George Washington had no way of knowing that the Baron von Steuben was a fraud.
Earlier that summer, in his role as diplomatic minister to France, Benjamin Franklin was empowered to seek out skilled foreign military officers to aid in the struggle against England. In Paris, a count introduced Franklin to a Prussian general at loose ends who might just fill the bill. Franklin was impressed by the commanding height and aristocratic bearing of the 46-year old officer who introduced himself as Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben. The ensuing interview, full of practical ideas and suggestions, sealed the deal. Franklin promptly sent General Washington a letter introducing the Baron and what he had to offer.
Though Congress was wary of depending too much on foreign military men, Washington’s instincts ruled the day and he anxiously invited the Baron to travel to America to meet with him. What Washington didn’t know were the circumstances behind the Baron’s pressing need to get out of Europe. (Bowling, 4-5; Kapp, 136-37)
The Truth about the Baron
The Baron, in fact, was not a baron at all. Nor had he served as a general in Prussia. Born on September 17th, 1730, in Magdeburg, Germany, Steuben had grown up in poverty, the son of a Prussian army captain. It was true that Steuben had devoted his entire young adulthood in the Prussian military, serving there from the age of 16 to 34. During this time he was close friends with Prince Henry, the younger brother of Frederick the Great, both siblings known for partaking in same-sex passions. Henry was four years older than Steuben and was known to choose officers based on their looks. The Baron only achieved the rank of captain while in Prussia, having been dismissed there under circumstances only mentioned in whispers. (Palmer, 23)
Evidence of an 18th century background check remains in the form of an August, 1777 letter from a German official in the province of Baden who was considering enlisting the Baron’s services.
“It has come to me from different sources that M. de Steuben is accused of having taken familiarities with young boys which the laws forbid and punish severely,” the official from Baden wrote to authorities in Prussia. “Has the Baron de Steuben been accused of the crime in question?” (Palmer, 92)
Were these rumors a slander perpetrated by the Baron’s enemies? It may well be that only the age of his objects of desire was distorted. In America, the Baron would consistently seek out the company of men in their late teens and early twenties. Whatever the truth in the matter, the rumors made his continued military service in Europe difficult if not impossible.
Steuben learned of the presence of Benjamin Franklin in Paris and the acute military needs of the young nation across the Atlantic. The resourceful Baron produced the resume he believed the diplomat needed to receive. And Franklin, no stranger to strategic fabrication, would gloss his image even further in an introductory letter to the Continental Congress.
Baron von Steuben Meets George Washington
In September, Baron von Steuben set sail for the United States from Marseilles, reaching Portsmouth, New Hampshire some weeks later. First among his entourage was a decidedly spoiled miniature Italian greyhound, Azor, who was said to have a discerning ear for music. Azor had secured the affection of the crew by howling pitifully every time the captain of the ship attempted to sing. The human members of Steuben’s party included an attractive 17-year old French nobleman named Peter Duponceau, who had been hired in Paris to serve as the Baron’s personal secretary and translator. This role was particularly critical as Steuben couldn’t speak a word of English. (Bowling, 4; Bowen, 41-42; Kapp, 75-76; Palmer, 100).
Volunteering to work without pay, at least in the short term, Steuben was immediately sent to Valley Forge upon his arrival in America. Arriving there in the dead of a Pennsylvania winter, Steuben and his party met with George Washington for the first time. As a gesture of welcome and respect, the General mustered the troops for Steuben’s review. (Kapp, 97-98)
Washington was favorably impressed by the German, writing Henry Laurens, the president of the Congress, “Baron Steuben has arrived at camp. He 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.” (Kapp, 105).
Given Steuben’s confidence and insight, Washington immediately placed the German directly under his command, and charged him with inspecting and training the troops in proper discipline. As such, the charming Baron was well positioned by talent and circumstance to garner considerable success in the fledgling army.
Once Steuben realized how many foreign officers were serving there, he began to amend the details of his past to better fit reality. But Steuben never gave up the affectation of being a baron. Why should he? He embodied every American fantasy of the aristocratic elite.
Steuben at Valley Forge
It did not take long for Baron von Steuben to inject some good humor in the serious and dreary business of winter training, especially in light of the sorry condition of their uniforms. Duponceau, the youthful translator, recalled: “Once, with the Baron’s permission, his aides invited a number of young officers to dine at our quarters, on condition that none should be admitted that had on a whole pair of breeches. We feasted sumptuously on tough beefsteak and potatoes, with hickory nuts for our desert. Instead of wine we had some kind of spirits, with which we made ‘salamanders,’ that is to say, after filling our glasses, we set the liquor on fire and drank it up, flame and all.” (Kapp, 120)
The rationale for the party was clearly to make officers feel more comfortable with their shoddy clothing by openly acknowledging the situation and then making sport of it. The reality was that Steuben was emotionally accessible to the men in a way the other commanding officers were not, expressing more interest and kindness towards his charges than they were used to. Even his loss of temper, when he would spew forth a sea of German and French expletives at the troops, had a certain charm. After he had finished, Steuben would call over Duponceau and ask in French, “Will you please translate my curses into English? I can’t seem to get these men to do what I want.”
When the soldiers heard the translated rant, in Duponceau’s calm and measured voice, they inevitably grinned. “Goddam” was reportedly the first English word Steuben learned. (Palmer, 148)
But by far the biggest factor in earning the affection of the troops was what the Baron did for them. Steuben initiated drill sequences he had utilized in Europe, including fighting with bayonets, to enhance their combat readiness, but modified them when he realized the different temperament of the American soldiers. He even concocted competitions between the troops to increase flagging morale. (Kapp, 129)
Baron von Steuben’s Angel
As the Baron’s English improved, so did his social opportunities. In his journal, Duponceau noted: “We dined twice or thrice a week with General Washington. We visited him also in the evening, when Mrs. Washington was at headquarters.” Martha made it a point to join her husband every winter, wherever they set up camp. She particularly enjoyed the Baron’s company and the two would often converse in French. Theirs would be a lasting friendship that continued to thrive after the war. “We were in a manner domesticated in the family.” (Kapp, 119-120; Thane, 182-183)
With Baron von Steuben’s increasing responsibilities, it was clear to Washington that the Baron needed permanent staff all his own. That spring, the commander in chief assigned Captain Benjamin Walker, 25, to Steuben as an aide de camp. Walker was born in England but left for America with his family as a youth. He enjoyed the benefit of a solid, though not exceptional education that included instruction in French, which was one of the primary reasons for the assignment. (Kapp, 614)
Existing letters between the two men suggest that the Baron was rather smitten with the handsome Walker. Steuben may have even personally requested his assignment. The month before, the Baron had forgotten himself and once again attempted to lecture his men in French. Walker had stepped forward and volunteered to translate.
“If I had seen an angel from heaven,” the Baron enthused, recalling the moment, “I should not have more rejoiced.” (Kapp, 130).
Walker, with his greater fluency in English, soon supplanted Duponceau as the chief translator for all of Steuben’s correspondence. The Baron would dictate to Walker in French, with the captain translating his words into English in his decidedly disciplined script. Steuben soon felt at something of a loss whenever his angel was absent. (Kapp, 614-15)
After a decisive battle at Monmouth, Baron von Steuben reluctantly resumed his role as Inspector General. American generals were not happy with the combat role that foreign generals such as Lafayette and Steuben were playing in the war and Washington had to be careful not to further ruffle their feathers. But Steuben was threatening to quit if he was not given an active military command. (Kapp, 159-166)
Steuben’s desire for military usefulness needed to be managed and the commander in chief believed he had a task that might please the Baron. Washington had long felt the need to have a comprehensive manual of military discipline to assure a uniform standard of conduct across the far flung army. The commander in chief sent Steuben to Philadelphia, along with Walker and Duponceau, to create the operations manual that was so desperately needed. (Bowling, 4-5)
The Baron was soon making excellent progress. Completed in March of 1779, Regulations, Orders, and Discipline for the Army of the United States was approved by Congress and some three thousand copies printed up. The well regarded codebook would remain in force until 1812. (Berg, 43; Kapp, 139, 199-200, 216)
The Baron, Billy North and Captain Walker
With Baron von Steuben’s code of conduct manual completed, Washington assigned an additional young man to Steuben’s service, one whom the German already knew and admired. Captain William “Billy” North had met Steuben at a reception held in Lancaster prior to the Baron’s arrival at Valley Forge. (Kapp, 104, 626; Palmer, 128).
Twenty-four years of age, North was fair skinned with light brown hair, possessing a light-hearted demeanor that could easily obscure his earnest nature. Born into a military family, North’s father had died when he was just a boy and he and his widowed mother moved to Boston to better make their way in the world. North’s facial expression in an early portrait suggested sensitivity and even an emotional vulnerability.
North had spent two years as a personal aide to Benedict Arnold, one of several generals under Washington’s command. Steuben’s personal charm and deep concern for the soldiers who served beneath him was unquestionably a welcome change. As his elder, Steuben’s affable manner offered the promise of a paternal warmth North had lacked growing up. Steuben provided paternal oversight as well, at least at first. (Benemann, 102; Kapp, 626)
Billy North quickly proved a valuable addition to the Baron’s command. Of the two men, North’s more easy-going personality contrasted with and complemented the more efficient and conventionally masculine Walker, who had grown up in far less challenging circumstances. The two aides quickly formed a friendship, but deeper feelings would sneak up on North with unexpected intensity. (Benemann, 116)
It is very likely that cramped quarters required North and Walker to share a bed. Mix in the rigors of wartime and the convivial company of the Baron and an emotional hothouse of male bonding was nearly inevitable.
Though the Baron’s affections initially burned more brightly for Walker, it was North who would consistently show Steuben greater loyalty and affection. North’s feelings for Walker also grew increasingly powerful. For North, Walker powerfully fueled dreams for the domesticity of an all-male household after the war. What Walker yearned for was less easy to discern. Less reflective than the other two men, he may not have fully known himself. (Arnebeck; Benemann, 108)
While American forces suffered that winter at their Morristown, New Jersey encampment, Baron von Steuben found himself troubled by far less daunting concerns. Once again boarding in Philadelphia for the winter break in fighting, Steuben’s most pressing problem was loneliness. “I am particularly in want of you, my dear Walker,” the Baron informed his favorite aide in February, 1780. “Duponceau is sick, and you know that my ideas although sometimes good, do not appear good when they are translated word for word.”
The Baron pushed for Walker to make his way to Philadelphia, tempting him with the information that a beautiful young widow resided at his same boarding house. “I expect you with the impatience of a lover for his mistress,” the Baron cooed, “or to speak without figures, with all the sentiments of true friendship.” (Kapp, 616-17)
The Baron seems to have wanted it both ways, to express his feelings in romantic terms but then to back away from those terms, in case they caused Walker to feel skittish. Walker, for his part, seemed willing to profit from the Baron’s affections and accepted Steuben’s offer “of procuring me a few necessaries.” Referencing a uniform, Walker boldly wrote back, “I shall only want a coat, blue turned up and faced with buff, white lining and plain white buttons, a cockade with a black silk cord and tassels, two or three yards of hair ribbon, a pair of gloves and a sword belt.” (Kapp, 617)
Bad News All Around
Back at Morristown, Washington fought feelings of despair at the news that a siege of Charleston had begun. The commander-in-chief shared his emotional state in a letter to Baron von Steuben.
“The prospect, my dear Baron, is gloomy and the storm thickens. I have been so inured to difficulties in the course of this contest that I have learned to look on them with more tranquility than formerly. Those that present themselves, no doubt require vigorous exertions to overcome them. I am far from despairing of doing it.” (Fitzpatrick, v. 18, 204)
Washington was soon hit with more bad news, Benedict Arnold’s betrayal and defection to British forces. Not long after, Baron von Steuben encountered a soldier who had the unfortunate circumstance of sharing the traitor’s last name. “Change your name, brother soldier,” the Baron advised.
“What name shall I take,” the shaken soldier asked. Steuben paused, then offered his.
The grateful soldier took the Baron up on his offer and his name on the official role was promptly modified. From that day forward, the young man proudly went by Jonathan Steuben. (Bowers, 47-48; Kapp, 290)
Such emotionally fortifying moments, however, were becoming increasingly rare. By October, the British continued making worrying gains in the South. Washington found it critical to send the Baron to Virginia to enlist new troops and ready them for battle just as he had so ably done at Valley Forge. Setting off by boat, the Baron was accompanied by Walker, North, and Duponceau. (Bowen, 71; Kapp, 346).
Once on board, the Baron found himself annoyed by the persistent sound of a young boy crying. Upon inquiry, Steuben learned the boy was black and had recently been sold as a slave in New York and in the process separated from his parents. The Baron’s impatience immediately turned to sympathy and he asked North to learn what the boy’s new master had paid for him and whether Steuben might purchase him in turn. Though it impoverished the Baron’s meager funds, a deal was struck. Once docked in Virginia, Steuben informed the boy that he would see him returned to his parents.
Unfortunately, while passing some time fishing on a river bank, the boy slipped, fell in and was lost to the current. The Baron wept, lamenting to North that his act of kindness had inadvertently caused the boy’s death. North attempted to comfort his commanding officer as best he could. It was at such moments that the respect and affection the tender-hearted North felt for Steuben grew ever stronger. (Bowen, 71-72)
If North was a comforting presence for the Baron, Walker was a rock solid support for North. Separated from their familiar associates, Walker and North increasingly relied on each other for encouragement and comradery. For North, his devotion to his fellow aide deepened so profoundly that its expression took on a romantic tone. Years later, in a drunken letter to Walker, North would try to recall precisely when he became aware of the depth of those feelings. “When I began to love you, I know not…” North confessed. But by the end of the war, those feelings would be fully formed. (Benemann, 116)
Baron von Steuben’s Yorktown Good-Byes
Steuben, North and Walker were all engaged in the final battle at Yorktown. After ten days of bloody combat, the British waved the white flag. A negotiated surrender soon followed. (Chernow, w, 418)
For Baron von Steuben and Walker, the triumphant moment was colored by sudden illness of North, who now was too weak to accompany them back to headquarters. The Baron sold his watch to see to his aide’s immediate medical needs. He then wrote for funds to cover North’s prospective expenses in exchange for his prized horse.
The night before the Baron was to leave Virginia with his regiments, Steuben visited North’s bedside.
“The instant you are able, you must quit his awful situation. Outside is my carriage for your use and here is half of what I possess in the world. God bless you,” and now the Baron was so overcome with emotion he could barely speak. “I can do no more.”
Baron von Steuben was left with a single gold coin to cover his own expenses on the journey home. As North would later recall, such moments unmistakably revealed “the texture of his heart.” (Bowen, 71; Kapp, 627)
No record remains of Walker’s private words to North. It was surely an emotionally fraught moment for the two young men.
A Fragile Peace
Among various adjustments in command structure, Benjamin Walker now reported to Washington himself. It was clear he missed the Baron von Steuben’s good humor and North’s infectious laugh. A recuperating North was once again in Steuben’s company.
“I was exceedingly glad,” Walker wrote to the Baron in early 1783, “to hear that North was again with you. Your situation was too solitary, and wanted his gayety to make it tolerable; but tell him that he has another friend besides his general. When he passed on to you he has forgotten it.” (Kapp, 618-619)
For the first time in their triangular relationship, Walker felt the odd man out.
While North was more affectionate by nature than Walker, he was also less efficient. Good natured tensions began to emerge between the Baron and his remaining aide. By December, the Baron asked Walker to help him find a good assistant. It’s likely he hoped Walker might finesse his own return. (Kapp, 618)
Walker would’ve done just that if it had been in his power to do so. His acute loneliness was increasingly apparent.
“Adieu my dear Baron,” Walker wrote at the end of his latest missive to Steuben. He paused, then added, “Tell North I love him.” (Benemann, 108)
Dispersing the Troops
Congress ratified the peace treaty signed with England in May of 1783.
With peace assured, the task of dispersing the remaining American troops began. The final victory over the English had with it a healthy mix of sadness.
“Each corps dispersed without leave-taking on either side,” Baron von Steuben wrote to a friend. Some of the men had been together for seven long years. “I was the only person who had to bear the sad farewells of the officers and soldiers.” (Kapp, 688)
Because of Steuben’s consistent concern for the state of the troops, Washington put him in charge of making arrangements for “the care of the sick and disabled soldiers who were too weak and destitute to be discharged.” The shortage of federal funds made this a difficult task, but the Baron was able to arrange hospital treatment for many of them. (Palmer, 314)
North recalled Steuben’s efforts to meet their emotional needs as well. “I saw the Baron’s strong endeavors to throw some ray of sunshine on the gloom, to mix some drops of cordial with the painful draught. To go, they knew not whither; all recollections of the art of thriving by civil occupations, was lost, or to the youthful never known”
Steuben would speak to the men with humility, confessing a heartfelt journey of his own. (Kapp, 638-639)
“A desire of fame was my ruling motive for visiting America,” the Baron admitted. “But when I saw so many brave, so many good men encountering every species of distress for the cause of their country the course of my ambition changed.” (Gaines, 162-163)
Nor were Steuben’s words mere empty sentiment. On another occasion, North recalled, Baron von Steuben paid for the voyage home for a destitute soldier, “a black man, with wounds unhealed.” (Kapp, 639)
North’s earnest love and respect for the older man was evident in his every recollection. He would do everything in his power to assist the Baron in recreating their happy life together after the war. And North had every intention of seeing that the lonely Walker joined them.
When the last of British troops finally left New York City in late November, arrangements were made for George Washington to celebrate the event with the soldiers who had been directly under his command at Fraunces’ Tavern. Tears welled in Steuben’s eyes, as the general toasted his men for a job well done. (Palmer, 315)
A few weeks later, Washington was taking care of the final details of his own time as commander in chief. He sent a formal letter in that capacity to Steuben, thanking him for his service.
“Although I have taken frequent opportunities, both in public and private, of acknowledging your zeal, attention and abilities in performing the duties of your office,” Washington wrote, always more comfortable with putting his thoughts and feelings on paper, “yet, I wish, to make use of this last moment of my public life to signify, in the strongest terms, my entire approbation of your conduct…” (Kapp, 524)
It was the last official letter Washington wrote as general.
This was far from the end of Baron von Steuben’s story or his interactions with Washington as president. He and Billy North socialized with the Washingtons, attending the theater together, and Steuben would become active in leading a New York State veteran’s group. Later, Charles Adams, the son of John Adams, would come to admire Steuben greatly, his choice of associates a concern for his presidential parent.
A final note before closing. I fully recognize the problems with using 21st century terms of identity for 18th century figures. I use the term gay in my title for practical search engine reasons. That said, I don’t use any of these terms in the actual body of the article or book. I occasionally reference same-sex passions in a purely descriptive way.
An excerpt from The Lavender White House: Queer Lives, American Presidents
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