National Gay History Project 2012: Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben
Special Feature: National Gay History Month Project 2012
Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben
by Mark Segal
“There are few historians today who would doubt that Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben was gay”
That’s how my 2011 article began, and in the year since its publication, no accredited historian has refuted my assertion that there would be no United States of America without von Steuben—or that he should be considered a gay man by today’s standards. In this update, I add new historical material to the growing list of details that support these claims. These additions to his story could make von Steuben (1730-1794) the first “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” case in the American military—quite possibly due to his own deeds and actions.
To appreciate the contributions von Steuben 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 von Steuben, the United States of America might still be one of 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 to the colonies’ representative in Paris, Benjamin Franklin, to see what he could come up with. Franklin, a renowned inventor, was treated as a celebrity in the French court. This would be pivotal in achieving his two major objectives in France: winning financial support for the revolution and finding military leaders who could bring a semblance of order to the Revolutionary Army.
Franklin learned of a “brilliant” Prussian military genius, Lt. Gen. Baron Friedrich von Steuben. Von Steuben had a string of success stories (some of them self-embellished) with the Prussian army. But 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 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.” The clergy decided to launch a crusade and run him out of France.
Franklin had a choice, and 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 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 with England. 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, plotting 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 had arrived in Valley Forge, Washington appointed two of his officers who spoke French to work 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 colonial army.
Washington and Franklin’s trust in von Steuben was rewarded. He whipped the rag-tag colonial 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 organization in the camps, and training soldiers in drills and tactics such as bayonet fighting and musket loading. According to the 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. Washington concurs with the request.
- March 1778: Begins tenure as inspector general, drilling troops according to established European military precepts.
- 1778-79: Authors the “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 which he shared with his aide-de-camps 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 of the allegations of homosexuality, left his estate to North and Walker. His last will and testament, which includes the line “extraordinarily intense emotional relationship,” has been described as a love letter to Walker.
Speculation over who von Steuben slept with abounded from Prussia to France to the United States. Yet he never once denied the rumors. The closest he came to the topic was to ask Washington to speak on behalf of his morals in a letter to Congress that would authorize the disbursement of his pension. And why did he ask Washington?
Since his arrival in Philadelphia to assist the Revolution, von Steuben had financial issues caused by a Continental Congress that often didn’t keep its funding promises, a challenge compounded by his own personality: von Steuben at times could be cold and aloof, which was problematic when diplomacy was needed with an important member of Congress. He also had a tendency to live and spend extravagantly, especially on his uniforms, which were often emblazoned with epaulettes and medals of his own design.
Due to his financial picture—and misconceptions about his association with Silas Deane (who was later disgraced as traitor to the United States)—von Steuben had to fight for his pension. Adding to that were the constant rumors about his sexuality, which by 1790, reached the second president and first lady of the new union, John and Abigail Adams of Massachusetts.
The Adams’s son Charles was what today would be called the black sheep of the family. Early on, Abigail considered him “not at peace within himself.” His biggest problem was alcoholism, but, as revealed in family letters, the Adams had other concerns.
As John Ferling writes in his biography John Adams: A Life, “there are references to [Charles’s] alleged proclivity for consorting with men whom his parents regarded as unsavory.” One of these men was von Steuben, who, as Ferling writes, many at the time considered homosexual. Charles had become infatuated with and adored von Steuben. It is clear in the family letters that the Adams were concerned about a relationship between Charles and von Steuben, since Von Steuben’s sexuality was an open secret.
Washington, always the diplomat, wrote of the general and friend, rather than of von Steuben’s personal life, practicing today’s notion of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
The Baron is a puzzle. At first, I really didn’t like him: The man himself was pompous, cold and theatrical, and his uniforms and title were stage props for an officer who didn’t even speak English when he got to Valley Forge. But I respected
Him for what he did to help Washington’s rag-tag army to defeat the British, eventually leading to the creation of our country. His knowledge created the first sense of military discipline in the colonies. My appreciation for him came from his most recent biographer Paul Lockhart, whose book The Drillmaster of Valley Forge offers a complete look at von Steuben’s work.
There is one story in the book that could be considered rather scandalous even by today’s standards: Von Steuben most likely threw the first underwear party in the United States military, at his house in Valley Forge.
As Lockhart writes, “The Baron hosted a party exclusively for their lower-ranking friends. He insisted, though, that ‘none should be admitted that had on a whole pair of breeches,’ making light of the shortages that affected the junior officers as they did the enlisted men.”
You can see, however, that von Steuben’s humanity and love of his troops underlied his actions.
The nation that von Steuben helped found has memorialized him with numerous statues, including those at Lafayette Square near the White House, at Valley Forge, and in Utica, New York, where he is buried. German Americans celebrate his birthday each year on September 17, hosting parades in New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago.
If George Washington was the father of the nation, then von Steuben, a gay man, should surely be considered the father of the United States military.