Meet the gay man who actually won America her independence
By Mark Segal
To appreciate the contributions Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (1730-94) made to the American Revolution, consider this: Before his arrival in Valley Forge in 1778, the colonies were on the path to defeat. Without his leadership, our modern America might still be the British Colonies.
The Sodomite Soldier
Before von Steuben arrived at Valley Forge, the Revolutionary Army was a loosely organized, rag-tag band of men with little military training or discipline. 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’ representatives in Paris, among them 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 American 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 Wilhelm von Steuben, who had a string of successes across Germanic Europe. But there was one problem. He’d been asked to depart many of those states and countries because of his “affections for members of his own sex,” according to biographer Paul Lockhart’s The Drillmaster of Valley Forge.
This became urgent in 1777 when von Steuben literally escaped imprisonment in what is now Germany and traveled to Paris. There, Franklin was interviewing candidates to assist Washington back in the colonies when his fellow Colonial representative Silas Deane brought von Steuben to his residence for an interview in June.
During the 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, whom they considered a pedophile. They had decided to make their effort a crusade and run him out of France.
Lockhart’s biography tells of von Steuben’s being summoned from Paris for Karlsruhe, at the court of the Margrave of Baden, for a military vacancy. But, Lockhart notes, “what he found waiting for him at Karlsruhe was not an officer’s commissioner but a rumor, a horrible, vicious rumor” that the Baron had “taken familiarities with young boys.”
Those allegations were fueled by von Steuben’s close ties to Prince Henry and Frederick the Great, also “widely rumored to be homosexual.”
Benjamin Franklin: Smuggler & Scandal Fixer
Von Steuben returned to Paris, and Franklin had a choice here — and he decided von Steuben’s expertise was more important to the colonies than his sexuality. While it can be debated how much a part Franklin played in the recruitment of von Steuben, one cannot doubt that one of the most informed people at the French court would know of the allegations against the baron. With that knowledge, and with von Steuben about to be jailed, Franklin, along with Deane, wrote what must be the nation’s first example of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as they mutually signed a recommendation letter to Gen. Washington that embellished von Steuben’s military expertise and titles and suggested he had been recommended by various princes and “other great personages.” Most surprisingly, it remarked that “his distinguished character and known abilities were attested to by two judges of military merit in this country.”
The judges of character that Franklin referred to were two of the four involved in the plot to bring von Steuben to America, along with Franklin and Deane, and personal friends of the baron: Pierre Beaumarchais, author of the “Figaro” plays and an arms dealer who supplied arms for the ship von Steuben eventually sailed on, and Claude Louis, Comte de Saint-Germain, the minister of war under Louis XVI.
What the letter didn’t mention was that he was about to be arrested and appear before judges in France.
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, 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.”
The proof of Franklin and Deane’s knowledge lies in the letter to Washington recommending von Steuben and their quick action to secure the baron from France. So in September 1777, von Steuben boarded a 24-gun ship named Heureux — but, for this voyage, the ship’s name was changed to Le Flamand, and the baron’s name was entered onto the captain’s log as “Frank.” And he was on his way to the colonies.
Baron von Steuben Whips the Men Into Shape
Washington and Franklin’s trust in von Steuben was rewarded. He whipped the rag-tag army of the colonies 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 for the camp and training soldiers in drills and tactics such as bayonet fighting and musket loading. According to the New York Public Library, (“The Papers of Von Steuben”) these were 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, was 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 post-war 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. There wasn’t much else to claim, as the baron was in debt at the time of his death, according to both Kapp and Lockhart. His last will and testament has been described as a love letter to Walker and has been purported to describe their “extraordinarily intense emotional relationship,” yet that line was not in the Kapp biography of 1859.
Both North and Walker are featured in the statue of von Steuben in Lafayette Park across from the White House.
John Adams’ Son’s ‘Unsavory’ Relationship with the Baron
Von Steuben and with whom he slept was long a matter of discussion — from Prussia to France to the United States. Yet he never publicly denied it. The closest he came was to ask Washington to speak on behalf of his morals in a letter to Congress so he could get 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.
Adding to that were the constant rumors about his sexuality, which by 1790, reached one of the revolution’s first families, the Adamses of Massachusetts.
Charles, the son of John and Abigail Adams — the second president and first lady of the new union — 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 letters among the various members of the family, the Adamses had other concerns.
As John Ferling wrote in the biography John Adams: A Life, “There are references to [Charles’] 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 from the family letters that the Adamses were concerned about a relationship between Charles and the baron. Von Steuben’s sexuality was an open secret, one that he himself never challenged, other than to ask Washington to defend his moral character.
The Nation’s First Underwear Party
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, 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 in today’s terms: 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.”
Apart from this humorous anecdote, it’s hard to question von Steuben’s importance — especially as Washington’s last official act as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army was to write a letter to the baron.
George Washington Says Goodbye
Sent from Annapolis and dated Dec. 23, 1783, Washington wrote:
My dear Baron: Altho’ I have taken frequent opportunities, both in public and private, of acknowledging your great zeal, attention and abilities in performing the duties of your office; yet I wish to make use of this last moment of my public life, to signifie [sic] in the strongest terms my entire approbation of your conduct, and to express my sense of the obligations the public is under to you, for your faithful and meritorious services.
“I beg you will be convinced, my dear sir, that I should rejoice if it could ever be in my power to serve you more essentially than by expressions of regard and affection; but in the meantime, I am persuaded you will not be displeased with this farewell token of my sincere friendship and esteem for you.
“This is the last letter I shall ever write while I continue in the service of my country; the hour of my resignation is fixed at 12 this day, after which I shall become a private citizen on the banks of the Potomack, where I shall be glad to embrace you, and to testify the great esteem and consideration with which I am, etc.”
The nation that von Steuben helped found has memorialized him with numerous statues, including those at Lafayette Square near the White House and at Valley Forge and Utica, N.Y. (where he is buried) and German Americans celebrate his birthday each year on Sept. 17, hosting parades in New York City, Philadelphia and Chicago.
It was von Steuben, a gay man, who played a giant role in not only the creation of our military, but the idea of military academies, a standing Army and even veterans organizations.
If George Washington was the father of the nation, then von Steuben, a gay man, was the father of the United States military.
This article was originally published on Bilerico in 2013. This version has been abridged.