Samuel W Durant.

History of Oneida County, New York : with illustrations and biographical sketches of some of its prominent men and pioneers online

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discipline, gained during more than twenty years' service
under the most renowned commanders of the eighteenth
century, to the success of those ennobling principles for
which our fathers contended, and, moreover, as he was a
citizen not only of the State of New York, but of Oneida
County, within whose borders he owned a large tract of
land, where he spent his last days, and where his ashes re-
pose, — it seems eminently proper that a brief outline of his
life and services should be included in this volume.

The materials are largely drawn from Frederick Kapp's
thorough and excellent work, "The Life' of Frederick
William von Steuben," published by Mason Brothers, New
York, 1859. We have also drawn some important items
from Hon. P. Jones' "Annals of 'Oneida County."

The services rendered the cause of American Independ-
ence by this brilliant soldier are very imperfectly understood
by the great mass of the American people, and Mr. Kapp
has performed not only a pleasant duty — a " labor of love,"
— but has brought to light an immense amount of informa-
tion, drawn from the most authentic sources, and presented
it in .such a masterly and interesting manner as to entitle
him to the thanks of every student of American history.

Frederick William Augustus Henry Ferdinand von
Steuben* was born at Magdeburg, a Prussian city on the
Elbe, Nov. 15, 1730. He belonged to a noble and mili-
tary family whose record is proudly written on the face of

■■•> Commonly known to the Amorican people as Baron Steuben. It
is said by some of the old residents of the neighborhood where Steu-
ben passed the latter years'of his life that be was a great admirer of
(he French people, and particularly of Voltaire; and he carried this
admiration so far as to cliango his signature from Von Steuben to Do
Steuben, and adopted the French [ironiinciation nnd accent. This
statement is supported by Ibe belief of o.t-Governor Horatio Seymour
and other intelligent and .and reliable parties. [Ed.]



Europe. In his eliildhood lie accompanied his father to the
Crimea against the Turks, while ho was in the service of
Russia. He subsequently returned with his father to his
native country. He received his education at the Jesuits'
colleges of Neisse and Breslau, at that time the best in the
province of Silesia, then lately conquered from the Austri-
ans. He was an apt scholar, and particularly distinguished
himself in mathematics. While a mere boy of fourteen
years, he served with his father as a volunteer, and was
present at the siege of Prague.

At the age of seventeen (1747) he entered as a cadet
the famous infantry regiment Von Lestwich, afterwards Von
Tauenzien. He was promoted to ensign in 1749, and to
lieutenant in 1753. In 1755, at the commencement of the
famous " Seven Years' War," he was made first lieutenant.
He was present at the great buttle of Rossbach, in Novem-
ber, 1757, and in the following year became adjutant-
general on the staff of General Von Mayr, one of Frederick
the Great's most conspicuous commanders.

Fi'ederick was then in the zenith of his glory as a mili-
tary commander, and the wonderful exploits of the Prus-
sian army were the theme of every tongue. After General
Mayr's death Steuben served in the same position on the
staff of General Von Hiilsen, another of Frederick's dis-
tinguished commanders. He probably took part in the
bloody battles of Kay and Kunersdorf, in July and August,
1759, for he was among the wounded in the latter action,
which nearly annihilated the Prussian army. He subse-
quently served on the staff of General Knobloch, and was
the officer sent by that commander to negotiate terms with
the enemy when compelled to surrender his division at
Treptow, on the Rega, in October, 1761.

Steuben, in company with his brother officers, was sent
to St. Petersburg. In 1762, Peter III., the succos.sor of
the Empress Elizabeth on the throne of Russia, concluded
an armistice with Frederick of Prussia. The new monarch
endeavored to persuade the young lieutenant to enter the
Russian service, but he declined. He was soon after ap-
pointed on the personal staff of the King of Prussia as aid-
de-camp, with the rank of captain, and in this capacity
served at the siege of Schweidnitz, near the close of the
Seven Years' war. He was a favorite with the king, who
treated him with the highest consideration. He was one
of six officers chosen by the king for the purpose of re-
ceiving his personal instruction in military science ; and at
the end of the war, in 1762, he presented Steuben with a
lay benefice producing an annual income of 400 thalers.

Soon after the conclu.sion of peace, Steuben left the
Prassian service, for reasons not very clearly set forth.
He petitioned for his discharge from the army, and visited
various places, and formed among other acquaintances that
of Count St. Germain, then in the service of Denmark, but
afterwards the French minister of war.

In 1764 he was tendered the position of grand marshal
of the court of the Prince of Hohenzoliern-IIechingen,
which he accepted, and filled with distinguished ability for'
a period of ten years. Steuben was a nominal follower of
the Protestant teachings of Luther, aud this led him into
difficulty with the priests at the court, who wore zealous
Catholics, and he resigned his honorable position. He with-

drew to the court of the Margrave of Baden, at Carlsruhe,
who had bestowed upon him the cross of the order " De la
Fidelity" in 1769.

Having plenty of leisure, Steuben traveled quite exten-
sively, and visited Baron Von Waldener at his residence
in Al.sace, where he renewed his acquaintance with Count
St. Germain. He also visited Montpellier, in the south of
France, and formed the acquaintance of the English Earls
of Warwick and Spencer, and the French Prince de Mont-
barey, subsequently minister of war.

Tiring of his inactive life, Steuben, during the year
1776, had determined to re-enter the military service, and
it would appear that he made application to enter the Ger-
man army ; but the obstacles were found too formidable to
be overcome, and Steuben determined to visit England,
and sot out in April, 1777, traveling via Paris, where he
arrived in May.

At this time the excitement in France over the Ameri-
can war pervaded the ranks of the nobility and the court,
and he found Count St. Germain greatly interested, although
the government had not yet taken any decided steps towards
assisting the struggling colonies.

Silas Deane and Benjamin Franklin, the agents of the
Americans, were then in France endeavoring to interest the
government in the struggle, but the king and his minis-
ters, while manifesting the most lively interest, were too
wary to risk the chances of a war with England without
due deliberation ; and, therefore, while every facility for
supplying the Americans with the sinews of war through
private sources was allowed, the court dexterously avoided
an open declaration of war.

Steuben met the American commissioners, who were ex-
ceedingly anxious to engage his services, but at the same
time declared their inability to make any satisfactory guar-
antees. The Count St. Germain urged him to go to Amer-
ica, and endeavored to show him what a magnificent field
was open to him ; but Steuben was wholly disinclined to
adventure, and made arrangements to return to Prussia.
He made a farewell visit to the Count St. Germain, and
while there the Spanish ambassador came in, to whom the
count introduced Steuben. On the same day he visited the
Prince De Montbarey, and found him, like the others, gi-eatly
interested on the side of the Americans.

He finally departed for Germany, and on his arrival at
Bastadt met Prince Louis William, of Baden, and also
found a most persuasive letter from M. de Beaumarchais,
who stated that Count St. Germain expected his immediate
return to Versailles. He also stated that funds would be
furnished him, and that a vessel was ready at Marseilles to
depart for America. This letter was accompanied by one
from the count, who strongly urged his return. In this
dilemma he resolved to consult Prince Louis William, of
Baden, who, to his surprise, told him he considered there
was no room for hesitation, and advised him to proceed at
once to America. This determined his course, and arrang-
ing his business and obtaining permission from the King of
Prus.sia, he returned to Paris in August, 1777.

Here he conferred with Prince De Montbarey, Count St.
Germain, and the Count De Vergennss, the French minis-
ter of Ibreign affairs, and having made all necessary ax-



rangements, on the 26fch of September, 1777, he set sail
from Marseilles in the ship " L'Heureux," of 24 guns.
His name was entered on the ship's book as Frank.* His
suite consisted of Peter S. Duponceau, as secretary and
interpreter ; and his aids, De I'Enfant, De Romanai, Des
Epini^res, and De Pon tiers, the latter of whom afterwards
entered the cavalry legion of Count Pulaski as captain.

On board this vessel were also supplies and munitions of
war for the American government, consisting of 1700
pounds of powder, 22 tons of sulphur, 52 brass guns,
19 mortars, etc., advanced partly by the Frencli govern-
ment and partly by M. Do Beaumarchais, who also ad-
vanced Steuben his traveling expenses. After a rough
and tedious passage of sixty-six days, during which she
encountered two severe storms, and had a mutiny and a
fire on board, the vessel reached Portsmouth, N. H., on the
first day of December, 1777.

News of the capture of Burgoyne's army reached Paris
late in the same year, and the new Bepublic was recognized
by the Court of France on the 6th of February, 1778, and
an alliance was concluded between the two nations.

Steuben was everywhere received with acclamation. In
writing to a friend in Europe he says, —

" The more disastrous the passage the more flattering was my
arrival in America. Before entering the port of Portsmouth, I
ordered my secretary to go on shore in u, boat, and inform General
Langdon, the commander of the place, of my arrival, who came on
board himself to take me and my officers ashore in his boat. While
we were landing we were saluted by the guns of the fortrees, and by
ships in the port. Several thousands of the inhabitants welcomed me
in the most flattering-way. Mr. Langdon took us to his house to
dine. Although exhausted by the hardships of the voyage, I went
the next day to examine the fortifications. On the following day I
reviewed the' troops of the garrison.''

While at Portsmouth, Steuben heard of the capture of
Burgoyne's army. It was hailed as a good omen. His
first care upon his arrival was to write to Congress and to
General Washington. These letters are such a character-
istic reflex of the man that we give them entire. To Con-
gress, on the 6th of December, he wrote, —

"Honorable Gentlemen, — The honor of serving a nation engaged
in the noble enterprii-e of defending its rights and liberties was the
motive that brought me to this continent. I ask neither riches nor
titles. I am come here from the remotest end of Germany, at my own
expense, and have given up an honorable aud lucrative rank. I have
made no conditions with your deputies in France, nor shall I make
any with you. My only nmbttion is to serve you as a volunteer, to
deserve the confidence of your general-in-chief, and to follow him
in all his operations, as I have done during seven campaigns with
the king of Prussia. Two and twenty years spent in such a schoal
seem to give me a right of thinking myself among the number of ex-
perienced officers; and if lam possessed of acquirements in the art
of war, they will be much more prized by rae if I can employ them in
serving a republic such as I hope soon to see America. I should
willingly purchase, at the expense of my blood, the honor of having
my name enrolled among those of the defenders of your liberty.
Your gracious acceptance will be sufficient for me, and I ask no other
favor than to be received among your officers. I venture to hope
that you will grant this, my request, and that you will be so good as
to send me your orders to Boston, where I shall await them, and take
suitable measures in accordance."

To Washington he wrote as follows :

^■^ Steuben carried letters of introduction from Franklin to General
Washington and prominent members of Congresp.

"SiR^ — The inclosed copy of a letter, the original of which I shall
have the honor of presenting to your Excellency, will inform you of
the motives which brought me over to this land. I shall only add to
it that the object of my greatest ambition ia to render your country all
the service in my ])Ower, and to deserve the title of a citizen of
America by fighting for the cause of your liberty. If the distin-
guished ranks in which I have served in Europe should be an obstacle,
I should rather serve under your Excellency as a volunteer than to
be an object of discontent to such deserving officers as have already
distinguished themselves among you. Such being the sentiments I
have always professed, I dare hope that the respectable Congress of the
United States of America will accept my services. I could say, more-
over, were it not for the fear of offending your modesty, that your
Excellency is the only person under whom, after having served the
King of Prussia, I eould wish to follow in a profession to the study of
which I have wholly devoted myself. I intend to go to Boston in a
few days, where I shall present my letters to Mr. Hancock, member of
Congress, and there I shall await your Excellency's orders."

Steuben left Portsmouth Dec. 12, and set out for Boston
by land, where he arrived on the 14th. He was most cor-
dially received by John Hancock, then just retired from the
presidency of Congress. At Boston he received a reply
from Washington, who informed him that he must proceed
to York, Pa., where Congress was in session, and report to
them direct. On the 14th of January, 1778, he left Boston,
and traveled on horseback through Massachusetts, Connec-
ticut, New York, and Penn.sylvania, a journey of about
400 miles, which occupied three weeks. The same journey
can be performed at the present time (1878) in fifteen hours.
The party arrived at York on the 5th of February.

A characteristic anecdote is related of Steuben by his
secretary, Duponceau, while on this journey:

"We had been cautioned against putting up at a. certain tavern in
Worcester Co., Mass., not far from the frontier of Connecticut. We
were told that the landlord was a bitter Tory, and that he would refuse
to receive us, or, at least, treat us very ill. We determined to avoid
the place if it were possible. Unfortunately, when we were at some
distance from it, we were surprised by a violent snow-storm ; it was in
the evening, and we were compelled to take shelter in the very house
we wished to avoid. We had not been misinformed. The landlord at
once said that he could not accommodate us. He had no beds, no bread,
no meat, no drink, no milk, no eggs ; all that he could offer us was the
bare walls. In vain wc remonstrated and prayed; he remained inflex-
ible. At last Baron Steuben grew impatient, and flew into a violent
passion. After exhausting all his store of German oaths, he called in
that language to his servant to bring his pistols, which he did. Then,
the baron, presenting the deadly weapons at the frightened landlord,
repeated the question he had in vain asked before, * Have you any
bread, meat, drink, beds, etc. ?' The answers were now such as we
desired ; we were accommodated with good beds and a good supper,
and our horses were properly taken care of. In the morning, after
our breakfast, we politely took leave of our host, who, though a Tory,
did not refuse the Continental money in which we liberally paid him.*'

On the 6th of February a committee of Congress, at
the head of which was Dr. Witherspoon. waited upon the
baron, and to their inquiries as to his wishes and desires,
he replied that he had made no arrangements with the
conmiissioners in Paris, and that he desired to make no
special arrangements other than to enter the army as a vol-
unteer. If the country should not succeed in gainins; its
independence he should ask nothing ; but if, on the con-
trary, the cause should triumph, he should expect reason-
able return for his services. He asked commissions for
the officers attached to his person, namely, that of major
and aid-de-camp for Mr. De Roman ai ; that of captain of
engineers for Mr. De I'Enfant; that of captain of cavalry



for Mr. De Depontiere; and the rank of captain for his
secretary, Mr. Duponceau. If those terms were agreeable
to Congress he would join the army without delay.

The committee were greatly pleased at his modest request,
andthe following day Congress gave an entertainment in his
honor, at which Mr. Laurens, the president, informed him
it was the desire of Congress that he should join the army
immediately, in conformity with the following resolutions :

*' Whereaitj Baron Steuben, u. lieutenant-general in foreign service,
has, in a most disinterested and heroic manner, offered his services to
these States as a volunteer,

"Jieiotcedf That the president present the thanks of Congress, in
behalf of these United States, to Baron Steuben, for the zeal ho has
shown for the cause of America, and the disinterested tender he has
been pleased to make of his military talents; and inform him that
Congress cheerfully accepts of his sorvives as a volunteer in the army
of these States, and wish him to repair to General Washington's
quarters as soon as convenient."

He was received with every mark of distinction by Con-
gress and the prominent men of the nation, General Gates
in particular paying him great attention. He arrived at
Valley Forge on the 23d of February. Washington rode
out several miles to meet him, and he was received with
the most distinguished honors. When he remonstrated
with Washington for detailing a guard of honor at his
quarters, the commander-in-chief playfully replied that the
whole army would gladly stand sentinel for such volun-
teers. His name was given out as the watchword on the
same day, and on the next day he accompanied Washin" -
ton in a review of the army. In closing a letter written
shortly after to a friend, he says, —

" To be brief, if Prinee Ferdinand of Brunswick, or the greatest
field-marshal of Europe, had been in my place he could not have been
received with greater marks of honor."

In March, 1778, Steuben accepted the position of in-
spector of the army, tendered him by Washington, and
commenced that remarkable series of instruction and disci-
pline which eventually made of the raw and undisciplined
American troops an army able to cope with the veterans of
European armies; for of this renovated and crystallized ma-
terial was the detachment of New England troops which,
under Wayne, carried the strong fortress of Stony Point at
the bayonet's point ; which charged unhesitatingly, under
the same commander, upon the veterans of Cornwallis, in
Virginia; and which competed nobly with the white-coated
chivalry of France in the smoking trenches of Yorktown.

At the time of Steuben's temporary appointment by
Washington the position of chiefinspector was held by
General Conway, whose cabal against the commander-in-
chief, soon after, forced him to leave the army in disgrace,
leaving the position to be filled by Steuben, who was
appointed by a i-esolution of Congress, at the urgent solici-
tation of Washington, on the 5th of May, 1778, inspector-
general, with the rank of major-general.

In Frost's " American Generals" the following worthy
tribute is paid the baron :

" The great services rendered by the Baron, as exhibited in the
rapid improvement of the army, did not escape the notice of either
Washington or Congress, and at the recommendation of the former
he was appointed inspector-general with the rank of major-general

By his great exertions he made this offi

oe respectable, establishing

frugality and economy among the soldiers. In the discipline of both

the men and officevs he was entirely impartialj and never omitted an
opportunity to praise merit or censure a fault.

"Washington speaks of him in the following manner: 'Justice
concurring with inclination constrain me to testify that the baron has
in every instance discharged the several trusts reposed in him with
great zeal and ability, so as to give him the fullest title to my esteem
as a brave, indefatigable, judicious, and experienced officer.'"

When it is recollected that Washington never acted or
spoke except with due deliberation, and upon the most
thoroujrh conviction, and that, above all men, he abstained
from fulsome flattery, the value of his opinion and the
merit of Steuben will be understood.

In speaking of the great difficulties of his position, and
the obstacles to be overcome, Col. William North, the
baron's aid-de-camp and intimate friend, uses the following
language :

"Certainly it was a brave attempt. Without understanding a
word of English, to think of bringing men, horn free, and joined to-
gether to preserve their freedom, into strict subjection j to obey with-
out a word, a look, the mandates of a master, — -that master once their
equal, or pijssibly beneath them, in whatever might become a man !
It was a brave attempt, which nothing but virtue or high-raised
hopes of glory could have supported. At the firat parade the troops,
neither understanding the command nor how to follow in a changc-
ment to which they had not been accustomed, even with the instructor
at their head, were getting fust into confusion. At this moment Capt.
B. Walker, then of the 2d New York Regiment, advanced from hia
platoon, and offered hia assistance to translate the orders and inter-
pret to the troops, ' If,' paid the baron, ' I had seen an angel from
heaven I should not have more rejoiced.' The officers in the army
who spoke English and French fluently were indeed very few in num-
ber, — how few were so capable of giving assistance to the Baron in
the formation of his system ! Walker became from that moment his
atd-de-camp, and remained to the end of the baron's life his dear and
most worthy friend.

" From the commencement of instruction no time, no pains, no
fatigue were thought too great in pursuit of this great object.
Through the whole of each campaign, when troops were to manoeuvre,
and ihat was almost every dny, the baron rose at three o'clock ; while
his servant dressed his hair he smoked a single pipe, and drank one
cup of coffee, was on horseback at sunrise, and, with or without hia
suite, galloped to the parade. There was no waiting for a tardy aid-
de-camp, and those who followed wished they had not slept. Nor
was there need of chiding j when duty was neglected or military eti-
quette infi-inged, the baron's look was sufficient. It was a question
why, in the first instance, our troops had been put to the performance
of the great manoeuvres. I beg pardon for calling them great, but
they were great to us, for we were ignorant. Bland's exercises and
Symmes' military guide were almost the only poor and scanty sources
from which wo drew. To the question it was answered that in fact
there was no time to spare in learning the minutiae; the troops must
be prepared for instant combat; that on a field of battle how to dis-
play or fold a column or to change a front was of the first conse-
quence; that the business was to give the troops a relish for their
trade, a confidence in their skill in the performance of complicated
evolutions ; that, even if time permitted, the officers, copying the bad
example set them by the British of referring all instructions to the
sergeants, would feel themselves degraded in attending to an awk-
ward squad. 'But the time will come,' said he, ' when a better mode
of thinking will prevail; then we will attend to the A, B, C of the
profession.' This prophecy was amply fulfilled. A year or two after-
wards the baron said to me, * Do you see there, sir, your colonel
instructing that recruit ? I thank God for that!' "'

The first result of the French alliance was the evacuation
of Philadelphia by Sir Henry Clinton, which occurred on
the 18th of June, 1778. The British commander evidently
feared a blockade of the Delaware by a French squadron,
which, with the co-operation of Washington's army, might

Online LibrarySamuel W DurantHistory of Oneida County, New York : with illustrations and biographical sketches of some of its prominent men and pioneers → online text (page 178 of 192)