Training at Valley Forge
This story is largely paraphrased from Ron Carter’s wonderful book, “Unlikely Heroes,” a book every family should have on their shelf.
On December 19, 1777 approximately 12,000 soldiers arrived at Valley Forge under the command of General George Washington. After months of fighting, the soldiers were hungry and exhausted. Most were barefoot with no warm clothing. Washington sent urgent messages to the Continental Congress to send supplies. They received irregular supplies of meat and bread and at times all they had to eat was “fire cake” which was made by patting flour and water into a patty and putting it on a rock in the fire to cook. You can imagine how tasteless they were.
The only thing that was plentiful at Valley Forge was trees and the first order of business was to build about 1,000 log huts for shelter. The enlisted men slept 12 to a hut. It took only 6 weeks to build all the huts. Washington set up headquarters in a two-story stone house nearby.
What isn’t as commonly known is that a new, confident, professional American army was born at Valley Forge. A vigorous, systematic training regime transformed ragged amateur troops into a confident 18th century military organization capable of beating the Red Coats in the open field of battle.
On February 23, 1778, two strangers dressed in Prussian uniforms arrived at Valley Forge asking to see General George Washington. One spoke in German to the man with him who was serving as an interpreter. He said that he had a letter for Washington from Ben Franklin.
An aide told Washington about the two strangers. Washington sat forward in his chair. “Benjamin Franklin sent him?”
“That’s what he says.”
“Are he or his interpreter armed?”
“No sir. Both in uniform, but no arms I can see.”
“Bring them in and remain here until we know what this is about.”
The two men stood in front of his desk at full attention, heels together, chests thrust forward, chins drawn in tight. Washington stood and came to attention. They saluted and Washington motioned them to two chairs facing his desk.
“To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?” Washington inquired.
The interpreter translated from German to English.
“I am Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben. I am a Prussian officer, trained in the army of Frederick the Great. I have come to offer my services to the American Continental Army. I am here on the advice of Benjamin Franklin, who is the American ambassador to France. I visited him in Paris and he gave me a letter and recommended I deliver it to you personally.” He took a letter out of his breast pocket and handed it to Washington.
Washington studied the signature on the brief letter to verify that it was authentic. “Ambassador Franklin recommends you to me as an officer who may be of assistance to the Continental Army. Do I understand this correctly?”
“Yes, I would be honored.”
“This letter from Ambassador Franklin states you were a German general. Is that true?”
“No sir. I was a captain, not a general.”
Washington smiled at what he instantly recognized as a classic Franklin exaggeration.
“What service do you feel you might render?”
“I can train the army, sir.”
“Train the army?”
“Yes sir. Train the army.”
Washington figured that Franklin must have seen something of value in the man or he wouldn’t have sent him this far. He told von Steuben that he and his interpreter could take quarters in this house for a few days and he would give him a letter authorizing him to inspect the camp. He told von Steuben
“When you’ve finished report back to him with a plan that you think will improve this army. I will make a decision after I have considered your plan. Is that agreeable?”
For two days von Steuben rode in a carriage, up and down the camp, one end to the other, stopping incessantly to study every thing in sight and silently listening to the men while he watched their faces. He was back in Washington’s office on the third day. The interpreter read from von Steuben’s written report.
“I have never seen an army in the conditions I see here. Your men are starving. No food. Sick. No medicine. Freezing. Removing their own frozen toes with pocket knives. Most with no shoes. On picket duty at midnight barefooted, standing on a felt hat to keep their feet from freezing to the ground. Dressed in summer clothing. Living in quarters that allow the wind and snow to come through the walls. Muskets out of repair and no way to make them serviceable. Almost no ammunition, no gunpowder. No military bearing. A wagon passes through camp every morning picking up those who have died of starvation and freezing and sickness during the night — 600 of them every month. I have seen less than 20 men who understand the meaning of the term soldier. There is not an army in Europe that would remain in service under such conditions. They would simply pack their knapsacks, pick up their muskets, and go home. I do not — cannot — understand what is holding these men here.“
Washington leaned back in his chair and asked, “What do you propose you can do to assist us in our problems?”
“I can train them, sir. I can make soldiers of them. I cannot provide food, or medicine, or weapons, but I can make them into an army.” That’s when Washington saw what Franklin had seen in this unusual man.
“What compensation will you expect for your services?”
“Nothing, until you approve of what I’ve done. Then we will agree on the compensation.”
For one split second Washington stared in disbelief. Then he leaned forward.
“I will draft your commission today. You will begin at once. As for what is holding these men here, may I suggest it is the fact that they have had a taste of freedom, and they cannot let go of it.“
The next morning von Stueben called a council of the officers in command of all twelve regiments of the American army. In addition to his own interpreter, he had an American interpreter standing next to him. “Each of you will select 10 men from your regiment to report to me every morning at 8:00 on the drill field. I will train them, and then they will train each of your units.”
The following morning, 120 men assembled on the drill field, some arriving as late as 20 minutes past 8:00. They stood in groups, muskets in hand, waiting while von Steuben paced, waiting for the late ones.
“You’re late!” von Steuben announced in loud, clipped words. “You will be on time, or you will be punished. Now fall into rank and file.”
Their lines were crooked, and the men held their muskets in any way they wished.
“Your lives will depend on your muskets! You will treat them with respect. They belong on your right shoulder. Your lines are crooked. They will be straight. You will be one arm’s length apart—exactly 28 inches. Or you will be punished.”
The Americans stared in defiance while von Steuben marched up and down the lines, pushing one soldier backward, another forward, positioning them at the exact intervals he dictated, straightening their muskets on their shoulders, thrusting his nose within 6 inches of theirs as he barked his orders in German with the American interpreter giving an instant translation, white-faced, horrified at the mutiny he expected at any moment.
On the fourth day, the Americans were still showing their utter contempt for what they took as the sheer idiocy of intervals and heels together, toes pointed outward, chests out, chins in, lines perfectly formed. They were in this army to fight the British! That meant their real value lay in how well they could shoot and use the bayonet in battle. Intervals? Straight lines? On the battlefield? Who was this officious little German who strutted about, purveying such nonsense?
None of the Americans knew that every morning von Steuben was out of his bed at exactly three o’clock. He first dressed, drank a cup of scalding, strong black coffee, then sat at his desk, steadily writing a manual of arms.
On the fourth morning, when he saw the stubborn faces and eyes of the 120 men on the frozen drill field, von Steuben exploded. He ripped into them with a voice that stopped soldiers and officers 200 yards distant, cursing them with profanity that shook both interpreters to the core. For minutes he blasted away, shaking his fist, pacing back and forth in front of them, while they stared at him, stunned into shocked silence. When von Steuben finished he turned to his own interpreter.
“Tell them!” he exclaimed.
For a moment the interpreter stood in silence, then asked in a voice that croaked, “Uh … sir … you want me to repeat everything you just said?”
“Ja! Ja! Every word. Exactly as I said it!”
The American interpreter peered pleadingly at the German interpreter.
“Yes, sir,” the German interpreter said and launched into a full translation of every word Von Steuben had said.
For the first ten seconds the Americans stood without moving a muscle, unable to believe the river of profanity that was flowing from the interpreter. After half a minute, one American ducked his head and grinned. After one full minute, three or four others were grinning. After three minutes, one of them chuckled out loud. Before the interpreter finished, most Americans were grinning and chuckling. In their lives, they had never heard such a torrent of profanity.
At the midpoint of the interpreter’s tirade, Von Steuben was studying the demeanor of the Americans, puzzled at their grins and chuckles. Didn’t they understand? Did they not realize they were being insulted in the strongest language he could deliver? When the interpreter concluded, Von Steuben ordered them into their rank and file lines, drilled them until noon, and returned to his quarters, deep in thought. It was after evening mess, while he was sitting in his chambers, still struggling to understand the American soldiers’ response, when the words of General Washington came to his mind.
“As for what is holding these men here, may I suggest it is the fact they have had a taste of freedom, and they cannot let go of it.”
It struck him with a force he had never felt before.
Of course! Of course! The Americans have learned to think for themselves! Not like the Europeans! The Americans are their own men! How could I have missed it? How could I have missed it?
He sat at his desk in the yellow light of the lamp, searching for the words that would make the lesson simple, and slowly they came.
In Europe you tell a soldier to do a thing, and he will do it. In America, you tell a soldier to do a thing, and then you tell him why! And when he understands why, THEN he will do it!
He slept soundly that night and arose at 3:00 A.M. as usual. Dressed, he sipped at his steaming coffee and began correcting the manual of arms he had been working on each morning. At 8 o’clock he was on the drill field, waiting for the Americans to fall into rank and file. By ten minutes past the hour, they were there. He stood before them and spoke loudly.
“In battle, habit and discipline alone will save your lives. Habit and discipline are what you do without thinking—what you do because you have trained yourself to do it. When General Washington orders you to begin an attack at 8:00 A.M., he is depending on you to begin the attack at 8:00 A.M. for good reason. It could be that he has ordered his artillery to begin firing at precisely 8:00 A.M. to give you support, or it could be that he has ordered another regiment to begin a flanking maneuver on the enemy at exactly 8:00 A.M. You may not know the reason, but that is not your concern. Your concern is to attack at exactly 8:00 A.M., as ordered.”
Von Steuben paused and for long moments peered into the faces of the men nearest him. For the first time he saw the question in their eyes, and could see their minds working, waiting. He continued.
“My orders are to prepare you for the battlefield. Prepare you to attack at exactly 8:00 A.M. if that is what your officers require. To teach you habits and discipline that will save your lives and the lives of the men next to you in battle. For that reason, I hope to teach you the habit of being where you are ordered to be, on time. Your orders are to be in rank and file on this drill field at 8:00 A.M. daily. Am I asking too much?”
For the first time, Von Steuben saw the dawn of understanding come into his eyes and faces of the Americans.
Von Steuben went on. “I have ordered you to be in rank and file, lines straight, at twenty-eight-inch intervals. The reason is this. As you move into battle, each of you must have sufficient room to move and turn, according to need. If you are crowded together, you cannot do that. Someday, straight lines and correct intervals will save you or the man next to you.”
Again Von Steuben paused, then went on.
“May I now give you orders. Fall into rank and file at the proper interval.”
They moved slowly, but when they finished, the 120 poorly clothed and disheveled men were in lines that were straight, at perfect intervals, heels together, muskets on their shoulders, chests out, chins in, eyes straight ahead. Wordlessly, Von Steuben walked up and down the lines, face aglow in the freezing morning air. For the first time, morning drill was very nearly flawless. Thoughtful men responded to orders without question.
At noon, after they were dismissed, the soldiers gathered into groups to return to their regiments. One of them chuckled and said to the others, “You know that string of profanity we got from him yesterday?” The others nodded their heads, grinning, and he continued. “The longer I think about it, the more I admire it, Why, that profanity was so beautiful it ought to be in the Bible!
Throughout the winter months and into the spring, Von Steuben spent endless hours drilling the men, disciplining them, teaching them battle tactics and use of weapons. The bond between him and the Continental Army became legendary. By the month of May, Von Steuben had picked up enough English to personally conduct the military drills. While the men were drilling, he marched with them, calling,
“Left, right, left, right, vun, doo, dree, foh.” Soon the entire command echoed him “Left, right, left, right, vun, doo, dree, foh,” and uncontained laughter rang over the drill field.
One of his greatest contributions to the American Revolution was training in the use of the bayonet. Americans had been mainly dependent on their ammunition to win battles. They used the bayonet mostly as a cooking skewer or tool rather than as a fighting instrument.
Another program developed by Steuben was camp sanitation. He established standards of sanitation and camp layout that would still be standard a century and a half later.
During his time at Valley Forge, von Steuben prepared Regulation for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, commonly known as the “Blue Book.”
Baron von Steuben served in the Continental army for the remainder of the Revolutionary War, rising to the rank of major general. He became an American citizen by act of the Pennsylvania legislature in March 1784. He settled in New York and remained in America for the rest of his life.
And Baron von Steuben’s military manual? It became the official Blue Book of orders and regulations used by the US military until World War II. It is still available at West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy.
References: “Unlikely Heroes,” by Ron Carter, Wikipedia website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friedrich_Wilhelm_von_Steuben Wikipedia website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valley_Forge