The revolutionary struggle was at its lowest ebb when General George Washington chose Valley Forge as a secure location for the winter of 1777-1778.
When the 12,000 poorly fed, ill-equipped Continentals, weary from long marches, had staggered into Valley Forge, only about one in three had shoes, and many of their feet had left bloody footprints from the marching. Many soldiers wounded in previous battles died from exposure. Blankets were scarce. At one point these shortages caused nearly four-thousand men to be listed as unfit for duty.
Living in crowded, damp quarters, the army was ravaged by sickness. Disease, malnutrition and exposure claimed 2,500 soldiers by the end of the winter. Others deserted in their hundreds. The American public, along with Congress, began to criticize Washington for his inability to advance the war effort. There were even grumblings amongst a scattering of troops that Washington ought to be replaced.
Washington had done his best to establish order at Valley Forge. He had designed the layout of the camp himself, down to each road and barrack. Soldiers that contracted venereal disease from the prostitutes haunting the edge of the camp were to pay for their own treatment (four dollars for the rank and file, ten for the officers).
Nevertheless, so severe were conditions at Valley Forge that Washington despaired that "unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place...this Army must inevitably...starve, dissolve, or disperse, in order to obtain subsistence in the best manner they can..."
Luckily for the revolution, "great and capital change" was on the way.
Baron Von Steuben had enlisted in the Prussian army when he was 17, eventually becoming an aide-de-camp to Frederick the Great. He joined the King's personal class on the art of war, an elite faction of what many considered, at the time, to be the most advanced army in the world.
The conversation of Frederick's inner court circle was allegedly peppered with homoerotic banter, and his residence included a Friendship Temple celebrating the homoerotic attachments of Greek Antiquity. Discharged under a cloud, hounded by accusations of relationships with young men, Von Steuben began to look around for employment in foreign armies. In the summer of 1777, with his funds dwindling, his search for work took him to Paris, where he was introduced to Benjamin Franklin, who was seeking experienced military officers for the war with the English.
Perhaps realizing that his future in Europe was finished, Von Steuben accepted Franklin's offer of passage to America. Franklin in turn passed on word of Steuben's availability to George Washington.
Innuendo as to his sexuality evidently followed Von Steuben to America. An article written years later mentions an "abominable rumor which accused Von Steuben of a crime the suspicion of which, at another more exalted court of that time (as formerly among the Greeks) would hardly have aroused such attention."
George Washington may have gotten the gist straight away. On February 23, 1778, he rode out of Valley Forge to meet the would-be reformer of the Continental Army. When he finally met Von Steuben on the road from York, the baron showed up in a grandiose sleigh, sporting 24 jingling bells, pulled by black Percheron draft horses. The Baron was wearing a robe of silk trimmed with fur, all the while petting his miniature greyhound, Azor, who was curled up on his lap. Behind him were his retinue, his French aide-de-camp Louis de Pontière and the Baron's teenage "secretary" Pierre-Étienne du Ponceau.
Entering Valley Forge, Von Steuben, who did not speak English, drafted a drill manual in French, which the revolutionaries Alexander Hamilton and Nathanael Greene then translated into English. The Prussian drill techniques Von Steuben shared were far more advanced than those of other European armies, let alone those of the ragtag Patriots. The soldiers learned how to form solid, orderly columns, how to attack in formation, and how to properly use bayonets. Most important for 18th-century battle was an efficient method of firing and reloading weapons, which Von Steuben forced the Patriots to practice until it became second nature.
When the Continental Army finally marched out of Valley Forge in June 1778, the well-trained Americans nearly bested the British at Monmouth. While British Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis successfully protected the withdrawal of the main British column, Washington had fought his opponent to a standstill after a pitched and prolonged engagement; the first time that Washington's army had achieved such a result.
The battle demonstrated the growing effectiveness of the Continental Army after its six month encampment. The Americans were ultimately left in possession of the field, and had, for the first time, demonstrated that the Continental Army regiments could stand against British regulars. There was the sense that, if the tide wasn't yet turning, things were changing for the better.
On the merit of his efforts at Valley Forge, Washington recommended that Von Steuben be named inspector general of the Continental Army. Congress complied. In this capacity, Von Steuben propagated his methods throughout the Patriot forces by circulating his Blue Book, entitled Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States.
Later, Von Steuben legally adopted two young soldiers (one of them, William North, became a U.S. Senator). A third young man, John Mulligan, considered himself a member of the stable of Steuben's youths. Before moving in with Steuben, Mulligan had been living with Charles Adams, the son of then-Vice President John Adams. Adams was concerned about the intense "closeness" between his son and Mulligan, insisting that they separate, so Mulligan wrote to Von Steuben with his tale of despair.
Actually, Von Steuben offered to take both men into his home. Charles Adams, the son of one president and brother of another (John Quincy), resided with Von Steuben and Mulligan for a while. Such emotional relationships were not as unusual in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as they would be today, but even by the standards of those chivalrous, chastely romantic times, Steuben's correspondence, and intimate relationships, make for a very compelling picture.
There is a statue of Baron Von Steuben in Lafayette Park. It's a tall bronze life-size statue placed upon a high stone pedestal. The statue shows Von Steuben in military dress uniform surveying the troops at Valley Forge. At the rear of the pedestal is a medallion with images of Von Steuben's adopted aides-de-camp, William North and Benjamin Walker. It says: "Colonel William North -- Major Benjamin Walker -- Aides and Friends of Von Steuben." On each side of the pedestal are bronze Roman soldiers. Above the carved words "military instruction" on one side is a seated, helmeted Roman soldier instructing a naked youth.
Von Steuben, a figure who indisputably helped turn the tide of the Revolutionary war at a critical, desperate time, would probably have liked the monument very much.
Many historians consider Von Steuben to be one of the indispensable heroes of the American Revolution. His ideas and techniques remained U.S. military orthodoxy for decades after his death. Nevertheless, because American revolutionary-mythology cannot assimilate the dual anomalies of foreignness and gayness, most Americans have never heard of him.