Monday, February 23, 1778 at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania
Two hundred and forty-two years ago today, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, better known as Baron von Steuben, arrived at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania to help train Commander George Washington’s Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War.
Born just 90 miles southwest of Berlin, he joined the Prussian Army when he was 17 years old and served as second lieutenant during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). After earning the rank of captain in 1761, he would then serve as a secretary of the General Staff to Prussian King Frederick the Great. This experience would arm him with a wealth of knowledge and even give him the opportunity to take part in special courses of military instruction that were delivered by Frederick the Great himself.
In 1777 von Steuben met Benjamin Franklin during a visit to Paris. Franklin certainly realized the potential of having an officer with Prussian general staff training in the Continental Army, but he wasn’t in a position to offer von Steuben a position or salary at that time. It wouldn’t be until later that year that von Steuben was introduced to Commander in Chief George Washington by means of a letter from Franklin as “Lieutenant General in the King of Prussia’s Service,” an exaggeration of his actual credentials that most likely was a mistranslation of his service record. In any event, he was advanced travel funds and left Europe from Marseilles, arriving in New Hampshire in December 1777.
On this day – Monday, February 23, 1778 – he reported to the Continental Army’s famous encampment, Valley Forge, and reported for duty as a volunteer. According to a soldier’s impression of von Steuben (on display at the Valley Forge National Park in Pennsylvania today):
In 1911 the United States Congress presented the city of Potsdam with a memorial statue of von Steuben. Unfortunately, this was melted down after WWII, but it was replaced in the mid 1990s with a replica that now stands near the site of the original one in the heart of Potsdam’s Neuer Markt.