This is the third in a series that will run throughout October in conjunction with our friends at the Philadelphia Gay News and partners around the nation. We hope that you treasure these little looks at where we’ve come, as they help us reflect and prepare for where we are going.
By Mark Segal
National Gay History Project
There are few historians today who would doubt that Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Von Steuben was gay.
To appreciate the contributions von Steuben (1730-94) made to the American Revolution, consider this: Before his arrival in Valley Forge in 1778, the Revolutionary Army had lost several battles to Great Britain and, without him, the United States of America might still be the British colonies.
Before Valley Forge, the Revolutionary Army was a loosely organized, rag-tag band of men with little military training. The military fumbled through the beginning of the war for independence lacking training and organization. Gen. George Washington and the Continental Congress knew that without help from additional seasoned military experts, the colonies would clearly lose. Since Washington himself was the best the colonies had, they looked to Europe for someone who could train the troops. To that end, Washington wrote the colonies’ representative in Paris, Benjamin Franklin, to see what he could come up with. Franklin, a renowned inventor, was treated as a celebrity in the French court. This would be pivotal in achieving his two major objectives in France: winning financial support for the revolution and finding military leaders who could bring a semblance of order to the Revolutionary Army.
Franklin learned of a “brilliant” Prussian military genius, Lt. Gen. Baron Frederich von Steuben. Von Steuben had a string of successes (some self-embellished) with the Prussian army. There was one problem. He’d been asked to depart because of his “affections for members of his own sex.” This became urgent in 1777 when he literally escaped imprisonment in what is now Germany and traveled to Paris. In Paris, Franklin was interviewing candidates to assist Washington back in the colonies when he discovered von Steuben.
During the interview process, Franklin discovered von Steuben’s reputation for having “affections” with males and the issue became pressing as members of the French clergy demanded the French court, as in other countries, take action against this sodomite. They had decided to make their effort a crusade and run him out of France.
Franklin had a choice here, and he decided von Steuben’s expertise was more important to the colonies than his sexuality.
At the same time, another colonial representative was in France with the explicit job of recruiting experienced military personnel from Europe to train the Continental Army. He was Silas Deane, a former representative to the first Continental Congress and friend of Franklin. Deane is best known for recruiting the Marquis de Lafayette. He also had a side job as a spy for the colonies. Besides being intelligent themselves, Franklin and Deane knew how to spot intelligence. It would have been impossible for either to not know about the reputation of von Steuben.
Franklin, working with Deane, decided von Steuben’s “affections” were less important than what he, Washington and the colonies needed to win the war with England. Deane learned of von Steuben’s indiscretions – and that the French clergy was investigating – from a letter to the Prince of Hechingen, his former employer, which read in part:
“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. I have even been informed that that is the reason why M. de Steuben was obliged to leave Hechingen and that the clergy of your country intend to prosecute him by law as soon as he may establish himself anywhere.”
Deane, along with Franklin, acted quickly before the clergy could deport or imprison von Steuben and plotted to send him to the colonies to serve with Washington. Von Steuben was given an advance for passage to America and began as a volunteer, without pay.
Once he’d arrived in Valley Forge, Washington was concerned about von Steuben’s inability to speak English so he appointed two of his officers who spoke French to work as his translators. One of those officers was Alexander Hamilton and the other his close friend John Laurens. Within months, von Steuben gained Washington’s confidence and began to transform the colonial army.
Washington and Franklin’s trust in von Steuben was rewarded. He whipped the rag-tag army of the colonies into a professional fighting force, able to take on the most powerful superpower of the time, England. Some of his accomplishments include instituting a “model company” for training, establishing sanitary standards and organization for the camp and training soldiers in drills and tactics such as bayonet fighting and musket loading. According to the New York Public Library, (“The Papers of Von Steuben”) the following is a list of his achievements and timeline.
February 1778: Arrives at Valley Forge to serve under Washington, having informed Congress of his desire for paid service after an initial volunteer trial period, with which request Washington concurs.
March 1778: Begins tenure as inspector general, drilling troops according to established European military precepts.
1778-79: Writes “Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States,” which becomes a fundamental guide for the Continental Army and remains in active use through the War of 1812, being published in over 70 editions.
1780-81: Senior military officer in charge of troop and supply mobilization in Virginia.
1781: Replaced by Marquis de Lafayette as commander in Virginia.
1781-83: Continues to serve as Washington’s inspector general, and is active in improving discipline and streamlining administration in the army.
Spring 1783: Assists in formulating plans for the postwar American military.
Washington rewarded Von Steuben with a house at Valley Forge (still in existence and open for visits) which he shared with his aide-de-camps Capt. William North and Gen. Benjamin Walker. Walker lived with him through the remainder of his life, and von Steuben, who neither married nor denied any of the allegations of homosexuality, left his estate to North and Walker. His last will and testament, which includes the line “extraordinarily intense emotional relationship,” has been described as a love letter to Walker.
The nation that von Steuben helped found has memorialized him with numerous statues, including those at Lafayette Square near the White House and at Valley Forge and Utica, N.Y. (where he is buried) and German Americans celebrate his birthday each year on Sept. 17, hosting parades in New York City, Philadelphia and Chicago.
If George Washington was the father of the nation, then von Steuben, a gay man, was the father of the United States military.
Mark Segal is founder and publisher of Philadelphia Gay News, the country’s oldest LGBT newsweekly. Sometimes called the Dean of the Gay Press, Segal is an award-winning columnist and is fascinated by history.
Introduction to the National Gay History Project:
Historians take note. This year’s National Gay History Project is a shout out to say that the LGBT community will no longer allow insensitivity, intentional or not, to downplay the contributions LGBT people have made to this country. To put it simply, this year’s project is definitive. Without people who were LGBT or LGBT allies, there would be no United States of America. We helped create this nation and we helped keep it together through the Civil War. And indeed, the Founding Fathers not only had us in mind when creating this country, they welcomed and recruited us in their efforts.
Welcome to “We Are America.”