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Frederick William von Steuben and the American Revolution, aide to Washington and inspector general of the Army online

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United States of America. Three members of Congress have
been appointed for ■ concluding an arrangement with me to-
morrow; that will not take long, my only claim being the confi-
dence of your general in chief.

It will not be amiss here to say a few words concern-
ing the body before which Steuben was to appear. As
early as 1765, upon the suggestion of James Otis, of
Massachusetts, that colony with Rhode Island, Connecti-
cut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware,
Maryland and South Carolina selected delegates to a
gathering at New York to prepare a joint protest against
the stamp act and other proceedings of the English par-
liament. Governor Dunmore prevented the assembling of
the Virginia legislature, and so no delegates were present
from that colony, although public sentiment favored
the Congress. This assembly, which met on October 7,
adjourned after preparing suitable memorials to the King,
and did not attempt to exercise any legislative power.
Events progressed rapidly during the next nine years, and
in 1774 Virginia took the initiative in proposing a gen-
eral Congress in spite of the efiforts of the Royalist gov-
ernor to prevent it. It may be news to many persons that
the principal grievance set forth by the statesmen of the
Old Dominion, of that day, so far as they were personal-
ly concerned, was that in spite of their repeated protests
the King of England had forced them into tolerating
human slavery. The troubles in the northern colonies,
such as the matter of tea, the billeting of troops &c. were
to them matters of principle and sympathy with their
troubled brethren, rather than the experience of personal
suffering. But slavery they did not want, and they pro-
posed to get rid of it if possible. Had any one at that
time ventured the prediction that Virginia would at some


future time engage in a war for thepreservation of slavery
he would have been classed as an idiot. In fact it would
probably not be too much to say that negro slavery was
more popular in New England than in Virginia until
climatic conditions demonstrated its undesirability.

Thomas Jefferson was prevented by illness from at-
tending the convention which was called to consider the
situation, but sent a paper that was presented by Peyton
Randolph in which, after enumerating general wrongs he
proceeds to this pointed declaration : ''The abolition of
domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those
colonies where it was unhappily introduced in their infant
state. But, previous to the enfranchisement of the slaves
we have, it is necessary to exclude all further importa-
tions from Africa ; yet our repeated attempts to effect this
by prohibitions, and by imposing duties which might
amount to a prohibition, have hitherto been defeated by
his majesty's negative, thus preferring the immediate ad-
vantage of a few British corsairs to the lasting interests
of the American states, and to the rights of human na-
ture, deeply wounded by this infamous practice."

Brave words these, which the convention unanimously
endorsed by the following resolution : "After the first day
of November next we will neither ourselves import nor
purchase any slave or slaves imported by any other per-
son, either from Africa, the West Indies, or any other

George Washington, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry
Lee, Edmund Pendleton and Peyton Randolph were
elected delegates, and when the first Congress met in
Carpenters' Hall in Philadelphia, on September 5, 1774,
the last named was elected President. Forty-three dele-
gates representing eleven colonies were presnt. North


Carolina coming in on the 14th, and Georgia not until the
following year.

As to personnel this gathering probably never had a
superior in the world's history. The two Adams's, John
Hancock, Roger Sherman, Edward Rutledge and Liv-
ingstones were only leading illustrations of the represen-
tative men from every colony. The new body called itself
the Congress, but what were its powers and duties, and
whence were they derived? One historian writing of it
at this period speaks of it as the Government, but quali-
fies his expression by adding, "If such a body could be
called a government." "The delegates themselves were
not clear on this point ; some had been sent by legislatures
of the different colonies, and some by conventions of the
people, some claimed their authority to rest upon the
natural rights of man, and others upon historical prece-
dents which it must be confessed were not very strong.
It could hardly be called anything more than a committee,
whose acts unless ratified by some power behind them, had
no more legal force than the resolutions of a literary or
historical society." Yet during the seven years of its ex-
istence "it exercised some of the highest functions of
sovereignty which are possible to any governing body. It
declared the independence of the United States; it con-
tracted an offensive and defensive alliance with France:
it raised and organized a Continental army; it borrowed
large sums of money, and pledged what the lenders un-
derstood to be the national credit for their repayment; it
issued an inconvertible paper currency, granted letters of
marque, and built a navy. All this it did in the exercise
of what in later times would have been called implied war
powers, and its authority rested upon the general acqui-
escence in the purpose for which it acted, and in the
measures which it adopted." [Fiske].


Von Hoist in his able Constitutional History takes the
advanced ground ''that Congress being a revolutionary
body from its origin, the people by recognizing its author-
ity placed themselves on a revolutionary footing, not as
belonging to the several colonies but as a moral person ;"
for to the extent that Congress assumed power to itself
and made bold to adopt measures national in their na-
ture, to that extent the colonists declared themselves pre-
pared henceforth to constitute one people, inasmuch as
the measures taken by Congress could be translated from
words into deeds only with the consent of the people.
Reasoning from these premises our historian concludes
that there never was any such thing as a sovereign state
in this country, that when the people of the colonies sent
their delegates to the Congress, and that body assumed
the sovereign functions of carrying on war, making
treaties &c., the authority which had been recognized in
the British crown was transferred bodily to Congress,
which by virtue of its revolutionary authority became the
sole repository of power. Hence the Articles of Con-
federation which were afterwards proposed were not
only a limitation of the powers previously possessed by
Congress, but their adoption by the legislatures of the dif-
ferent states was illegal, null and void. This was a mat-
ter of not much moment, however, as these Articles were
found from their start to be unworkable, and the country
was fast drifting into anarchy, when the genius and
patriotism of Washington and his associates again came
to the front and framed the present Constitution, where
the ''One people" of the Declaration of Independence, ob-
scured or ignored by the "Union between the States" ac-
cording to the Articles of Confederation," was restored
by "We the People," of the existing instrument, and this
Constitution was ratified, not by the legislatures of the


various states, but by Conventions chosen directly by the
people for this purpose.

But whether we regard the powers of the Continental
Congress as theoretically autocratic, according to Von
Hoist, or simply those of a committee of recommenda-
tion, according to other historians, it will be more profit-
able to consider what it actually did, rather than accord-
ing to precedents it was empowered to do. There is no
doubt that its force in the beginning existed largely in the
character of the men who composed it. Those who con-
trolled its councils exercised a similar influence in the
local assemblies, and this with public opinion at their
backs gave to their recommendations the force of law.
The idea of independence was not formally considered in
either the first or second Congress. Memorials to the
King, voluntary abstention from commercial intercourse
and passive resistance were the weapons with which it
hoped to restore to the people their rights as Brit-
ish subjects. But Lexington, Concord and Bunker's Hill
shattered the hopes in that direction, and when Congress
on June 15, 1775, elected George Washington, Com-
mander in Chief of the "Continental Army," then back
of Boston, it assumed in effect the highest functions of
government, although more than a year was to elapse be-
fore the formal declaration of independence was made.
Canada was invaded and Montgomery lost his life, Wash-
ington had compelled the evacuation of Boston, and the
Southern states had actively resisted aggression, yet still
America was counted as part of the British Empire. But
the colonies were already practically independent, and Vir-
ginia formally so by the adoption of a bill of rights which
furnished the model for the gre#it state paper, which,
published on July 4, 1776, created the American Nation.
Thus Congress proceeded as a bodv wn'th unlimited pow-


ers to the culmination of its work. It authorized amiies,
appointed commanders, and issued state papers ad libi-
tum, and at the beginning the patriotism and enthusiasm
of the insurgents prevented the weakness of the govern-
ment from becoming too apparent. But the wit of man
has never yet devised a government that can exist on en-
thusiasm. It may call spirits from the vasty deep, but
will they come? Congress soon discovered that they
would not. As it had no power to coerce a state or the
citizens thereof it could only request money, men and
supplies, and frequently none was forthcoming. The
Continental army w^s at all times pitifully small, and
more than once on the verge of starvation, without suf-
ficient clothing to cover its nakedness. Almost the sole
material resources of the Government were derived from
French loans, voluntary contributions or the costly expe-
dient of paper money issues w^hich soon became practi-
cally valueless. As a result of this condition the charac-
ter of Congress itself rapidly deteriorated; the original
leaders were in the army or at home taking part in the
state governments. Had there been unity much of these
evils might have been overcome, but, as if the situation
were not bad enough, there were cabals and factions which
threatened disaster, and while Washington with his little
army was doing his best to confine the British to New
York and neig;hborhood there were plots to displace him
and put Gates in his place. There was such a prejudice
a_e:ainst anything like a standing army that it was some
time before Congress, in response to the General's earnest
appeals, agreed to authorize a national force of eighty-
eight 1:)attalions, about 44,000 men, and even then the
matter might almost as well been let alone, as only a
small fraction of that force was ever raised, and to the
end the battles of the Revolution were fought by insignifi-


cant forces of Continentals, supplemented in most cases
by militia from that or adjoining states.

That Duponceau fully realized the situation is evident
from his following description of the situation during his
stay at York :!.^''"^K''i °^ u^' ^1'^^'^ ^^^^^' ^'^^^ "°t at that time
the illustrious body whose eloquence and wisdom, whose stern
virtues and unflinching patriotism had astonished the world
Ihiir number was reduced to about one-half of what it was
when independence was declared; all but a few of the men of
suoenor minds had disappeared from it. Their measures were
feeble and vacillatVig and their party feuds seemed to forebode
seme impending calamity. The enemy were in possession of
OAT capital city; the. army we had to oppose to them were hun-
gry naked and destitute of everything. No foreign govern-
ment had yet acknowledged our independence— everything
around us was dark and gloomy. The only ray of light which
appeared amidst the darkness was the capture of Burgoyne
which cheered the spirits of those who might otherwise have
despaired of the commonwealth. But that brilliant victory
had nearly produced the most fatal consequences. Saratoga was
then what New Orleans has been since, the watchword of the
discontented. A party was formed even in Congress, to raise
the conqueror of Burgoyne to the supreme command of our
armies. But the great figure of Washington stood calm and
serene at hi? camp at Valley Forge, and struck the conspirators
with awe With the exception of a few factious chiefs, he was
Idolized by the army and by the nation at large. The plot was
discovered and the plan frustrated without a struggle Without
any effort or management on his part, and by the mere force of
his character. Washington stood firm and undaunted in the
midst of his enemies, and I might almost say, looked them in
the face^ Such was the state of things when we arrived at
/ork. Parties were then at their height, but as Congress sat
with closed doors the country at large was not agitated as it
would otherwise have been. There were not wanting out of
doors disaffected persons who railed at King "Cong " and the
bunch of Kings" (such was the slang of the day among the
lories) butthe great mass of the people Avas still in favor of
the Revolution, and the press did not dare to utter a sentiment
inimical to it.



Final Arrangements Made — Departure for the Army — Teirible
Condition of the Troops — Supplies and Discipline Eqially
Absent — Enormous Waste — Welcomed by Washington —
Appointed Temporary Inspector — Radical Reforms Intro-

Upon information that Baron Steuben had arrived at
York Congress appointed a committee consisting of Lr.
John Witherspoon, of New Jersey; Messrs. Henry, of
Maryland, and Thomas McKean, of Delaware, to wait
on him and ascertain the terms on which he was willing
to serve in the Continental army, and whether he had
entered into any arrangement with Deane and Franklin.
The conversation was carried on in French through Dr.
Witherspoon, who acted as interpreter. As to previous
arrangements the Baron declared that there were none,
and he did not demand any rank or pay. He desired to
join the army as a volunteer under the direction of the
commander-in-chief, stating that he had relinquished
places and posts in Germany amounting to about HOO
guineas ($3,000) per annum, and in consideration of this
he expected the United States to defray his necessary ex-
penses while in the service; that if this country should
fail to establish its independence, or if he should not suc-
ceed in his endeavors, in either of these cases he should
consider the United States as free from any obligations to-
wards him ; but if on the other hand, the United States
should be fortunate enough to establish their freedom,
and if his efforts should be successful, in that case he
should expect full indemnification for the sacrifice he had
made in coming over, and such marks of their liberality


as tlic justice of tlie United States should dictate. He
rerjuired commissions for the officers attached to his
person, that of major and aide-de-campe for De Ro-
manai, captain of engineers for De TEnfant, captain of
cavalry for De Depontiere, and captain for his secretary,

More generous terms could hardly have been offered
as the Baron not only tendered his services freely to Con-
gress, but had given up a substantial income and home
comforts and surroundings to embark in a doubtful ad-
venture in a new country. The committee reported to
Congress at once, which forthwith adopted the following
resolutions :

Whereas Baron Steuben, a lieutenant general in foreign ser-
vice, has in a most disinterested and heroic manner offered his
services to these states as a volunteer,

Resolved, That the President present the thanks of Con-
gress in behalf of these United States, to Baron Steuben, for the
zeal he has shown for the cause of America, and the disinter-
ested tender he has been pleased to make of his military talents,
and inform him that Congress cheerfully accept of his services
as a volunteer in the army of these states, and wish him to re-
pair to General Washington's quarters as soon as convenient.

All arrangements being complete the Baron and party
left York for Valley Forge on the morning of February
19, and arrived at Lancaster, Pa., early in the afternoon
of the sam.e day. Lancaster was 24 miles east of York
in an air line, of course a little farther by the usual roads.
It was then the largest inland town in the United States,
and on his arrival the Baron was received by a committee
with Colonel Gibson at the head, and the party were in-
vited to a subscription ball to be given that evening in
their honor. The elite of the vicinity were present, and
the Baron was no doubt highly pleased that many of the
young ladies could converse with him in his native tongue,
the community having been largely composed of


German settlers, whose thrift with that of their descen-
dants has made that section one of the garden spots of
the country. There was a banquet, and the festivities
continued until 2 A. M.

Here he met WilHam North, who afterwards became
his aide-de-camp and adopted son, who remarks in a
note, ''His reputation had preceded him, and those who
remember his graceful entry and manner in a ball room,
the novel splendor of his star and its accompanying orna-
ments, can easily conceive the feelings of his countrymen
and of their assembled wives and daughters ; they might
indeed, with honest feeling, have thanked God that they
had no reason to be ashamed of him."

Whether the Baron remained over the next day at Lan-
caster to recuperate from the festivities we are not told.
It was something over fifty miles from there to Valley
Forge, which w^as easily covered by the 2.3d when the
cavalcade arrived at its destination. Washington v/as al-
ready apprised of its coming, and Steuben writes :,
''Upon my arrival in camp I was again the object of
more honors than I was entitled to. General W^ashing-
ton came several miles to meet me on the road, and ac-
companied me to my quarters, where I found an officer
with twenty-five men as a guard of honor. When I de-
clined this, saying that I wished to be considered merely
as a volunteer, the general answered me in the politest
words that the whole anny would be gratified to stand
sentinel for such volunteers. He introduced me to Ma-
jor-General Lord Stirling and several other generals. On
the same day my name was given as watchword. The
following day the army was mustered, and General
Washington accompanied me to review it. To be brief,
if Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick, or the greatest field

JONATHAN STE LT BEN' S 1 1 1 RT : 1 1 ' E.\ i




marshal of Europe had been in my place he could not
have been received with greater honor than I was."

Four days later Washington in notifying Congress of
the Baron's arrival, says : 'Tie appears to be much of a
gentleman, and as far as I have had an opportunity of
judging, a man of military knowledge and acquainted
with the world." The first favorable impression which
these two great men received of each other only deepened
upon close acquaintance.

While the sufferings of the patriot army at Valley
Forge during the dark winter of 1777-78 have not been
exaggerated it is not necessary to recapitulate them here.
The whole story may be summed up in the statement
that of the 17,000 men who at least nominally composed
the force at the beginning of the winter sickness, naked-
ness, death and desertions had reduced the number in
February to a little over 5,000. There were provisions in
the country, but not all Washington's vigorous remon-
strances and petitions could move Congress to act effec-
tively in furnishing the suffering troops with the neces-
saries of life, let alone a proper military equipment.
Thomas Conway, born in Ireland, educated in Frarxe,
and an adventurer in America, had l^een appointed in-
spector-general of the army sometime before, but he was
more occupied in fomenting conspiracies against the
commander-in-chief than in performing the duties of his
office, finally resigning his commission in April, the most
commendable act of his official career. Washington was
also aware that in order to make effective soldiers of the
Continentals they must be taught regular military tactics,
to maneuver in concert, to obey promptly and automatic-
ally and onerate generally as an eft'ective machine. The
militia, acquainted with the use of arms, as were all the
frontiersmen of that day could do niost eft'ective work


while behind entrenchments at Bunker's Hill, and later
at New Orleans, but under reversed conditions or in the
open field they were practically useless before the trained
veterans of Europe. With his multiplicity of duties
W^ashington could not undertake this work, even if he
were fitted for it, which is doubtful, for it has been
demonstrated that the qualities of a great general and
drillmaster are seldom if ever united in the same person,
as was demonstrated at awful cost in our late Civil War.
Had Washington been a McClellan, it is safe to say that
American independence would never have been won. So
it is not surprising that Steuben was a welcome addition
to the military family at Valley Forge, and that Wash-
ington, who was not slow in discerning the good qualities
of his associates, soon realized that he had a valuable
asset in Frederick's aide-de-camp. It will not be amiss
to detail some of the Baron's impressions on reaching
camp. He says :

My determination must have been very firm that I did not
abandon my design when I saw the troops. Matters had to be
remedied, but where to commence was the great difficulty. In
the first place I informed myself relative to the military adminis-
tration. I found that the different branches were divided into
departments. There were those of the quartermaster general,
war commissary, provisions commissary, commissar}^ of the
treasur3\ or paymaster, of forage &c. But they were all bad
copies of a bad original. That is to say. they had imitated the
English administration, which is certainly the most imperfect
in Europe. * * * Each company and quartermaster had a
commission of so much per cent, on all money he expended. It
was natural, therefore, that expense was not spared — that
wants were discovered where there were none; and it was also
natural that the dearest articles were those that suited the com-
missioners best. Hence the expense of so many millions.

The effective strength of the army was divided into divi-
sions, commanded by major generals: into brigades commanded
b}' brigadier generals; and into regiments, commanded by colo-
nels. The number of men in a regiment was fixed by Congress,
as well as in a company — so many infantr}^ cavalry and artillery.
But the eternal ebb and flow of men engaged for three, six and


nine months, who went and came every day. rendered it impos-
sible to have either a regiment or a company complete; and the
words company, regiment, brigade, and division were so vague
that they did not convey any idea upon which to form a calcula-
tion, either of a particular corps or of the army in general. They
were so unequal in their number that it would have been im-
possible to execute any maneuvers. Sometimes a regiment was
stronger than a brigade. I have seen a regiment consisting of
thirty men, and a company of one corporal. Nothing was so
difficult, and often so impossible, as to get a correct list of the
state or a return of any company regiment, or corps. As in the
English service, there was a muster-master general, with a
number of assistants. It was the duty of this officer to ascer-
tain and report every month the effective state of the army, for
the payment of men and officers. This operation took place as
follows: each captain made a roll of his company, whether ab-
sent or present, after which he made oath before a superior of-
ficer that this return was correct "to the best of his knowledge

Online LibraryJoseph Beatty DoyleFrederick William von Steuben and the American Revolution, aide to Washington and inspector general of the Army → online text (page 7 of 32)