Baron Von-Steuben - Revolutionary War General
The Prussian Baron von Steuben, being a newcomer to the Revolutionary
cause in America, was in a position to see many of the deficiencies in military discipline
and their causes. The reasons for his unique insight may have been due to the fact that he
was distanced from the revolutionary ideals in America, and as a result, was able to
better observe and understand them; and ultimately use them to shape his new and
successful form of discipline in the Continental Army.
Most of the commanders of the Continental Army, from the commander in
chief to the lower officers had subscribed to the traditional European method that relied
on fear to achieve discipline. This method of fear was probably not essential, and had
little if any effect in the early days of the war because the soldiers were mostly
fighting for their own ideologies. To the soldiers, the commanders were of little
importance. The soldiers were going to fight their own fight, and leave the battle when
they felt it necessary. The soldier saw himself as a volunteer, a citizen fighting in a
group of citizens, and as a result did not respond well to the traditional forms of
discipline. The soldier knew it wasn't necessary for him to serve, and he knew that he
would not be looked down upon for not serving or leaving the army by his fellow
revolutionaries. He had the freedom to chose how he wished to serve the revolution, and
military service was not an obligation.
One aspect of the traditional European system that Baron von Steuben
felt needed change was the relationship between the officers and the soldiers. Officers in
the Continental Army felt it was necessary to distance themselves from the common
soldiers, as an officer had an obligation as a gentleman as well. This division was along
social lines, and by separation, the officers felt the common soldiers would show even
greater respect. Royster describes this accurately by saying that the officers tried to
make themselves haughty objects of the soldiers' awe.
Steuben did several things to put the officers and the soldiers on
common ground. First, sergeants were no longer to do the training and drilling of
soldiers. Officers were encouraged to train, drill, and march with their soldiers. They
were also encouraged to eat with the common soldiers as well, whenever possible. The
officers needed to show love of the soldiers to earn their respect, and in doing this the
officers needed to set themselves as an example to the soldiers by overachieving, rather
than distancing themselves and underachieving in the eyes of the soldier.
Before Steuben arrived, the forms of drills, training, and discipline in
the Continental Army were mainly achieved at the discretion of each particular officer.
There was no set standard for drills and training, and each battalion, company, and
regiment had different methods. Baron von Steuben set a standard that became universal in
the army and all soldiers and officers were to follow it. Through constant repetition of
these rather simplified drills and training methods, coupled with the newly evident
compassion and caring being shown by the officers, soldiers soon began to show a level of
pride and professionalism in doing their duties in the Continental Army.
Steuben catered to the needs and ideologies of the men in the
Continental Army. He knew that soldiers who felt that military service was not a
necessity, would often question authority. When given an order many soldiers would ask
"Why?" This was what Steuben realized and built his form of discipline around.
If a soldier asked why, and there was a good reason for it, then the soldier would
ultimately obey the order. This is why the uniformity and simplicity of Steuben's system
was so successful in the Continental Army.
Steuben's method of discipline and training was so successful for one
main reason, it was catered to the soldier and not to the officer. It had the ultimate
result of making the soldier feel like a soldier and not like a volunteer. It established
a sense of pride in the soldiers and in the job they did. By the later years of the war,
native courage, virtue, and liberty were not enough to encourage soldiers. Steuben method
created a professionalism in the Continental Army which, along with the ideologies of the
men, was enough to keep the moral of the soldier high despite the many hardships of winter
camps like Valley Forge and Morristown.