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Baron Von Steuben – The Father of the American Army Basic Training

“The seemed to me a perfect personification of Mars. The trappings of his horse, the enormous holsters of his pistols, his large size, and his strikingly martial aspect, all seemed to favor the idea.”

“The seemed to me a perfect personification of Mars. The trappings of his horse, the enormous holsters of his pistols, his large size, and his strikingly martial aspect, all seemed to favor the idea.”

The Winter of 1778 was one of the most brutally-freezing, miserable, please-god-just-end-it-you-sadistic-bastard winters that has ever been recorded in the horrible annals of American meteorological history.  In the snow-covered wasteland of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, the men of the American Continental Army sat around, bitching about the weather while miserably huddled together for warmth around dim campfires.  Exhausted, half-frozen, unable to feel any sensations below the waist and demoralized by months of getting shanked in the fucking face by Scottish Highlanders, the poor souls of the revolutionary army suffered equally from debilitating sicknesses, starvation, hypothermia, and their bum knees acting up because they had to march twenty miles through the snow uphill both ways any time they wanted a handful of week-old soup.

Their clothes, battered by long months of combat, were shredded to tatters like a fancy dress worn by a female protagonist in an action movie.  Many men were barefoot, their shoes either fallen apart or eaten for sustenance in a scene of desolation that would make even the most nightmarish The Force Awakens campout look like a bonfire party in the Baywatch universe.

A full quarter of the soldiers were listed as inactive due to illness.  Some men simply dropped dead, while others peaced out, quit the war and walked out on the job.  Many of the American rifles were frozen solid or rusted out from moisture, not that it even fucking mattered because there wasn’t enough gunpowder to actually shoot them anyway.  They sat in dirty tents amid chest-high snow drifts, pulling threadbare blankets or clothes around themselves as they struggled to survive through the winter cold, knowing full well that the only thing these poor souls had to look forward to was re-forming in the Spring and getting rochambeaued in the nuts by a powerful, seemingly-invincible British Army that had just kicked the ever-loving holy hit out them in huge battles around New York City and Philadelphia.

As the great revolutionary propaganda writer Thomas Paine put it in his appropriately-named pamphlet The Crisis, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”


But then, suddenly, into this hellish post-apocalyptic frozen nightmare realm there appeared a sight that was so over-the-top bizarre that nobody knew what the fuck to make of it.

Through a driving blizzard on February 23, 1778, a convoy of crazy Santa Claus-style jet-black sleighs blasted through the snow, pulled by a team of powerful, gigantic, hard-charging horses.  Seated in the lead sleigh, surrounded by his servants, assistants, aide-de-camps, translators, a personal cook and his pet greyhound, sat a gigantic, barrel-chested, grizzled monster of a warrior.

Decked out in a pristine officer’s jacket from the Prussian Army of Frederick the Great, and covered from shoulder to shoulder in gleaming medals, this man’s scarred-up iron jaw was locked tight as he grimly surveyed the sad lot of wannabe soldiers surrounding him.  As the sleigh came to a stop, he calmly stepped off, his knee-high, well-polished black jackboots crunching into the snow with the authority of a Dark Lord of the Sith.

Slung by his side he wore two gigantic, brass-plated, pimped-out flintlock pistols and a fucking rad longsword that had been given to him by the Grand Duke of Hohenzollern-Hechingen in the German state of Swabia.  His giant hand held a letter from Benjamin Franklin, introducing him as a military genius personally recommended by the French Minister of War to aid the Colonial Army in its war effort.

This was Lieutenant-General Friedrich Wilhelm Rudolf Gerhard August, the Freiherr Baron Von Steuben, Palace Manager of Swabia and newly-commissioned Major General in the Colonial Army.  And he’d been sent by Congress to build up the morale of the men, drill this sorry group of farmer-soldiers into an elite fighting force capable of standing toe-to-toe with any military in the world, and kick the shit out of anyone who fucked with him.


Of course, while he did have an entrance that was worthy of the fucking heavy metal remixed Imperial March, there are three very interesting things worth mentioning when we talk about Lieutenant-General Baron Von Steuben:  He wasn’t really a Baron, he wasn’t really a General, and he didn’t actually speak a word of English.

Naturally, none of this stopped him from accomplishing his mission.


Friedrich Von Steuben was born on September 17, 1730, in a cool-looking medieval German castle called Magdeburg that seems to come up on this website any time I’m talking about badass German shit.  Friedrich’s grandfather, Augustine Steube, was some random fucking traveling preacher, but I guess one day Augustine decided he was tired of just being an ordinary punk so he arbitrarily changed his named to Augustine Von Steuben and just started telling everyone he was descended from an ancient line of German Barons.

Nobody bothered to fact-check that shit, and Augustine’s son Wilhelm was able to use this fake title of nobility to get an officer’s commission in the Prussian military.  Wilhelm was an Army Engineer under Fredrick the Great, one of the most brilliant military geniuses in European history, and was so badass at building bridges and siege weaponry that he ended up receiving tons of high-ranking medals for his bravery in battle – including the fucking Blue Max, the Prussian Medal of Honor.

Even as a young boy, Friedrich traveled around on campaigns with his dad.  After witnessing epic battles in Russia and Austria at his father’s side, Friedrich finally enlisted in the Prussian infantry at the age of 17.

Like I said, though, Von Steuben was never a General — in fact, he was never higher than a Captain, which is like a half-dozen ranks below General depending on what country you’re talking about.  As a Lance-Corporal in 1747, Von Steuben served as a front-line rifleman in the most modern and elite army in the world.  During the Seven Years’ War (the same war we call the “French and Indian War” here in the States), the Fake Baron fought in the Battles of Prague, and was wounded twice in combat against the Austrians – once by a sword, and once by a musketball.

He was wounded again while attacking Russian cannons at the Battle of Kunersdorf, survived a year in a Russian Prisoner of War camp, and stood his ground against cavalry charges from epic French cuirassiers.  As a First Lieutenant in the elite Mayr Free Battalion, he spearheaded the attack at the Battle of Rossbach, running head-on into the enemy even though he was outnumbered two-to-one.  With battle swirling around him, Von Steuben cut, shot, and bayonetted into his foes, helping the Prussian Army rout and annihilate a significantly larger enemy force.


In 1762 Von Steuben was promoted to Captain and became a member of Frederick the Great’s headquarters staff.  There, he helped manage a humongous, 60,000-man army in epic battles across Europe.  During his time, Von Steuben was personally trained in advanced tactics by Frederick the Great, a military genius who had just fought two countries to a standstill at the same time, despite being horrifically outnumbered every step of the way.

When the Seven Years’ War ended, Von Steuben left the army, headed to the German state of Hohenzollern-Hechingen and spent twelve years as the Palace Manager there.

Well, years passed, and in 1776 the Baron Von Steuben was bored, out of money, didn’t have any good wars to fight, and his chief rival in the palace was going around telling everyone that Von Steuben should be fired because he was gay (there’s no evidence to support this claim one way or the other).

So, pissed off and ready for a new adventure, Steuben packed his bags, went to Paris, and offered his services to American envoy Benjamin Franklin.  Franklin looked at the Baron’s resume, mis-read “Lieutenant, General Staff of Fredrick the Great” as “Lieutenant-General, Staff of Fredrick the Great,” and was like “hell yeah dude, sounds great, catch a ship to the colonies and let Congress know what’s up.”  Franklin wrote Von Steuben a letter summarizing all of the Baron’s fake credentials, Congress liked it, made him a Major General, and the next thing you know this random fake Prussian General was shelling out his own cash to buy a fancy sleigh and servants so he can make an appropriately-epic entrance to Valley Forge.


But here’s where it gets good.  For all of the things Von Steuben was not, he what he was is a grizzled life-long soldier with more badass combat experience in his sword arm than a Dynasty Warriors longplay YouTube walkthrough.

He’d survived the winter of 1759 in the frozen forests of Poland, roughing it on starvation rations along with 50,000 half-frozen Prussian soldiers.  He’d had shrapnel lodged in his body in several places, been hit in the head with a sword, and could run through the world’s intense military drills on his way to the fucking bathroom.  He took one look at this rag-tag band of American patriots, decided “no European army could have held together in such circumstances,” and went about hardening these backwoods farmers into a razor-sharp spear of liberty.

He did this by personally standing out there in the knee-deep snow with full dress uniform and a rifle, single-handedly demonstrating to the men how to work their weapons and then swearing at them with an unending withering stream of drill sergeant-grade profanity every time they fucked up.


Drills started before dawn, and the Baron Von Steuben ran these demoralized American troopers through the first Boot Camp in U.S. history.  Screaming and swearing like a motherfucker, Von Steuben would start cursing in German, switch to French, and then start making up colorful new compound swear words using whatever broken English he could cobble together.

When he ran out of curses for those fucking cocktoasters, he would snap his fingers, and his adjutant (a German-American), would come running up, get right up in the fuck-up soldier’s face and start screaming at him using English swear words.  Drill took place twice a day, and was designed to teach the men to march in lock-step, load their fucking rifles quickly, fight off bayonet attacks, kick someone’s ass in hand-to-hand combat, and completely and utterly crush the ego of every man in that army until they started thinking of themselves as American soldiers first and nothing else second.

It might sound insane, but the Baron Von Steuben was actually massively popular with the soldiers he was kicking the crap out of.  For starters, the idea of a Major General running the drill was completely unheard of – British officers believed it was “ungentlemanly” to get down and dirty with the men, so they never did this.  And as for the screaming and swearing, it kind of became a piece of performance art – guys would show up to watch drill just to marvel at this guy’s ridiculous vocabulary of profanity.

Also, Von Steuben made a point of learning the name of every soldier in the Army – after he was done crushing their egos and hammering them out into soldiers, he re-built them back up to have pride for their abilities.  This is the same strategy used in basic training across the U.S. military today.


Two things that Von Steuben really focused on were loading the musket and fighting with bayonets.  The Americans were tough fighters, but Von Steuben was fucking appalled by how long it took these assholes to load their fucking rifles.  So, all day every day he had his men go through the procedure of loading and firing a musket.  They didn’t actually shoot them – they didn’t have enough ammo to waste – but he drilled this into them so the soldiers could prime the powder, ram a musketball, and fire in their sleep.

He also was fucking pissed off when he heard stories of how the Americans were terrified of British bayonet charges (mostly because the Americans didn’t have a lot of bayonets).  Steuben freaked the fuck out, requisitioned any bayonet he could find (there were a bunch of them just starting to be imported from France), and taught these guys how to kick the shit out of anyone by jabbing them in the fucking eye with a steel spike mounted to the muzzle of a firearm.  By the time he was done, these guys could march, wheel, fire by company, reload twice as fast as before, and then charge bayonets into the enemy.

Baron Von Steuben had arrived to find a demoralized, under-equipped, poorly-prepared group of farmers.  It took him four months to make them an Army.


Von Steuben eventually wrote his instructions down, in French, and they were translated to English by Alexander Hamilton and Nathanael Greene.  Known originally as “BARON STEUBEN’S INSTRUCTIONS,” it was eventually renamed “Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States” and was in use by the U.S. Army until 1814.

Another highly-important but less-sexy accomplishment of Von Steuben was that he got the camp at Valley Forge whipped into shape as well.  He was appalled at the conditions in camp, and ordered those sons-of-bitches to clean that shit up.  He kept track of supplies, demanded monthly inspections of equipment stores, and any guy who failed to keep his rifle appropriately maintained found himself getting his ass kicked with a Prussian jackboot.  His efforts reduced disease in the camp by a significant margin, and by the time he wrote his last camp report in May 1778 there were only three muskets in the entire Continental army that were listed as “deficient.”

The British had ended the campaigns of 1777 by crushing the American army at the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown, smashing George Washington’s troops with elite Imperial discipline and the tip of the bayonet.

When they encountered that same army at the Battle of Monmouth in May 1778, they were shocked as fuck when the Continentals stood strong and turned back a British cavalry and bayonet charge.


As Inspector-General of the Continental Army, Baron Von Steuben fought through the rest of the American Revolution.  He served as quartermaster during Greene’s southern campaign, commanded a wing at Yorktown, and was standing at the front lines when Lord Cornwallis surrendered.  He was kind of grumpy after the war that he didn’t get all the back pay he was owed, but he still retired on a 16,000-acre farm in upstate New York so life probably wasn’t all that bad for him.

Nowadays September 17th is known as Von Steuben Day in the United States.  It’s a pretty big deal to German-Americans, but for most of us it’s best known as the parade where Ferris Bueller sings Danke Shein.

“The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this cons…

“The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”

– Thomas Paine, “The Crisis”

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