With gay and lesbian issues the topic of discussion amongst Americans, as well as in news and politics, it appears that this decade will be defined by "Gay and Lesbian Rights" just as the 1960s were defined by Civil Rights. With the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," politicians and Americans are re-examining what role military personnel's sexuality should or should not play while serving the country.
Americans seem to be divided on the issue of whether a person in the military should be allowed to reveal his or her sexuality without fear of being ostracized by constituents and commanding officers, or if it is in a person's and the nation's best interests to keep one's private life private, especially in the matters of sexuality. As an American, I have the utmost respect for all men and women who have dedicated their lives to military service, regardless of their sexuality, race, religion and even political affiliation. As a historian (who has dedicated his life, passion and curiosities to history, especially American history), I think it is quite comical and downright ironic that Americans, politicians and military personnel are so adamantly against allowing gays and lesbians to openly serve in the military, considering the powerful, well-trained and feared military that America has developed would not have existed if it was not for the brilliance of a homosexual soldier from Prussia (modern-day Germany). In fact, not only would we not have a worldwide military dominance as we do, but we might not even have an America if not for the gay soldier who aided Washington during the country's most crucial time.
Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, better known as "the Baron" (he actually wasn't even a real Baron) by George Washington and America, has a statue at Valley Forge and another in Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C. Towns, buildings and a college football field have been named after him; there is even an annual Steuben Day Parade held in his honor every September in cities such as New York and Chicago (in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Ferris lip syncs Wayne Newton's "Danke Schoen" during Chicago's Steuben Day Parade). No foreigner besides Marquis de Lafayette has been so adored in America as von Steuben. You can't teach about the Revolution without mentioning his role in the success of the Continental Army. However, the one fact that seems to be left out during lectures is that von Steuben was known to "have affections to members of his own sex" and was even identified as a "sodomite," which is rumored to be the reason he left Prussia for France where he ultimately met the American legend himself, Ben Franklin.
Franklin, who was a bigger rock star to the French than The Beatles, had no doubt that von Steuben was a brilliant military mind, and knew his service was desperately needed in the colonies where Washington was struggling to find commanders as courageous and committed as he was. So, Franklin wrote a personal letter to Washington on von Steuben's behalf, even after being warned by certain French figures of von Steuben's "affections" especially with the "same sex." The Baron was more than willing to accept Franklin's offer, considering his relationships with men were likely to get him put on trial since it was a crime in France; the rest is American history.
Upon arriving at Valley Forge, von Steuben was immediately accepted by Washington, who recognized his military genius. Steuben single-handedly turned a militia, consisting mostly of farmers, into a well-trained, disciplined and professional army that was able to stand musket-to-musket combat with the British. Washington and the Continental Army even officially adopted von Steuben's methods and renamed them Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United State, known in military circles today simply as "The Blue Book."
Following the war, von Steuben became a citizen of the United States through an act of the Pennsylvania Legislature.* Von Steuben had grown to love the country that he fought to create so he settled on a small estate in New York (also awarded to him for his service). Washington and von Steuben remained dear friends for the remainder of both their lives. Baron von Steuben may have been Prussian by birth, but he died an American, and forever earned a place in our history alongside the very men to whom we owe our existence and spirit. There is not a historian alive who would disagree that, without the commitment and service of a brilliant gay soldier from Prussia, the war, America and our military may have turned out very differently.
*CORRECTION: This blog originally stated that von Steuben was awarded an honorary citizenship by the Continental Congress.
Philander, D. Chase. "Steuben, Friedrich Wilhelm von". American National Biography Online. February 2000.
Segal, Mark. "Friedrich Von Steuben: Father of the U.S. military." Washington Blade. 19 October 2011.