Prepared by: Andrea Gomez, Temple University
The bronze statue of Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand Steuben, known as Baron von Steuben, at Valley Forge National Historical Park calmly and imposingly overlooks the Grand Parade. Located off of Route 23, the von Steuben statue seems to inspect soldiers while they drill. His daunting presence comes in part from the important role he played in the American Revolution, particularly Valley Forge, but also because in statue form the General stands 8 ½ feet tall, and is mounted 6 feet 8 inches in the air on a granite pedestal. Despite its larger than life appearance, the statue is very realistic, simple yet elegant, and detailed without being ornate. The biographer of J. Otto Schweizer, the sculptor, described the statue as a:
The Valley Forge Steuben monument is an exact replica of the General von Steuben statue located in Utica, New York. The only addition was a bronze plaque on the pedestal to depict Steuben drilling the army. In this plaque, Steuben stands in the center. To the left, he drills the troops. To the right Schweizer depicted a camp scene complete with soldier huts, cannon, a headquarters building, and, of course, more soldiers.
The statue was originally located on Outerline Drive past the Anthony Wayne Statue. Pictures of the monument in its original location show it surrounded by trees, supposedly linden trees, which were grown from seedlings from Germany. It was moved to its current location on September 10, 1979.
Valley Forge Connections
As an out-of-work military professional from Prussia, Baron von Steuben landed in America on December 1, 1777, seeking work and a commission in the American army. On February 5, 1778, he entered York, Pennsylvania, where the Congress met while Philadelphia was occupied by the British and the American Army encamped at Valley Forge. There, the terms of his employment were negotiated, which included payment of his needed expenses, but no compensation until the United States won their independence from England (Palmer, 124). Serving as a volunteer, he arrived in Valley Forge on February 23, 1778.
With American leadership wary of foreign officers at the time, Steuben was not initially given a commission but asked to serve as acting Inspector General of the army. In March he began drilling soldiers that he formed into a model company. Speaking only Germand and French, he wrote down his drill steps in French, which were then translated into English by aides. During training, he peronally demonstrated the steps to the soldiers. Amusing at times because of his lack of English, Steuben’s colorful character quickly won the respect and enjoyment of the soldiers, but not necessarily the officers. Tradition has it that he would attempt to convey his orders with sign language when confusion over his lack of English. When that did not work, he would curse, stomp, and swear, which became a source of amusement for the troops. While at Valley Forge, Steuben initiated progressive training for troops, new and more efficient steps for handling firearms, and improved camp sanitation. He earned General George Washington’s trust and respect, and on May 5, 1778, the day before the celebration of the French Alliance, he was given the commission of Inspector General in the American army. The commands he wrote out day by day for drill were published in 1779 as the Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States. This manual was the official manual of the army until the War of 1812.
Sponsor - the National German American Alliance
The National German American Alliance (NGAA) sponsored the von Steuben monument in Valley Forge as well as Steuben monuments in Washington D.C. (1910) and Utica, New York (1914). Founded on October 6, 1901 (German Day), the mission of the organization was to “promote and preserve German culture in America” (Johnson 3). At the height of its popularity, the national organization had chapters in forty four states and membership levels of 2.5 million people. A professional movement, the NGAA promoted German language instruction in school, the foundation of educational societies (including the German Historical Society), and the publication of histories and journals to demonstrate “the role German Americans had played in the development of the United States” (Tolzmann, 262-263). Advancing an early form of multiculturalism, “the alliance strove to revise American history by promoting the Academic research into the German American past and by popularizing that past through speeches and a parade of monuments to eminent German Americans” (Kazal, 134). Headed by Dr. Charles J. Hexamer from its inception until November 1917, the organization was given a Congressional Charter in 1907. However, due to rising anti-German sentiment due to the NGAA’s outspokenness against prohibition, its stance for neutrality during WWI, and its support of Germany, especially its practice of raising money for German war relief, the charter was revoked in August 1918.
Sculptor - J. Otto Schweizer (1863-1955)
Born in Zurich, Switzerland to a family of five children, Jakob Otto Schweizer was a dedicated and talented artist. The arts, especially music, were always a part of his life from a young age. Although a talented pianist, art was his true passion. He quit high school to apprentice with a sculptor in Zurich, and in 1879 left his apprenticeship to enroll in Zurich’s Industrial Art School when he was 16 years old. In 1882, Schweizer went to the Royal Academy of Art in Dresden. Keeping on the move, he went to Florence in 1889, living in Italy from 1889-1894. This time in Florence greatly influenced his renaissance inspired artistic style. When work dried up in Europe Schweizer decided to move to the United States in 1894. When he first arrived he lived in New York City, but moved to Philadelphia after a year. Schweizer took a job at Ketterinus Lithograph Company (Fourth and Arch Streets). He worked there until he was laid off due a strike in 1906.
Schweizer’s membership in the German Society of Pennsylvania, led by Charles Hexamer (also of the NGAA), kick-started his artistic career in the United States when Hexamer gave Schweizer the commission to create a monument of Peter Muhlenberg, now located at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. One of Schweizer’s most famous works, the statue was unveiled on October 6, 1911. This began Schweizer’s career as a working sculptor in the United States. Some of his other monuments include two other von Steuben monuments (Utica, New York and Milwaukee, Wisconsin), the Abraham Lincoln statue in the Pennsylvania Memorial (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania), the State Memorial for the Colored Soldiers of Pennsylvania (Logan Square, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), Molly Pitcher (Carlisle, Pennsylvania), and Southern Mother (Little Rock, Arkansas).
Monument Dedication - October 9, 1915
The Baron von Steuben memorial was unveiled on October 9, 1915. The West Chester Record wrote, “In the presence of descendents of the revolutionary hero, and with a burst of patriotic enthusiasm, German American residents of Philadelphia and the vicinity Saturday unveiled a statue of General Wilhelm Freiderich von Steuben, the drillmaster of General Washington’s Army, at Valley Forge.” Other newspaper accounts such as the Evening Bulletin, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Press, all agreed that Steuben’s contribution to the American Revolution warranted his commemoration. The ceremony included music by the United Singers of Philadelphia, “1000 strong,” who sang as the monument was unveiled. The “burst of patriotic enthusiasm” was needed, especially for German Americans during this time of rising anti-German sentiment due to World War One. Speakers included Dr. Charles Hexamer (NGAA), B. Herman Ridder (New York), and John B. Mayer (Central Bund of Pennsylvania), who used this occasion to call attention to and attempt to transform anti-German feelings. Ridder, son of one of the major funders of the statue, reiterated German loyalty to the United States, saying that “German Americans were ever and at all times loyal to the land in which they lived and died.” Hexamer was the main speaker of the day. He opened by saying that this von Steuben statue, and indeed, all monuments erected by the NGAA over the past sixteen years was “to instill patriotism in the hearts of the American people” (German American Annals, 54). He then went on to admonish attacks upon Germany and German Americans by the press claiming the attacks did “shame and discredit to our nation,” defending Germany to the listening crowd (German American Annals, 55). After this lengthy rant against the English speaking press, Hexamer then went on to extol Steuben in his accomplishments at Valley Forge by quoting several letters by General Washington.
Ceremonies and Organizations
Today there are still many ceremonies that honor General von Steuben in the Philadelphia area:
Sources and Collections
Carter, George H., ed. Proceeding Upon the Unveiling of the Statue of Baron Von Steuben. Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1912.
Jockers, Ernst. J. Otto Schweizer, the Man and His Work. Philadelphia: International Printing Company, 1953.
Johnson, Charles Thomas. Culture at Twilight: The National German-American Alliance, 1901-1918. New York: Peter Lang, 1999
Kazal, Russell A. Become old Stock: The Paradox of German-American Identity. Princeton: Princeton University Press 2004.
Mayo, James M. War Memorials as Political Landscape. New York: Praeger, 1988.
Palmer, John McAuley. General Von Steuben. Port Washington: Kennikat Press, Inc., 1937.
Riling, Joseph R.. Baron von Steuben and His Regulations. With foreword by Frederick
P. Todd. Philadelphia: Ray Riling Arms Books Co.,1966.
Tolzmann, Don Heinrich. The German-American Experience. New York: Humanity Books, 2000.
Urban Archives, Temple University: Evening Bulletin Clippings
German Society of Pennsylvania, Horner Memorial Library – 611 Spring Garden Steet, Philadelphia PA 19123: Steuben Monument Collection, German-American Annals.
Historical Society of Pennsylvania: German-American Annals, some NGAA material from the Balch Institute Collection (in German), The National German-American Alliance Hearings Before the Subcommittee on the Judiciary.
New York Historical Society: Baron von Steuben Papers.
Last updated: August 11, 2020