Today, the Sesquicentennial of American Independence Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin remembers when Baron von Steuben arrived at Valley Forge to train the bedraggled Continental Army on February 23, 1778.
An excerpt from an article in the May 1911 Masonic Voice-Review titled The Military Genius of Baron Steuben by Gilbert Patten Brown described the man and his contributions to American Independence:
And what is true of Germans in general was true of Baron von Steuben in particular.
As the drill master of the Continental Army he did more, perhaps, than any other one man toward the success of the American struggle, and yet was given scant and tardy consideration for his invaluable services.
The name von Steuben first appears in the thirteenth century in the list of noblemen holding feudal estates as vassals of Mansfield and Magdeburg.
In the Reformation they turned Protestants, and through the changes introduced in the system of warfare, became foes. The branch of the family from which Frederick William descended won distinction for generations by pen and sword. His grandfather was an eminent theologian, an uncle was distinguished as a mathematician, and his father was a noted general under Frederick the Great.
With such antecedents we are not surprised at the scholarly and military tastes of our hero. He was born in Magdeburg, Prussia November 15, 1730, and educated at the Jesuit College of Neisse and Breslau.
His career as soldier began early, for he was scarce fourteen when he served as volunteer under his father at the siege of Prague. He fought with distinction in the Seven Years’ War, and at its close was appointed grand marshal of the Prince of Hohenzollern-Hechingen.
While in Paris in 1777 Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane induced him to ally himself with the cause of liberty in America. Arriving at Portsmouth, N. H., December 1st of that year, he immediately offered his services to Congress, and was directed to report to Washington at Valley Forge.
This he did on February 23, 1778, and in May following was appointed instructor-general of the Continental Army. As soon as this trained tactician of Frederick the Great stepped to the front and called “Attention!” the ragged, discouraged soldiers were inspired with a new spirit, and from that moment the tide turned in favor of the Americans.
It is frankly admitted that to his training was due the victory at Monmouth. Colonel Hamilton declared that he had never realized the value of military discipline until that day.
The campaign in Virginia, resulting in the capture of Cornwallis at Yorktown, was carried out in no small degree by the untiring vigilance of this recruiting officer and drill-master.
When peace was established he was one of the prominent candidates for Secretary of War, and, perhaps, would have been appointed had it not been that it was thought impolitic to trust such an important office to a foreigner.
He prepared a manual for the army, entitled “Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States,” which continued in general use down to a late period, and was republished in many of the States.
Steuben and Lafayette were members of the court that tried and condemned Andre. While be respected that young British officer and regretted that the rules of war demanded his death, he had the utmost abhorrence for Arnold, and expressed this in a very unique manner.
One day while reviewing Colonel Sheldon’s regiment he was surprised to hear the name of Benedict Arnold called. The fine looking young fellow who bore this offensive appellation was asked to come forward, and Steuben said to him, “Change your name, brother soldier; you are too respectable to bear the name of a traitor.” “What name shall I take, general?” “Take any other, mine is at your service.”
So Frederick William Steuben was substituted for the odious name, and the baron settled upon him a pension of five dollars a month as a kind of christening present and later gave him a considerable tract of land.
With Baron von Steuben duty was a big word, and he had no patience at all with those who shirk it.
While he was in Virginia working early and late trying to recruit the army, a man on horseback, accompanied by a youth, rode up, and introduced himself to the baron as a colonel in the militia, said that he had brought a recruit. Steuben thanked him at first, but his countenance changed when he found that the recruit was no other than the boy in attendance.
A sergeant was ordered to measure the boy, and found something in his shoes by which his height had been increased. At this disclosure the baron turned angrily to the colonel and said, “Sir, do you think me a rascal?” “Oh! no, baron, I do not.” “Then, sir, I think you are one, an infamous scoundrel, thus to attempt to cheat your country.”
Then speaking to an officer at his side, “Take off this colonel’s spurs, place him in the ranks, and tell General Greene for me that I have sent him a man able to serve, instead of an infant whom he would have selfishly made his substitute.”
Instead of going back to the continent after the war, like Lafayette and other distinguished foreigners. Steuben remained in the country his sword had helped to make free.
The government granted him an annuity of twenty-five hundred dollars; New Jersey presented him with a small farm, and New York gave him sixteen thousand acres of wild land in Oneida county.
Here in the wilderness he built a log cabin and spent his time in the companionship of his friends and his books, and here on November 28, 1794, he died, and wrapped in his military cloak, ornamented with the star he had always worn, he was interred in the neighboring forest.
The Sesquicentennial of American Independence Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin shows with an image of a statue of Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben.