On February 23, 1778 Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, a former Lieutenant General in the Prussian Army, arrived at General George Washington’s camp in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Von Steuben was neither a nobleman nor a Lieutenant General, former or otherwise. Even his title as Baron was more honorary than having any actual reward of lands or aristocracy. Yet, this man did perhaps more than anyone else in the Continental Army to ensure that army’s victory over the British.
It seems that his grandfather, despite being the son of a tenant farmer, decided to add the noble sounding Von to his surname name long before Friedrich had been born and it stayed with the family. This nomen grab eventually allowed Friedrich to become an officer in what was Europe’s most advanced military at the time, while the rank of Lieutenant General had been a misunderstanding on Benjamin Franklin’s part when he recruited von Steuben to the American cause in France; he had actually only held the rank of Captain in the Prussian army and as a general’s aide, held the title of Lieutenant to the General. Von Steuben had been honorably discharged from the Prussian Army after fighting for the king, Friedrich the Great, when the army was demobilized following the conclusion of the 7 Years War. Out of a job, constantly in debt, and hounded by accusations of homosexuality, Von Steuben did what many have done throughout our history, he came to America in order to carve out a new life for himself using his knowledge and experience. It was that knowledge and experience as a “…possessor of some talents in the art of war…”, and not his titles, that impressed George Washington so much when he met Von Steuben at Valley Forge.
The army that marched into Valley Forge in the winter of 1777 was an ill equipped, undisciplined, ragtag rabble with rusty muskets; most soldiers didn’t even have shoes, much less blankets and coats, and they supposedly left a trail of bloody footprints in the snow as they made their way into the camp. Over the course of the winter nearly 2,500 men died of disease, malnutrition, and exposure. Von Steuben, as Washington’s newly appointed Inspector General, set out to change all of that.
Despite his inflated titles, Von Steuben did ‘possess some talents in the art of war’. He had risen from the rank of Lance Corporal to Captain and had been an aide to multiple generals in the Prussian army, he had been wounded in battle twice, had served as quartermaster for his regiment and he had been selected, with about a dozen other men, to be taught military science directly from King Friedrich the Great himself, who was at the time considered to be the greatest military genius of his day. Von Steuben’s first action was to establish basic hygiene and organization in the camp. Where once latrines were next to the kitchens and soldiers erected their tents wherever they found an open spot, Von Steuben put the kitchens and bathrooms on opposite sides of the camp and arranged the living quarters into something that we might recognize as an organized military encampment with soldier’s tents organized evenly by company and regiment with avenues and parade grounds. Unsurprisingly, after moving the latrines away from the kitchens the outbreaks of dysentery and typhoid stopped and with a bit of organization among the living areas the men had a sense of structure in their lives.
Von Steuben then set about resupplying the army and watching over the condition of the supplies. He established a monthly inspection of supplies and ammunition, audited incoming shipments and established a method of accountability of both the men and their supplies. The War Department noted that “…so thoroughly had Steuben’s reforms corrected waste and misapplication of military supplies that ‘only three muskets were deficient and those had been accounted for’” and the Continental Congress stated that his reforms as Inspector General had, “…been the principle cause of introducing and perfecting discipline in our army, and of establishing such a system of economy as produced an extraordinary reduction of expense.” But Steuben wasn’t done yet.
After getting the situation in camp under control, Von Steuben set about doing what he would ultimately become most remembered for when he undertook the endeavor of taking what was essentially a conglomerate of local militias and turning them into an army. Until Von Steuben’s arrival at Valley Forge, Washington’s army had been trained by its officers in whatever European style of drill instruction each particular officer was familiar with. Von Steuben set about establishing a standard procedure on how the men were to march in formation and use their muskets. To begin his training regimen, Von Steuben selected 100 men and trained them in these methods twice a day, those men then went out into the camp and each of them trained 100 more men and those men went on to train the rest of the army. Von Steuben wrote these standards into what would eventually be known as “Regulations for the order and discipline of the Troops of the United States”, a manual that would be used by the United States military for the next 80 years, and with principles that are still used by the service academies to this day. Each step for presenting, loading, cocking, aiming and firing a musket was broken down into its basic motions. And although the number of steps in Von Steuben’s method for firing a weapon was greater than the number of steps that the British Army insisted on, the standardization of methodology and discipline of movement that Von Steuben instilled in his soldiers allowed for the Continental Army to deliver more volleys of musket fire during a battle, a critical aspect of battle given 18th century arms and tactics. Along with proper musket use, Von Steuben also taught the American soldiers how to use the bayonet, something that up to that point had been viewed by most of the Continental soldiers as more of a camp tool, for roasting meat over a fire or popping blisters, than as a weapon. Evidence of Von Steuben’s effective training with the bayonet was displayed at the Battle of Stony Brook where Washington’s army attacked and captured an entire British fort using only bayonets and unloaded muskets.
Aside from just stabilizing camp conditions and establishing standardized methods of marching and handling weapons, Von Steuben’s effectiveness as a leader was how he interacted with the soldiers. He took a hands on approach, he went to the gemba. Steuben himself set about interviewing soldiers and asking them what their needs were, inspecting their tents to see what they lacked and when it came to drill instruction he personally demonstrated to his men the proper motions, something that was extremely uncommon in an age when officers, as gentlemen of the aristocracy, prefered to keep a buffer of low level non-commissioned officers between them and common soldiers. Understanding the importance of the relationship between the soldiers and their commanding officers he wrote in the “Regulations for the order and discipline of the Troops of the United States”:
“A Captain cannot be too careful of the company the state has committed to his charge. He must pay the greatest attention to the health of his men, their discipline, arms, accouterments, ammunition, clothes and necessaries. His first object should be, to gain the love of his men, by treating them with every possible kindness and humanity, inquiring into their complaints, and when well founded, seeing them redressed. He should know every man of his company by name and character. He should often visit those who are sick, speak tenderly to them, see that the public provision, whether of medicine or diet, is duly administered, and procure them besides such comforts and conveniences as are in his power. The attachment that arises from this kind of attention to the sick and wounded, is almost inconceivable; it will moreover be the means of preserving the lives of many valuable men.”
Baron von Steuben was a success because he understood what was needed. He understood the current condition of the troops at Valley Forge and he knew where they needed to be if they were ever going to defeat the enemy on the battlefield. He organized conditions in the camp, stabilized conditions in the supply chain and then standardized a methodology for teaching and performing the soldiers’ tasks. But those are only the tangible aspects of what made him a successful leader and those tangible things are only part of the equation. What made Von Steuben truly successful where the intangible factors: he endeared himself to his soldiers, he walked among them and asked and saw for himself what he could do for them, he got his hands dirty and personally taught them the skills they needed in order to improve. And most importantly, he was driven by more than just financial gain. In his letter of introduction to the Continental Congress Von Steuben expressed his motivation for assisting the rebels as, “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 this Continent….I ask neither riches nor titles….My only ambition is to serve you as a Volunteer…..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….”.
If you only know the tools in the tool box you can only do so much. Working towards a payday will only get you so far. But understanding the whole and being motivated by an ideal is where success truly lies.