After a circuitous journey, from Paris, France across the Atlantic Ocean and then into Pennsylvania, an eager participant trekked to join the American effort. After an introduction to the Continental Congress this European officer headed toward the Continental army encampment. Baron Frederich William Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben, 47-years old, rode into camp drawn by horses and relaxing, as much as one can on the roads of Pennsylvania during 1770s, in a sleigh, with a Russian wolfhound dog strolling beside the wooden vehicle. On this date, 244 years ago, General George Washington, his staff, and any inquiring eyes around camp saw von Steuben for the first time.
Although Christmas was almost two months in the past, von Steuben became a late blessing for Washington and his Continental army. Through an adaptation of a military training regimen from continental Europe which became a manual known as the “Blue Book” (this guide was used to train United States Army recruits for decades into the future as well), von Steuben began to morph the rank-and-file and junior officer corps of the Continental army into an actual army that knew how to follow commands and change formations. This training aided the Continentals in the battles of 1778, from a small engagement in May at Barren Hill to the last major fighting in the northern theater at Monmouth in June and into other theaters of the conflict.
Today, the field in which he trained the first model company is preserved by the National Park Service within the boundary of Valley Forge National Historical Park.
This November, during the second annual Emerging Revolutionary War bus tour, attendees will see the field and stand at the foot of the statue to von Steuben, looking over the same ground he first saw on this date, February 23, 1778. To secure your tickets, click the link on the header bar above titled “2022 Bus Tour.”
Although the American Revolutionary War staggered into a period of inaction after the Battle of Monmouth Court House in June 1778, General George Washington, in charge of all Continental forces, remained steadfast in New York until the late summer of 1781. Even though the principal actions of the war moved to the southern colonies, resulting in catastrophic losses at Charleston, Waxhaws, and Camden in 1780 through 1781, Washington did his utmost to quell British incursions, reinforce public opinion, and provide whatever succor he could from a distance. What is evidence of his mindset and depth of concern for this theater of operations?
Simple. Look at the general officers he dispatched south from the main army to help the American cause in the Carolinas and Virginia. The list includes some of the most trusted officers that served Washington.
First, Benjamin Lincoln, who met his fate at Charleston, but had served ably in the north, even working in the tense environment of the Saratoga campaign, between the volatile Benedict Arnold and the complacent Horatio Gates.
Second, Nathanael Greene, who had overcome growing pains, the recommendation to hold onto Fort Washington in New York in 1776 comes to mind, to swallowing his pride and taking the thankless job of quartermaster general during the winter that won the war at Valley Forge. Greene was probably second to Washington in understanding the political, social, economic, even the geographical components of warfare. Although a decisive battlefield victory constantly eluded him, his leadership at Guildford Court House set in motion Lord Charles Cornwallis’s eventual demise at Yorktown in October of that same year.
Moving into the Old Dominion, Washington dispatched Baron von Steuben with Greene to recruit, train, gather supplies, and provide the steady hand that the Prussian born leader had shown so admirably at Valley Forge. As inspector general of the Continental army, Washington’s orders sending the baron south was a major testament to the importance of stopping British incursions into Virginia.
Following the baron, was another European born officer, the Marquis de Lafayette, one of Washington’s favorites. This independent field command showed the growing confidence in the young Frenchman who responded admirably to the task at hand, doing what he can and for the most part, swallowing his brashness, except at Green Spring when he precipitously attacked what he thought was a rearguard of the British. Yet, his actions, coupled with the next general to be discussed, helped keep Cornwallis in the area of operations that would lead to his demise.
“Mad Anthony” Wayne and his Pennsylvania Continentals were also ordered south to join Lafayette in campaigning in Virginia. Wayne, arguably the best combat general in the Continental army, bordering on reckless to his critics though, had masterminded the storming of Stony Point, the last major action in the northern theater. Lafayette and he would be a solid tandem as they worked with limited resources and supplies in the summer of 1781 to contain the British.
Besides these general officers of high rank, “Light Horse” Harry Lee also was sent south to assist Greene and militia, most notably Francis Marion. The partnership between Lee and Marion worked as close to perfection as humanly possible and a model for regular and militia force combined operations.
Another cavalry commander that was sent for duty in the southern colonies was a second cousin of George Washington, William. In charge of light dragoons, mounted infantry who could dismount to fight as infantry, he served admirably in the southern army until his capture at the Battle of Eutaw Springs on September 8, 1781.
This list, not intended to be exhaustive but just exploratory, is an example of the importance the southern theater had to the strategic mindset of George Washington. Although the Virginian was fixated on the recapture of New York City until the opportunity to ensnare Cornwallis at Yorktown presented itself, he provided an amazing array of officers of capability to quelling British intensions in the southern theater.
Feel free to comment below on other officers that were sent south that played vital role in the ultimate American victory in this theater of operations.
Mention the following words to any casual student or enthusiast of the American Revolutionary War and we can almost guarantee what the first word(s) or topic out of their mouths will be.
If you are thinking, Yorktown, or Siege of Yorktown or Surrender of Yorktown, then our rhetorical question above is correct.
Most people know about the Siege and Surrender at Yorktown, but Virginia was a hot spot of activity the summer leading up to Yorktown. With British troops, led by the likes of Benedict Arnold, William Phillips, Alexander Leslie, and lastly by Lord Charles Cornwallis in the Old Dominion throughout the year and American leaders like the Marquis de Lafayette and Baron von Steuben, Virginia saw very active campaigning ranging through most of the central and eastern parts of the colony.
That is why you need to tune in and Join Emerging Revolutionary War this Sunday, on our Facebook page, at 7p.m EST for the next “Rev War Revelry” as we discuss the events leading up to Yorktown in October 1781.
We will cover actions such as Spencer’s Ordinary, Green Spring, Gloucester Point and of course Yorktown.
ERW will be joined by historians J. Michael Moore, Kirby Smith and Drew Gruber. All three live and work in the “Historic Triangle” of Virginia. The three gentlemen all have researched, led tours and have written published works about this important period of the American Revolution.
This will be a precursor to ERW’s annual fall trip, when we will visit Gloucester Point, Spencer’s Ordinary, Green Sping and Yorktown (which we invite you to follow along with on our Facebook page).
With the recent events facing our nation, American Revolutionary War monuments and memorials have an important role in demonstrating pride in our shared past and the highest ideals we value. Statues and monuments to the leaders and participants of the struggle for American independence today stand on battlefields, in courthouse squares and on historic sites all across this nation. While these statues depict very flawed and imperfect human beings, they memorialize the deeds and character that contributed to the creation of the nation we now live in.
These statues and monuments not only tell an important part of the nation’s founding, they are also artifacts of the eras in which they were constructed and how we have remembered our Revolutionary struggle, and how the ideals of the Revolution continue to live to this very day. Part of what we do at Emerging Revolutionary War is connect the past to the places today. Over the past few weeks we have seen localities remove or plan to remove statues honoring Caesar Rodney in Delaware and Philip Schuyler in New York. We have also seen statues of Marquis de Lafayette, Baron von Steuben, and Thaddeus Kosciusko vandalized in Washington, DC, a statue of George Washington vandalized in Boston, statues vandalized in Philadelphia of Washington and Benjamin Franklin, and the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War in Philadelphia desecrated.
We feel it is important that all of the United States’ Revolutionary War statues and monuments are protected so they can continue to demonstrate our highest values and ideals and the tell the story of the important figures who shaped our nation. Without these monuments, we lose vital resources to tell the important stories of our past and help unite us in moving forward as a country. As the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution draws near, rather than the removal of monuments, we hope more monuments and memorials will be erected, especially for overlooked populations that also played a role in the founding of our nation. With this more comprehensive view of history in mind, a broader and more accurate story can be told to the American public. Emerging Revolutionary War will continue to trace the stories of the past and tie them to the places through these challenging times and we look forward to a better tomorrow.
Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban, Seigneur de Vauban, and finally Marquis de Vauban, as one of his biographies begins, is probably not a household name to many enthusiasts of American history. Especially since he died on March 30, 1707 and never set foot in the Western Hemisphere. However, he did have a nephew, Jacques Anne Joseph Le Prestre de Vauban who served as General Jean-Baptiste Rochambeau’s aide-de-camp during the war. So, there is a family connection.
Yet, he left his mark on places like Yorktown, Virginia, fought 74 years after his death and half-a-world away. French engineers, critical to eventual American victory in the American Revolutionary War, plied de Vauban’s craft and studied his text and learned from his exploits. Continue reading “Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban”→
Bob Drury and Tom Clavin have spent years writing books, both individually and as a team. Between the two of them, they have explored topics ranging from baseball and golf to the old west and America’s 20th century wars. With Valley Forge (Simon & Schuster, 2018), Clavin and Drury have turned to the American Revolution. The result is another successful collaboration. (I’m biased as I have enjoyed several of their earlier books.)
Valley Forge tackles the Philadelphia Campaign, the winter encampment at Valley Forge (and elsewhere in truth), and the Continental Army’s emergence as a quality army capable of fighting the British on their own terms, which it demonstrated at Monmouth. The focus is on Washington and the main army with him. The reader sees both of them grow as Washington defeats political attempts to undermine his leadership and struggles to hold the army together in the face of harsh conditions and insufficient support from the rebelling states, Continental Congress, and local farmers. Meanwhile, the Army develops into a core of hard-bitten professionals suitably trained in European methods specifically adjusted for their circumstances. After undergoing Steuben’s training program, it had the military skills needed to match its fighting spirit. By and large, it marked a turning point in the war. Thus, at the end, the authors argue, “For those who survived, not least their inspired and inspiring commander in chief, the hardships they overcame had not so much transformed their innate character as revealed it.”[i]Continue reading “Book Review: Bob Drury & Tom Clavin, Valley Forge, Kindle ed., (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018).”→
Part of an ongoing series of about the Continental Army in Morristown, New Jersey. For the first post, click here.
Across the street from the Ford Mansion, the elegant home of the Jacob Ford, Jr. and his family, and the headquarters for George Washington during the winter encampment of 1779-1780, sits a small boulder with a iron plaque plastered on the side.
Erected in 1932 by the Tempe Wicke Society Children of the American Revolution, the monument commemorates the Life Guards that served as Washington’s headquarters command during the American Revolution. Although the unit went by different names and reorganized at least twice, including once during the winter encampment at Morristown, the company, numbering approximately 150 men, would be around for the duration of the war. Continue reading “Uncovering the Continental Army in Morristown”→
Emerging Revolutionary War is honored to welcome guest historian Daniel Welch to the blog. A brief biography of Mr. Welch is at the bottom of the post.
Several weeks ago I decided to take my usual weekend off of visiting American Civil War battlefields to take a moment to explore some American Revolutionary War historic sites just several hours down the road. Since it was a rather last minute decision, I was not completely prepared before visiting other than some basic historical context and a vague idea of operating hours and things to do while at these historic sites. So, if you want to follow the Continental Army during their experiences in the fall and winter of 1777-1778 read on to help plan a great weekend day trip.
Battle of Brandywine
If you want to follow these events as they happened, and in chronological order, began your day at the Brandywine Battlefield Park Associates site. Walking the site is free, but there is a charge if you want to go through the museum or on a tour of one of two historic homes on the property. Their hours are constantly changing so make sure you check their website. (click here), before you plan your visit. To go on a house tour, view the film, and go through the museum there is an $8.00 charge; the museum and film alone is $5.00. I would suggest, if you have the time, to take in the film and museum. The film lasts approximately twenty minutes while a thorough look of the museum could take one an additional forty minutes. Between the film and museum, a firm foundation to the events of September 11, 1777 will be in place before you head out to other locations associated with the battle. The house tour is a guided tour through Washington’s headquarters on the property and is conducted by a volunteer at the site. The tour took over an hour and a half, and considering that the home had burned to the ground nearly 100 years ago and has been rebuilt and filled with modern reproductions, your time would be better spent going to other sites associated with the battle.
Before leaving, make sure you pick up driving directions from the employees at the counter to get to Birmingham Friend’s Meeting House, and Sandy Hollow, the American’s second line of defense during the battle. Also, make sure to purchase the driving tour map of the battle of Brandywine. This map will take you to numerous other historic sites and homes within the Brandywine Valley that witnessed the events of that day. The cost is a mere $2.95. Plan an additional three to four hours to complete the driving tour.
Ultimately the battle proved to be an American defeat. Although he was defeated on the field, Washington and his generals were able to get large portions of the army to the rear through Polish General Pulaski’s assistance in covering the retreat. Despite the best maneuvers to save his army, Washington was unable to save Philadelphia and the city fell to the British just two weeks later on September 26, 1777. The British remained until June 1778.
By now a late lunch would be in order. A great spot is the Black Powder Tavern. A tavern since 1746, it has a great Revolutionary War history, including a supposed visit by Washington himself. The restaurant’s name is related to a historical legend that none other than Von Steuben had ordered the tavern turned into a secret black powder magazine during the army’s pivotal winter at Valley Forge. The food here was great, as was the service and beer selection.
Valley Forge National Historical Park
Following the defeat at Brandywine in September, and another engagement at White Marsh in early December, General Washington looked to put his army into a more secure camp for the coming winter. Active military campaigning for 1777 in Pennsylvania was over. Just twenty miles northwest of Philadelphia, the Continental Army faced numerous challenges here including a lack of food and shelter. Disease also spread during their time at Valley Forge. By February 1778, approximately 2,500 soldiers had perished.
To begin your visit here, start at the visitor center. The museum has its challenges. There is no discernible narrative to the exhibits; rather, numerous cases with laminated pieces of paper hanging on the side with corresponding images and item descriptions. Although there are some unique items on display, if it is busy you could wait at a particular case for the laminated cards to know what you are looking at. After a perusal of the museum, take in the free film. Although it is rather dated it provides a great overview of the winter encampment, its challenges, and outcomes. Between the film and museum, plan on spending an hour at the visitor center.
If you have additional time, take in the one and only National Park Service Ranger program offered. It is a rather short program, in length and walking distance, from the visitor center to the reconstructed Muhlenberg Hut sites. The program also echoes what is presented in the film. Before leaving the visitor center, I recommend getting the auto tour cd, as well as any updates on road closures. The park is currently under a significant amount of construction that has closed some roads and altered the driving tour route. The suggested driving tour cd is two hours in length. This would be a time allotment for those visitors who do not stop at each site, get out of the car, and explore all the stops along the route. You will want to get out and explore monuments such as those to the New Jersey troops, National Memorial Arch, von Steuben, and Patriots of African American Descent. You will also want to explore the several historic homes within the park that were used during the encampment, such as Varnum’s Quarters, Washington’s Headquarters, and the Memorial Chapel. My explorations, coupled with the driving tour cd, lasted nearly five hours.
Although it would be a long day, it can be done in one; however, if you wish to slow the pace of your visit, each site could be done on a separate day during your weekend. There is plenty of lodging in the area to accommodate this schedule. By visiting both of these historic areas and learning about the events of the fall through early spring 1777-1778, a greater picture can be viewed gleaned of military situation during the time period, as well as the tough composition of the Continental Army despite their defeats.
*Dan Welch currently serves as a primary and secondary educator with a public school district in northeast Ohio. Previously, Dan was the education programs coordinator for the Gettysburg Foundation, the non-profit partner of Gettysburg National Military Park, as well as a seasonal Park Ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park for six years. During that time, he led numerous programs on the campaign and battle for school groups, families, and visitors of all ages.
Welch received his BA in Instrumental Music Education from Youngstown State University where he studied under the famed French Hornist William Slocum, and is currently finishing his MA in Military History with a Civil War Era concentration at American Military University. Welch has also studied under the tutelage of Dr. Allen C. Guelzo as part of the Gettysburg Semester at Gettysburg College. He currently resides with his wife, Sarah, in Boardman, Ohio.
On February 23, 1778, Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben arrived at the Continental Army encampment at Valley Forge. He quickly ingratiated himself with George Washington and the commanding general’s cadre of staff officers. John Laurens would write a fortnight later;
“The Baron Steuben has had the fortune to please uncommonly….All the genl officers who have seen him, are prepossessed in his favor, and conceive highly of his abilities… The General [Washington] seems to have a very good opinion of him, and thinks he might be usefully employed in the office of inspector general…”
Steuben would assume the “acting” inspector general position three days after John Laurens penned the above letter, on March 12, 1778. Five days later, Steuben’s plan to train the Continental Army was approved by Washington. The transformation could begin.
Who was this “acting” soon-to-be permanent inspector general of the Continental Army? Steuben was born on September 17, 1730 in the Duchy of Magdeburg, in what is now eastern Germany. He journeyed with his father at age 14 on his first military campaign and joined the military at the young age of 17.
The last thirteen years before coming to America he had served in an administrative capacity for the Furst Josef Friedrich Wilhelm of Hohenzollern-Hechingen and was made a baron in 1771.
The baron arrived on American soil on December 1, 1777 and two months later arrived in York, Pennsylvania where he met with the Continental Congress on February 5, 1778. He found his way quickly to Washington’s encampment at Valley Forge.
On March 19, 1778, the first squad of men from the Continental Army undertook their first lesson with the baron. After learning the English words needed, von Steuben tasked each soldier of the 100 man squad to mirror him. The selected squad would follow the different maneuvers while listening to the baron “singing out the cadence.” While the squad went through their drills, another selected squad of onlookers studied the movements and then carried the drills to others.
The baron’s unique training regimens showed almost instant results, as von Steuben attested within a fortnight of the start of training. The soldiers “were perfect in their manual exercise; had acquired a military air; and knew how to march, to form column, to deploy, and to execute some little maneuvers with admirable precision.”
By the end of March, with Washington’s blessing, the entire army went under the drill regimen as instructed by von Steuben. The Prussian “acting” inspector general put his mark on all aspects of camp life as evidenced by the routine the soldiers adhered to while becoming acquainted with the manual of arms. “At nine a.m….new commands explained to each regiment at parade, then practice. By late afternoon, regiments were practicing by brigades.”
When a soldier fumbled a maneuver or the squad was not crisply moving through the drills, the baron’s temper would get the best of him and he would unleash a slew of epithets that was a unique blend of French and German with a few words of English sprinkled in for good measure.
The silver lining in these outbursts occurred when the baron would politely and calmy ask one of his assistant to translate into English the curse word of the moment. A light-hearted moment came when von Stueben asked his translator one time to, “come and swear for me in English, these fellows won’t do what I bid them.”
However, von Steuben won the trust of his trainees, as he instilled a sense of pride, of soldierly bearing, and when he did have his outbursts, those moments just underscored his similarities to the men he was training. As one biographer accurately summed up these occasions, the outbursts “humanized him” in the eyes of the rank-and-file.
There was one little secret that only the baron and his small staff were privy too; von Steuben was making up the drill and routine practices employed each day as he went along!
After the drilling of that day was completed and the baron snatched a quick bite to eat, von Steuben was off to his quarters where he scribbled out the lessons to be taught the following day.
Along with drill, camp life even improved, as von Steuben mandated changes that improved camp sanitation, which in turn, reduced sickness among the rank and file. By the end of the encampment, von Steuben controlled, according to historian Herman O. Benninghoff II, “the Valley Forge soldier’s introduction to command and control.”
On April 1, 1778, John Laurens wrote to his father and president of the Continental Congress, Henry Laurens about the major impact of von Steuben.
“Baron Steuben is making sensible progress with our soldiers. The officers seem to have a high opinion of him…It would enchant you to see the enlivened scene [of camp at Valley Forge]…If Mr. [Sir William] Howe opens the campaign with his usual deliberation, we shall be infinitely better prepared to meet him than we have ever.”
By May 1778 a Board of War member, a committee formed by the Continental Congress the previous year, wrote to a fellow board member the following lines, “America will be under lasting Obligations to the Baron Steuben as the Father of it. He is much respected by the Officers and beloved by the Soldiers themselves…I am astonished at the Progress he has made with the Troops.”
A fitting compliment came from the pen of George Washington who wrote to von Steuben near the end of the encampment at Valley Forge that “the army has derived every advantage from the institution under you, that could be expected in so short a time.”
Before von Steuben could finish the drilling of the soldiery that winter, the British stirred from their perch in Philadelphia and the lessons on the snowy plains of Valley Forge would be put to the test.
In the lowest depths of one of the coldest winters in the American Revolution, the Continental Army uncovered the dedication that the core of the military movement had.
Suffering was beyond comparison.
The cause was supply, the crux of many an army before and after the Revolutionary War. The issue started from the top, the quartermaster general position.
“The lack of a competent, effective quartermaster general for the period from October 10, 1777 to May 2, 1778 threatened the Continental Army’s existence more than the enemy” wrote author and historian Herman O. Benninghoff, II.
His bold proclamation is chillingly on-point.
That time frame coincided with the approximately same length of time George Washington’s forces were at Valley Forge.
On January 5, 1778, Nathanael Greene, who would soon be tapped as quartermaster general of the Continental Army, wrote to fellow officer General Alexander McDougall;
“The troops are worn out with fatigue, badly fed, and almost naked. There are and have been thousands of the Army without shoes for months past. It is difficult to get sufficient supplies to cloath the Army at large.”
Moving directly to Valley Forge from active campaigning, the soldiers arrived with their supplies in a deplorable condition. Shoes had been torn to shreds with the long marches and many of the men had nothing but rags to wrap feet in. Shortly after arriving, the army numbered approximately 12,000 men under arms, yet 4,000 of these men, 1/3rd of Washington’s entire force, was deemed “unfit for duty” because a lack of supplies.
Another 1,100 would desert because of the horrid conditions of the winter encampment; no food, no pay, and barely clothes to keep warm.
Another 2,000 died of disease, including typhus, pneumonia, and other “camp fevers” which categorized a whole assortment of various ailments. Medicine was almost non-existent and lack of proper sanitation played a major role as well.
A delegate to the Confederation Congress was informed by an informant in Valley Forge that “a great portion of the soldiers are in a very suffering condition for want of necessary clothing, and totally unfit for duty.”
The suffering of the soldiers for a want of simple, basic clothing, becomes even more painful with the following realization by John Marshall, serving as an officer at Valley Forge, and the same Marshall who would become the Supreme Court Justice.
“In a desert which supplies not the means of subsistence, or in a garrison where food is unattainable, courage, patriotism, and habits of discipline, enable the soldier…..but to perish in a country abounding with provisions, requires something more than fortitude.”
That is what is most astonishing, that there were surpluses to be attained, but Continental currency had depreciated to the point that by late 1777 and early 1778 it was at an exchange rate of four Continental dollars to one dollar of hard specie. By 1779 that ratio would be 30 to 1.
To further complicate matters, the Continental Army did not even have the wagons to gather the materials. In mid-February, a report from camp to Henry Laurens, president of the Confederate Congress, deplored of the “want of Waggons & the like.”
Out of the depths of this despair, where cries of “No Meat, No Meat” rent the air as soldiers voice their frustration, came a self-proclaimed baron.
This man would leave a lasting impression on the make-up of the army, second only to George Washington.
His assessment of the army upon his arrival amazed him, the “fortitude of the common soldiers and that no army in Europe would hold together and endure under such deprivations of food and clothing and shelter.”
That prognosis shows the depth of commitment that boiled in the hearts of the dedicated survivors of the cold, hunger, and privations of Valley Forge.
The army was ready to be molded and with his arrival, Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben would turn out to be the right guy at the right juncture in time. The Continental Army, held together by George Washington, would be transformed by this new inspector general.
Valley Forge would be the elixir of change for the army and the revolution.