On This Day – February 23, 1778 – Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben of the Prussian Army Arrives at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania to Train the Continental Army

Monday, February 23, 1778 at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania

 

Baron von Steuben

Two hundred and forty-one 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.

Prussian King Frederick the Great
 

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.

Von Steuben Memorial on the north side of the Royal Stables in Potsdam’s Neuer Markt

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):

“The Baron was of the ancient fabled God of War…he seemed to me a perfect personification of Mars. The trappings of his horse, the enormous holsters of his pistols, his large size, and his strikingly martial aspect, all seemed to favor the idea. He turned the volunteers into a great army.”
He would soon serve as Inspector General and Major General of the Continental Army and is credited with being one of the fathers of the Continental Army in teaching them the essentials of military drills, tactics, and disciplines. Eventually, he would serve as Washington’s chief of staff in the final years of the war.

 

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.

German-American Steuben Parade in NYC
And on the third Saturday in September, the annual German-American Steuben Parade is held in New York City to honor von Steuben as one of the most influential German-Americans who profoundly contributed to America’s fight for independence, as well as for his training the thousands of young American soldiers who fought to achieve victory in the American Revolutionary War.