass away while their son served in Russia. Nor did the Steubens have the luxury of settling down in one place for very long. Wilhelm August's duties took him from Cronstadt, to St. Petersburg, to the Livonian port of Riga. The family grew during these years, but the harsh climate claimed the lives of most of the new additions. Altogether, the Steubens buried five of their children in Russian soil.
The king recalled Wilhelm August to Prussia in 1739. It was a welcome change for the homesick officer and his dependents. It did not mean, however, that they could get back to the relative comfort of peacetime garrison life. In 1740, Friedrich Wilhelm I died, to be succeeded by his very different son, Friedrich II. Frederick the Great was refined and erudite, as cultured as his father was boorish, but he inherited his father's love for the military life. And he had an edge that his father lacked. The new king was eager to test the mettle of the army that his father had nurtured. Only six months after ascending to the
throne, Frederick launched his kingdom into the first of several acts of outright aggression that would earn him undying fame on the battlefield. In December 1740, his army invaded the Austrian province of Silesia, hoping to wrest the territory from the grip of the young and untried new Habsburg empress Maria Theresa.
The First Silesian War (1740â42), the opening salvo of the continent-wide War of the Austrian Succession (1740â48), first demonstrated to the world the power of Prussia's army, and made King Frederick's name a household word throughout Europe. It was also a momentous event for the Steuben family. Wilhelm August was awarded the coveted order
Pour le mÃ©rite
âthe “Blue Max”âfor his role in the siege of Neisse in 1741, and immediately after the conclusion of peace in 1742, he was promoted to the rank of major. In an army in which fifty-year-old lieutenants were commonplace, such a promotion at age forty-three was a rare honor. And since the Prussian engineer corps was so small, this rank placed Wilhelm August near the very top of the chain of command. The elder Steuben had paid his dues and been suitably rewarded. Decent income was the most obvious perquisite, but there were others. The Steuben family could count on a moderately sedentary lifestyle, and if any of their sons chose to follow in his father's footsteps, the path to high rank would be all the easier.