by Donald N. Moran
Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the March 1988 Edition of the Valley Compatriot Newsletter
By General Order on March 11th, 1776, General Washington created his personal guard. It was known by several names: The Life Guards; His Excellency’s Guard; General Washington’s Guard; and its official designation, The Commander-in-Chief Guard.
By all accounts, the Guard was typical of any other detachment of the Continental Army at the time. It was unruly, ill trained, and plagued with disciplinary problems. Several court martials can be found in the records, including one in August 1776, wherein Sergeant Peter Richards was convicted of abusing and striking Captain Caleb Gibbs. He received 39 lashes and was returned to his previous unit. Another Sergeant was Clements, who was found guilty of dereliction of duty and reduced in rank and returned to his original regiment. And, of course, the now famous incident involving an attempted assassination of General Washington by Guardsman, Sergeant Thomas Hickey. On June 28th, 1776 he was hanged in New York City. He was the first soldier of the Continental Army to meet such a fate.
By any military standard, the Guards of 1776, would have been considered a motley crew. What happened to turn them into the elite of the Army? The answer, at least in part, is Major General, the Baron Von Steuben!
Von Steuben’s offer of service to Congress reads as follows:
December 6, 1777
The honor of serving a respectable Nation, engaged in the noble enterprise of defending its rights and Liberty, is the only motive that brought me over to the continent. I ask neither riches nor titles. I am come here from the remotest end of Germany at my own expense, and have given up an honorable and lucrative rank; I have made no condition with your Deputies in France, nor shall I make any with you. My only ambition is to serve you as a Volunteer, to deserve the confidence of your General in Chief, and to follow him in all his operations, as I have done during seven campaigns with the King of Prussia. Two and a twenty years past at such a school seem to give me a right of thinking myself in the number of experienced Officers; and if I am Possessor of some talents in the Art of War, they should be much dearer to me, if I could employ them in the service of a Republic, such as I hope soon to see America. I should willingly purchase at my whole Blood’s Experience the honor of seeing one Day my Name after those of the defenders of your Liberty. Your gracious acceptance will be sufficient for me, and I ask no other favor than to be received among your Officers, I dare hope you will agree to my Request, that you will be so good as to send me your Order to Boston, where I shall expect them and accordingly take convenient Measures.
I have the honor to be,
with respect, honorable Gentlemen,
your most obedient and very
humble servant Steuben
Congress replied on January 14th, 1778. "Whereas the Baron Steuben, a lieutenant general in foreign service has in a most distinguished and heroic manner, offered his services to these States in the quality of a volunteer. Resolved, that the President present the thanks of congress in behalf of these United States, to the Baron Steuben, for the zeal he has shown for the cause of America, and the disinterested tender he has been pleased to make of his military talents; and inform him, that congress cheerfully accepts his service as a volunteer in the army of these states, and wish him to repair to General Washington’s quarters as soon as convenient…"
On February 23rd, 1778, the tattered Continentals at Valley forge were treated to the wintry specter of a stocky fur robed Prussian Baron seated in a sleigh, petting his Italian greyhound named Azor, while dragging a splendid entourage of servants, French aides and a military secretary in his wake. Typically, the Baron had staged his grand entrance with borrowed sums.
General Washington was painfully aware of the shortcomings of his makeshift army, but his recent prescription for an Inspector-Generalship had been rendered impalpable by political and military intrigues. Impressed by the Baron’s military credentials but sensitive to the jealousies of his staff officers, General Washington assigned his distinguished volunteer to the post of acting Inspector-General.
It is written that Von Steuben was supposedly appalled and discouraged by the sight of naked American soldiers carrying rusty muskets. He shuddered at the pervasive indifference to correct military conduct and simple sanitary precautions. Yet, the Prussian army had spent the frigid winter of 1759 under similar circumstances. His arrival on the scene was truly a godsend: for it was then widely believed that the American army lacked the order and subordination necessary to counter the superior discipline of the British lt. General Howe’s army. The victory at Saratoga, however, had brought an alliance with France, concluded February 6th, 1778. On March 17th, 1778, General Von Steuben set out to reform the army by personally training 100 soldiers as a model company. It is not recorded how the selection of this model company was determined, or by whom, but it was the Commander-in-Chief Guard that was selected. It is without a historical doubt that this selection put the Guard on an elite footing.
Von Steuben habitually began instructions before dawn, drilling his select troops twice daily. The sight of an officer of rank and title performing the routine of a drill-sergeant was curiously regarded by his shabby audience and his antics soon became the best entertainment in the encampment. Unable to speak English, Steuben wielded a musket and pantomimed the Manual of Arms. He soon memorized basic commands in English and barked them phonetically to his trainees. Such awkward methods and the clumsy response of his pupils produced such frustration that Steuben invented legendary curses in a curious hybrid of languages. Von Steuben’s progress in establishing a uniform system of maneuvers and discipline proved nothing short of miraculous. Once trained, members of the Guard in turn schooled other troops in basic military procedures. In a sense, they became graduates of the first American military academy. In a few short weeks, his drills were being practiced by large units of the army. In testimony to his accomplishments, George Washington recommended Baron Steuben as Inspector-General with the rank of Major General on April 30th. He accordingly received his commission on May 5th, 1778.
Baron Von Steuben established the company (actually a battalion) as the tactical unity. Battalions collected to form a 1,000 man brigade; two brigades made a division. He also inaugurated a system of administration, establishing a Department of Inspection with two ranks of inspectors: brigade inspectors chosen by field-officers from their own ranks; and, above them, five sub-inspectors with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel to superintend the exercise and discipline of the troops and to assist in the execution of field maneuvers, especially in battle. Steuben insisted upon monthly inspections of all supplies and ammunition. His inspectors noted the number and condition of the men and the state of their arms and accoutrements, reporting any loss or damage in standardized returns. Thus Steuben instituted such routine paperwork as was necessary to pinpoint accountability for both men and materials. William North recalled one occasion when Baron Von Steuben, setting the example for his inspectors, spent seven hours with one brigade, composed of three regiments, investigating the excuses for every absentee, examining with close attention the contents of every cartridge box and knapsack, and the condition of every musket. According to an inspection return of the army submitted to the War Department, so thoroughly had Steuben’s reforms corrected waste of military supplies that only three muskets were missing. Congress later noted that his reforms in the department of inspector general, have been the principal cause of introducing and perfecting discipline in our army, and of establishing such a system of economy as produced an extraordinary reduction of expenses. In training and organizing the Continental troops, Baron Von Steuben tailored European military standards to fit his ill-clothed civilian troopers. John Laurens, a son of the President of Congress then serving on Washington’s staff, recognized Steuben’s genius as a man profound in the science of war who was willing and able to adapt established forms to stubborn circumstances. General Von Steuben enhanced the potency of American firepower by simplifying the standard procedure for loading, aiming, and shooting musketry. Furthermore, the army was taught to march and maneuver punctually in orderly masses rather than in cumbersome single file lines. This promoted the rapid deployment of troops in battle and the development of more effective and reflexive strategies. Since eighteenth century warfare was conducted much like a panoramic human chess-game, these organizational skills were indispensable in gaining the advantage over an opponent.
In the short space of time, March thru June 1778, Von Steuben transformed the American Army, using the Guard to train and retrain the Army. This training by the Guard greatly enhanced its reputation, establishing the Guard as the Premier Detachment of the Continental Army.
When the British army evacuated Philadelphia and retreated across New Jersey toward New York, the now famous confrontation with the British at Monmouth Courthouse, Von Steuben rallied the broken left flank of the American army, reformed it while under a cannonade and then marched it calmly back into combat. Colonel Alexander Hamilton spoke for many in the army when he said he had never known nor conceived the value of military discipline until that day. In that decisive battle, the last major engagement of the Revolution in the North, the Von Steuben trained Americans stood toe-to-toe, musket-to-musket, bayonet-to-bayonet with the British Regulars and beat them back. The British retreated to New York City, closely followed by our main Army. While most of the American Generals were occupied by the court-martial trial of Major General Charles Lee, General Washington temporarily appointed Von Steuben to command one wing of the army on its way to the Hudson River.
Recognizing jealousies from native officers, General Washington declined to support Baron Steuben’s request for transfer to the line, but upheld his supremacy as Inspector-General to the Continental Army against rivals. By the end of the war, Von Steuben’s reputation overcame any petty grievances and he commanded one of the Divisions at Yorktown.
One of the lasting achievements of Von Steuben was the "Manual of Military Regulations" he wrote (best known as the "Blue Book"), which soon became the "bible"of the United States Army. Steuben wrote this work in French and had it translated into English by his secretary, Pierre Etienne Duponceau, with the assistance of his aide-de-camp, Captain Benjamin Walker. Alexander Hamilton edited the text while Captain Pierre Charles L’Enfant (who later achieved fame as architect of the National Capital) provided illustrations. These Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States were endorsed by Congress on March 29th, 1779 and were soon adopted as a training guide by most state militias.
The debt we owe to Major General Von Steuben cannot be overstated. He turned a rabble in arms into an invincible army. In doing so, he also created the "best of the best" – the Commander in Chief Guard, which we have the honor to commemorate with our Sons of Liberty Chapter Color Guard. We have a tremendous legacy to live up to, and one that if done correctly will make us the "best of the best."
“The Commander-in-Chief’s Guard” by: Carlos F. Godfrey, Ph.D.
Originally published: 1904 - publisher: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1972 (DNM Lib.)
“The Encyclopedia of the American Revolution” by: Col. Mark M. Boatner, III (USA).
“Life Guard of Washington” Publisher: David McKay Company - 1974 (DNM Lib.)
“Frederick William Von Steuben and the American Revolution ” by: Joseph B. Doyle
Publisher: American Heritage, June 1955.
“Drill Master at Valley Forge ” by: Alfred H. Dill.
Originally published: 1904 - publisher: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1972 (DNM Lib.)
“The Writings of George Washington from Original Manuscript Sources” -39 vol. John C. Fitzpatrick, Editor - Publisher: United States Government Printing Office. (DNM Lib.)
“TheContinental Army” by: Robert K. Wright, Ph.D.
Publisher: Center of Military History - United States Army - 1983 (DNM Lib.)
“To Major Gibbs With Much Esteem” by: Howard H. Wehmann
ublisher: “Prologue Magazine” - National Archives, Volume 4 (1972)
“George Washington, a Biography” by: Douglas Southall Freeman - 7 Volumes
Publisher: Scribners, New York - 1948 (DNM Lib.)
“The Field Book of the American Revolution” by: Benson J. Lossing -2 volumes
Publisher: Harper, New York -1951 (DNM Lib.)
“Pension Records” - Held at the National Archives, Washington, D.C.