Steuben ‘indispensible’ to American Revolution

Published Oct 8, 2017 at 9:00am

A former area resident:

• Is memorialized with statues in Washington, D.C.; Valley Forge National Historical Park; Wisconsin; New Jersey, Utica and Berlin, Germany. 

• Has had a county, a city, and several buildings named for him, in addition to a warship, a submarine and an ocean liner.

• Has parades named for him in New York City, Chicago and Philadelphia.

• Has had supporters call for a national holiday in his honor.

• Was believed to have been gay.

• Was featured on a postage stamp.

• Is buried in Remsen.

Who is he? None other than Frederich Wilhelm Augustus, Baron von Steuben, who once lived in the Oneida County town named for him, and who is known as the “drillmaster of the American Revolution.”

He is considered by many to have been second in importance for wartime services only to Gen. George Washington. If not for Steuben, the U.S. might still be under British rule.

For his assistance to Washington and to his inexperienced Revolutionary War soldiers, Steuben was awarded 16,000 acres of land north of Fort Schuyler (present-day Utica).

Steuben was born in 1730 in Magdeburg, Prussia. He followed his father into the military. Starting at the age of 14, he gained experience and quickly rose through the ranks.  

When peacetime in Europe left Steuben without work, and when accusations of homosexuality put his career at risk, he volunteered to help the Americans fight the British in the Revolutionary War. 

Some authorities believe Steuben wanted to leave Europe, because he had been asked to, because of his “affections for members of his own sex,” according to biographer Paul Lockhart’s “The Drillmaster of Valley Forge.” He arrived in the U.S. with his 17-year-old secretary, who is rumored to have been his lover. At Valley Forge, he began relationships with two young officers, which some assumed to have been romantic.  

Knowing that America was tired of mercenaries, Steuben asked for no pay for his military expertise -- except for his expenses -- if the American cause failed. But he expected to be compensated if the cause was successful.

His offer was accepted, and he reported for duty to Gen. George Washington at Valley Forge in February 1778. He found the troops cold and starving. One authority described what Steuben saw: “Soldiers did not know how to use their weapons … and used their bayonets as spits to broil their food, when they had any. As to uniforms, the troops were almost nude.”

With the help of interpreters, Steuben drilled military discipline into the troops. He taught them how to do sentry duty, use bayonets, set up camp, and much more.

He wrote a manual, “Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States,” which is still the basis for military training.

He chose 100 men to personally train. When that group was finished, they each went on to train hundreds more soldiers.

After only two months, George Washington recommended Steuben be appointed Inspector General. He became a trusted advisor to Washington.

When the Americans won the war for independence, Steuben was made a citizen in 1786, and New York state gave him 16,000 acres of land of his choice. He chose a scenic, wooded area in what is now Oneida County, in a town that later bore his name.

Steuben spent his summers in a small log cabin on his New York property, and his winters in New York City. He planned to build a mansion on his upstate New York land, with 34 rooms, along with stables and a greenhouse, but that never came to pass. He served as president of the German Society and was elected a regent of the University of the State of New York.  

On Nov. 28, 1794, Steuben died at the age of 64 in his cabin. He had never married, and had no relatives in the U.S. He had asked his servants to “wrap me up in my old military cloak” for burial, and requested an unmarked grave. However, 10 years after he was buried, a road was proposed across his gravesite. His remains were transferred to an area now known as the “Sacred Grove.”  

A large monument marked the new grave. When that one deteriorated, German-American societies conducted a 14-year campaign for a new one, which was placed in 1870. In 1936, Steuben’s log cabin was rebuilt nearby, in a new location.

The Steuben Memorial State Historic Site is located at 9941 Starr Hill Road in Remsen, about 2 ½ miles west of Route 12 and 28. It is open mid-May through Labor Day. Admission is free. Tours of the cabin may be arranged by appointment by calling Fort Stanwix National Monument at 315 338-7730.

This column was compiled for the Rome Historical Society by Chip Twellman Haley, retired Daily Sentinel news editor. Some photos were provided by Fort Stanwix National Monument. Comments, old photos, suggestions for future columns or guest columns may be emailed to: chiphaley@yahoo.com. Copies of the book “Rome Through Our History,” a collection of some of Haley’s columns, may be purchased at the Rome Historical Society.

The Rome Historical Society, 200 Church St., is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. Go online at www.romehistoricalsociety.org, visit their Facebook page, or call 336-5870 for more information.