June 23, 1730 – Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben:
You say to your soldier, ‘Do this’ and he does it. But I am obliged to say to the American, ‘This is why you ought to do this’ and then he does it.
After getting in some trouble for fooling around with young soldiers in Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, an experienced military officer, came to America with a little help from Benjamin Franklin, who lived in Paris at the time, trying to convince the French to come to our aid in fighting the British. George Washington asked for von Steuben to help in bringing some sort of order to the tattered Continental troops serving in the Revolutionary War. Washington sent him to Valley Forge in February, 1778.
The soldiers were unaccustomed to von Steuben’s sense of “style”. He showed up in a flamboyant, massive sleigh, sporting 24 jingling bells, pulled by six black draft horses. He was wearing a silk robe trimmed in ermine, petting Azor his miniature greyhound, who was curled up on his lap. He was followed by a retinue of African servants, his French chef, his aide-de-camp Louis de Pontière and von Steuben’s 17-year-old boyfriend/secretary Pierre-Étienne du Ponceau. All of it impressive, if not exactly appropriate.
Von Steuben was good at what he did and soon shaped a hundred soldiers into a model company that, in turn, trained other Revolutionary soldiers in Prussian military tactics. He was a captain, but proved so invaluable to Washington, that he was promoted to Major General. In 1781, he served under the Marquis de Lafayette in Virginia when the British General Charles Cornwallis invaded. He also served at the Battle of Yorktown, where he commanded one of the three divisions of Washington’s army.
Von Steuben spoke little English, and he frequently needed to yell to his translator: “Hey! Come over here and swear for me!”, punctuating the screaming of his translator with fierce-sounding grunts in German and French. To codify training, von Steuben wrote Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, which became the standard text for training American army troops for the next three decades and was made into a film starring Ryan Gosling. It instructs on the arms and accoutrements of officers and soldiers, formation and exercise of a company, directions for recruits, formation and marching, and inspections, and above all, how to discipline a young soldier.
Von Steuben became an American citizen by act of the Pennsylvania legislature in March 1784. In 1790, Congress gave him a pension of $2,500 a year, which he received until his death, and an estate near Utica, NY, granted to him for his military service to our new nation.
But wait; that’s not all! Von Steuben legally adopted two very handsome soldiers. One of them, William North, became a U.S. Senator, the other Benjamin Walker, became a major in the Continental Army. A third young man, John Mulligan, considered himself a member of the stable of von Steuben’s ”sons”. Before moving in with von Steuben, Mulligan had been living with Charles Adams, son of then-Vice President John Adams, who was a little concerned about the intense closeness between his son and Mulligan, insisting that they split up. Mulligan wrote to von Steuben with his tale of despair. Von Steuben offered to take both men into his home. Charles Adams, the handsomest son of one president and brother of another (John Quincy Adams), resided with von Steuben and 19-year-old Mulligan for years. Von Steuben was a 62-year-old bachelor at the time, but they seem to have made a happy household.
Adams eventually left the love nest, but Mulligan stayed on, serving as von Steuben’s ‘private secretary” until the Baron’s death. Mulligan inherited von Steuben’s library, maps and $2,500 cash, a considerable amount at the time, especially considering that von Steuben was not a wealthy man.
Every year since 1958, the German-American Steuben Parade has been held in New York City. It is one of the city’s biggest parades. Similar events take place in Chicago and Philadelphia. Chicago’s von Steuben Day Parade is featured in the iconic ’80s film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).
The Steuben Society was founded in 1919 as an educational, fraternal, patriotic organization of American citizens of German heritage. In the difficult years after World War I, the Society helped the German-Americans reorganize.
Steubenville, Ohio, is named in the Baron’s honor. Submarines, warships, bridges, streets, schools ocean liners, and dance steps are named after him.
A statue of von Steuben stands in Lafayette Square opposite the White House in Washington DC, erected, so to speak in 1911 by sculptor Albert Jaegers, himself a queer Kraut. On the backside of the pedestal at the rear is a plaque with the images of von Steuben’s adopted aides-de-camp, North and Walker, facing one another. It reads: “Colonel William North – Major Benjamin Walker – Aides and Friends of von Steuben”. On each side of the pedestal are bronze Roman soldiers. Above the carved words “military instruction” on one side is a seated, helmeted Roman soldier “instructing” a naked youth.
In Conduct Unbecoming (1993) by Randy Shilts, von Stueben is named as an early example of the value of having a homosexual in the military.
Two little footnotes:
In William Dunlap‘s History Of The American Theatre, published in 1832, he writes that Charles Adams was one of a group of men who frequented the theatre in Manhattan and wrote about what they saw. They called their group, The Friendly Club, and other members included patriots John Wells, Elias Hicks, Samuel Jones, William Cutting and Peter Irving. Adams, whose famous father vowed never to see him again after Charles abandoned his wife and children, drank himself to death in 1800, taken by booze at just 30-years-old. Most scholars believe that he was unable to deal with his gayness. Charles Adams, who streaked naked across the campus of Harvard while a student, had a reputation as a rogue and renegade, and his family’s silence after his death supports that theory. Charles certainly spent much of his time in the company of gay men. If that wasn’t queer enough, Adams lived on Little Queen Street in what is now the Financial District.
Von Steuben most likely threw the first underwear party in the USA, at his house in Valley Forge. He hosted the party exclusively for his lower-ranking friends. He insisted, that ”none should be admitted that had on a whole pair of breeches”.