On December 19, 1777, when Washington's army marched into camp at Valley Forge, tired, cold, and ill-equipped, it was lacking in much of the training essential for consistent success on the battlefield. On June 19, 1778, after a six-month encampment, this same army emerged to pursue and successfully engage Lt. Gen. Sir Henry Clinton's British army at the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey. The ordered ranks, martial appearance, revived spirit, and fighting skill of the American soldiers spoke of a great transformation having occurred amidst the cold, sickness, and hardship that was Valley Forge.
The man most responsible for this transformation was Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, onetime member of the elite General Staff of Frederick the Great, king of Prussia. No longer in the Prussian army, indeed without employment of any kind, von Steuben offered his military skills to the patriot cause. When he arrived at Valley Forge from France on February 23, 1778, he was armed with a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin. Washington saw great promise in the Prussian and almost immediately assigned him the duties of Acting Inspector General with the task of developing and carrying out an effective training program.
Numerous obstacles threatened success. No standard American training manuals existed, and von Steuben himself spoke little English. Undaunted, he drafted his own manual in French. His aides often worked late into the night, translating his work into English. The translations were in turn copied and passed to the individual regiments and companies that carried out the prescribed drill the following day.
Von Steuben shocked many American officers by breaking tradition to work directly with the men. One officer wrote of von Steuben's "peculiar grace" as he took "under his direction a squad of men in the capacity of drill sergeant." From dawn to dusk his familiar voice was heard in camp above the sounds of marching men and shouted commands. Soon companies, regiments, then brigades moved smartly from line to column, column to line; loaded muskets with precision; and drove imaginary redcoats from the field by skillful charges with the bayonet.
When the Continental Army paraded on May 6, 1778, to celebrate the French alliance with America, von Steuben received the honor of organizing the day's activities. On that day the Grand Parade became a showplace for the united American army. Cannons boomed in salute. Thousands of muskets fired the ceremonial "feu de joie," a running fire that passed up and down the double ranks of infantrymen. Cheers echoed across the fields. The good drilling order and imposing appearance that the troops presented during the Alliance Day ceremonies demonstrated their remarkable progress in improving their abilities as a unified, fighting force capable of defeating the British Army. Washington, with von Steuben's aid, had made an army of the Continental troops. With their French allies, the Americans could now proceed with the war.
Did You Know?
Valley Forge NHP is part of the Schuylkill River National & State Heritage Area, which stretches 128 miles from Philadelphia to Pottsville. The region is nationally significant for the roles that its people, places, and events played in the American, industrial, and environmental revolutions.