Our History & Our Heritage by Bill Kiefer

Okay Mr. Kiefer, master digresser let’s get back on topic. We started off with how did some of our local places not named “Washington, Jefferson, Franklin or Adams” get their names, in the sense that they may have been derived from Revolutionary War leaders? In this endeavor I have spent quite a few words introducing a Prussian Baron named von Steuben. Readers should be able to guess where this is heading: “for whom was Steubenville, Ohio named?” That is an accurate guess. (Of course I leaked it at the end of last week’s column.)

Von Steuben was a lieutenant in the Prussian Army at the age of 17. For a few years he was a staff officer on loan to the Russian Army. Again I digress, in reading Robert K Massie’s biography of Peter the Great, who died in 1725, I learned that the czar hired numerous German officers to train his troops which were notorious for being poorly disciplined masses, often defeated by smaller armies from such powers as Sweden. His father likely found his way to Russia in this manner, and at some point our Baron found his way onto the Russian Military Staff in his twenties. He served well in Russia, and received an appointment to the General Staff of Frederick the Great, the first ruler to be called “King of Prussia.” Frederick was a successful military leader, highly regarded by the Prussian people and later of all of Germany. The last of his line to serve as Germany’s ruler is known to us as Kaiser Wilhelm who abdicated as part of the peace agreement ending WW I.

In 1763 the good Baron found himself without a position in the Prussian army, in which he was then a Captain. He next turns up as a Chamberlain at a German petty court. This was more or less a treasurer’s position. In 1775 he travelled to Paris with his princely employer seeking to borrow money. That trip failed and he again sought an officer position with several European Armies.  With the assistance of the French Minister of War, he found his way to Benjamin Franklin who was in Paris seeking French support for the rebellion. Somehow or other the description of his Prussian service which included time as a Lieutenant on the General Staff, became translated incorrectly to his having been a Lieutenant General in the Prussian Army. Franklin, who had no power to employ him, convinced him to go to the colonies as a volunteer. The Baron’s circumstances were such that this was the best deal available and he accepted.

By December 1, 1777 he found himself in Boston being lavishly courted by Revolutionary leaders. On February 5, 1778 he was before the Continental Congress meeting at York in the Pennsylvania colony, where the Congress fled when the British captured Philadelphia. On February 23, 1778, he was at Valley Forge as a volunteer, who incidentally did not speak English. He did speak some French, therefore with the assistance of Alexander Hamilton and Nathaniel Greene he was able to create a training manual for the Army, which was approved by Washington. Now to train an Army.

He started with a Company of 100 selected men. When they were fully trained they were returned to Regiments to train additional men. First each was placed in a group of three then 12. The best of those so trained became sergeants responsible for training companies.

His greatest accomplishments were first creating uniform instructions for loading and firing. In the late 18th century, set-piece battles were fought at close range with the two armies lined up facing one another at a distance of less than 100 yards and firing massed volleys at the enemy. The side which could reload and fire faster usually prevailed. His simplified eight step system achieved greater speed than the British system. Second was drill, the side that could line up first could fire a volley while the other side was trying to get organized. The good Baron established Prussian drill procedures for the Continental army enabling it to deploy with precision and speed rivalling or exceeding the British. It is said that he would drill units swearing at them in German and French, languages not know to the typical colonial soldier, so that von Steuben’s aide a certain Captain to swear at and insult them in English until they mastered the drill. This is a system carried on by drill instructors into the 20th century.

Of equal importance were his skills in setting up a camp. He found appalling sanitary conditions upon his arrival. For example latrines were often situated just uphill from a kitchen or a stream, animal carcasses after butchering were left lying in situ. Recognizing and correcting these conditions saved additional lives by reducing exposure to disease.

In May of 1778 the Colonials faced off against the British on two occasions, first at Barren Hill where most of the British Army tried to envelop Lafayette in a pincer movement from which he and his 3,000 men were able to escape owing largely to their new-found mobility. Likewise later that month at Monmouth Courthouse the Colonials fought a large British force. While the battle is considered a draw, it marked one of the few times that the British left the field to the Colonials. British reports from the engagement are remarkably noteworthy for their descriptions of the “professionalism” now being exhibited by their opponents.

Noting his accomplishments Washington had von Steuben appointed Inspector General of the army at the end of April 1778 with the rank of Major General. The accomplishments continued. The Baron later served with General Nathaniel Greene’s southern campaign which had several notable victories over the British. At Yorktown he commanded one of the three Divisions of Washington’s troops. After final victory he assisted in the de-mobilization of the Army. He was made a US citizen by acts of the Pennsylvania and New York legislatures and spent most of his remaining years on a 16,000 acre estate in the Hudson Valley. Post-War he became an elder in the German Reformed Church, he was a founder of the Order of the Cincinnati, which organization’s Museum is still an attraction in the Georgetown Section of Washington D.C. There are celebrations of Von Steuben Day in several cities. There are Steuben Counties in New York and Indiana, Steuben dormitories at military schools, statues of the General in Washington D.C., as well as at Valley Forge and Utica. He died in 1794 at the age of 64, unmarried and childless, leaving his estate to his two military aides.

So, okay, how was Steubenville named for the German born Continental General? Well I think that I have at some time in the past talked a little about this. In the 1786 – 1787 period forces from the First American Regiment were assigned to build a Fort between Forts McIntosh (at Beaver PA) and Henry (At Wheeling VA) for the purpose of protecting the parties surveying the Seven Ranges. The survey’s beginning point was where Pennsylvania and the Ohio Country met on the North bank of the Ohio. Today it is marked by a granite monument on Ohio Route 7. To accomplish this Fort Steuben was built. While the Fort was only in use for a few months, the garrison commander was a Captain John F Hamtramck who named the Fort in honor of the Baron. Although abandoned and destroyed by fire in 1790 when a village was founded in 1797 by Bezaleel Wells the name was carried on as Steubenville. Oh yes, Bazaleel was the youngest son of the Wells family from what is today known as Wellsburg.