Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus von Steuben was born to a military family in the Prussian garrison town of Magdeburg in 1730. King Friedrich Wilhelm II was one of his godfathers, which indicated that the family stood high in royal favor at that time (Lockhart 2). Steuben's military credentials were genuine, since his father was an officer in the Prussian Army as were three of his uncles, and he served as an enlisted man then an officer for seventeen years. No one else on the American side had remotely the same amount of professional military experience, nor would any other officer have been as capable of carrying out the necessary training and organization of the new Continental Army from 1777. Although baptized a Calvinist, as an adult Steuben showed no interest in organized religion and was an admirer of French philosophes and skeptics like Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot. Prussia in this era was "an army with a country" with 80% of its budget spent on the military, but the population was small and two-thirds of the army consisted of foreign volunteers (Lockhart 4). As a child, he lived with his parents in Russia where his father was a military advisor and five of his siblings died at a very young age. His father fought in all of Prussia's military campaigns as well, such as the War of Austrian Succession, and received the highest decoration in the German Army, the Pour le Merit or Blue Max (Lockhart 5).
By training and family background, then, Steuben was always destined to be a soldier, and by his own admission he was never successful at any other business or profession. He did not start out in the Prussian Army as an officer, but like all Junkers served six years as an enlisted man and ensign before being commissioned a lieutenant. This training system was unique in Europe at the time, but became part of the engrained tradition of Prussian -- and later German -- officers that their duty to the enlisted men was absolute and that they were responsible for their training and well-being at all times. Even the kings of Prussia trained and drilled with their troops personally, all of which gave the country the reputation of being a "latter-day Sparta" (Lockhart 7). In his spare time, Steuben also studied French since this was the language of the court of Frederick the Great, as well as the common idiom for all cultured and educated people in Europe. In contrast, his English was still broken and difficult to understand when he arrived in America in 1777.
Despite his later boasts, Steuben never had any money, property of landed estates in Germany and his entire life was in an army where officer's pay was low. He had risen to the rank of captain by the time he was dismissed in 1763 and had also been wounded twice in the Seven Years War. Something went very wrong with Steuben's military career at this time, which he blamed on the jealousy and anger of a personal enemy, but he was generally reluctant to discuss the subject at all (Lockhart 11). Certainly rumors about sexual misconduct or possible homosexuality have always existed, although Lockhart does not mention these specifically because no evidence exists to prove or disprove the allegation. All that is known is that his career ended very suddenly and dramatically, almost overnight. At one moment, he was promoted to major and scheduled to attend a military staff college, then suddenly he was demoted back to captain, sent to an obscure posting and fired soon afterwards (Lockhart 21). At age thirty-three, Steuben had no job, no money and no prospects, and ended up as a court chamberlain in a small German principality. "I am a good soldier, a poor courtier and a miserable lawyer," he said of himself in 1764 (Lockhart 23). Over the next fourteen years, he sought a military commission with Britain, France and Austria, but none ever materialized. Contrary to what his enemies claimed, though, his title of baron (Freiherr) was genuine, having been awarded as an honorary recognition for his services as chamberlain. It was not a hereditary title, and carried no land or wealth with it, and he preferred to use the French form of Baron de Steuben rather than the German "von."
In France during 1776-77, he learned about the American Revolution and the call of the Continental Congress for foreign officers to aid the cause. For whatever reason, Steuben's military career in Europe was at a dead end and never revived, even after the war in America was over, so he chose the one country that offered him at least some prospect of employment in the only profession that he ever really knew. Congress did not give him the rank of general that he sought, although George Washington employed him unofficially as a trainer and adviser for the army at Valley Force. At that time, the American cause was at a low point, and the army had lost control of New York and Philadelphia and its ranks were badly thinned by desertion and disease. Washington wanted his troops trained in some "universal system" and Steuben's task was to devise one. As he drilled the American troops, who were all "hardened veterans of Washington's previous campaigns," Steuben became famous for his tirades of profanity in German, French and broken English, which made him legendary in the American Army (Lockhart 96). He taught these men the basics of how to "march, wheel, and charge front with a precision and speed not yet seen in Continental troops" (Lockhart 103).
Despite his aristocratic background, Steuben was sympathetic to democracy in the political sense, and also observed that Americans were not at all like the European peasant soldiers he had once commanded. They did not automatically respect and obey officers simply because they had ranks and titles, nor were they automatically deferential to authority. Just the opposite, Steuben soon realized that he had to explain why they were being trained in a certain way, and only then would they do it (Lockhart 104). This led him to create his own training manual designed especially for the American Army which was later known as the Blue Book. His philosophy was that they should be trained only in the most practical areas that were absolutely essential and necessary, particularly marching and maneuvering in large groups. When Steuben had trained squads and companies in the basics, he then ordered then to train the rest of the army, and overall Americans came to appreciate his practical and commonsense approach (Lockhart 109).
Steuben served until the end of the Revolutionary War, usually devoting his talents to training, organization and supply. These were all vital to the ultimate success of the army even though they brought no credit for great victories on the battlefield. Washington sent him south in 1780 as second-in-command to Gen. Nathaniel Greene, who kept him in Virginia to organize logistics and replacements for the army. Steuben was correct when he predicted to Gov. Thomas Jefferson that the British would attempt a raid on the capital at Richmond, which they did under the command of the traitor Benedict Arnold, and no forces existed to oppose this attack. Soon afterwards, though, Steuben took matters in hand and prevented any future attempts.
As a reward for his services after the war, Steuben received land grants from several state governments and a pension of $2,500 a year from Congress, and ended up settling on a farm in New Jersey. He formulated a plan for the new military forces of the United States, which he insisted should not be based on the standing armies of Prussia, Austria and France, but rather a small professional nucleus supplemented by reserves and militia. Given…