There are few historians today who would doubt that Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben was gay.
To appreciate the contributions von Steuben (1730-94) made to the American Revolution, consider this: Before his arrival in Valley Forge in 1778, the Revolutionary Army had lost several battles to Great Britain. Without him, the United States of America might still be the British colonies.
Before Valley Forge, the Revolutionary Army was a loosely organized, rag-tag band of men with little military training. The military fumbled through the beginning of the war for independence lacking training and organization. Gen. George Washington and the Continental Congress knew that without help from additional seasoned military experts, the colonies would clearly lose. Since Washington himself was the best the colonies had, they looked to Europe for someone who could train the troops. To that end, Washington wrote the colonies’ representative in Paris, Benjamin Franklin, for help. Franklin had two major objectives in France: winning financial support for the revolution and finding military leaders for the Revolutionary Army.
Franklin learned of a “brilliant” Prussian military genius, Lt. Gen. Baron Friedrich von Steuben, who had a string of successes (some self-embellished) with the Prussian army. There was one problem. He’d been asked to depart because of his “affections for members of his own sex.” This became urgent in 1777 when he literally escaped imprisonment in what is now Germany and traveled to Paris. In Paris, Franklin was interviewing candidates to assist Washington back in the colonies when he discovered von Steuben.
During the interview process, Franklin discovered von Steuben’s reputation for having “affections” with males and the issue became pressing as members of the French clergy demanded the French court, as in other countries, take action against this sodomite. They had decided to make their effort a crusade and run him out of France.
Franklin had a choice: He decided von Steuben’s expertise was more important to the colonies than his sexuality.
At the same time, another colonial representative was in France with the explicit job of recruiting experienced military personnel from Europe to train the Continental Army. He was Silas Deane, a former representative to the first Continental Congress and a friend of Franklin. Deane is best known for recruiting the Marquis de Lafayette. He also had a side job as a spy for the colonies. Besides being intelligent themselves, Franklin and Deane knew how to spot intelligence. It would have been impossible for either to not know about the reputation of von Steuben.
Franklin, working with Deane, decided von Steuben’s “affections” were less important than what he, Washington and the colonies needed to win the war. Deane learned of von Steuben’s indiscretions — and that the French clergy was investigating — from a letter to the Prince of Hechingen, his former employer, which read in part:
“It has come to me from different sources that M. de Steuben is accused of having taken familiarities with young boys which the laws forbid and punish severely. I have even been informed that that is the reason why M. de Steuben was obliged to leave Hechingen and that the clergy of your country intend to prosecute him by law as soon as he may establish himself anywhere.”
Deane, along with Franklin, acted quickly before the clergy could deport or imprison von Steuben and plotted to send him to the colonies to serve with Washington. Von Steuben was given an advance for passage to America and began as a volunteer, without pay.
Once he’d arrived in Valley Forge, Washington appointed two French-speaking officers to serve as his translators. One of those officers was Alexander Hamilton and the other, his close friend John Laurens. Within months, von Steuben gained Washington’s confidence and began to transform the army.
Washington and Franklin’s trust in von Steuben was rewarded. He whipped the rag-tag army into a professional fighting force, able to take on the most powerful superpower of the time, England. Some of his accomplishments include instituting a “model company” for training, establishing sanitary standards and camp organization and training soldiers in drills and tactics such as bayonet fighting and musket loading. According to “The Papers of Von Steuben,” the following is a timeline of his achievements.
February 1778: Arrives at Valley Forge to serve under Washington, having informed Congress of his desire for paid service after an initial volunteer trial period, with which request Washington concurs.
March 1778: Begins tenure as inspector general, drilling troops according to established European military precepts.
1778-79: Writes “Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States,” which becomes a fundamental guide for the Continental Army and remains in active use through the War of 1812, being published in over 70 editions.
1780-81: Senior military officer in charge of troop and supply mobilization in Virginia.
1781: Replaced by Marquis de Lafayette as commander in Virginia.
1781-83: Continues to serve as Washington’s inspector general, and is active in improving discipline and streamlining administration in the army.
Spring 1783: Assists in formulating plans for the postwar American military.
Washington rewarded Von Steuben with a house at Valley Forge (still in existence and open for visits), which he shared with his aides-de-camp Capt. William North and Gen. Benjamin Walker. Walker lived with him through the remainder of his life, and von Steuben, who neither married nor denied any allegations of homosexuality, left his estate to North and Walker. His will, which includes the line “extraordinarily intense emotional relationship,” has been called a love letter to Walker.
Numerous statues memorialize von Steuben, including those at Lafayette Square near the White House, Philadelphia, Valley Forge and Utica, N.Y. (where he is buried) and German Americans celebrate his birthday on Sept. 17 annually, hosting parades in New York City, Philadelphia and Chicago.
If Washington was the father of the nation, then von Steuben, a gay man, was the father of the U.S. military.
Mark Segal is founder and publisher of Philadelphia Gay News, the country’s oldest LGBT newsweekly.