Saturday, May 24, 2014

Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, Gay Revolutionary War Hero

18th Century portrait of Von Steuben in his Revolutionary War Uniform

Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Rudolph Gerhard Augustin von Steuben was born in the fortress town of Magdeburg in Germany.  Von Steuben’s grandfather, a country parson, counterfeited the title by claiming descent from an obscure branch of the ancient noble house of Steuben. The deception furthered the careers of many generation of his family.

In 1744, at the age of only 14, young von Steuben accompanied his father on King Fredrick’s invasion of the Austrian region of Bohemia. By 16, von Steuben was enlisted as a lance-corporal and had witnessed several of his father’s military campaigns. During peacetime, he was schooled in practical sciences and mathematics and prepared for the next inevitable war.

 King Frederick the Great of Prussia

Gradually advancing up the ranks, by 1762 Brigade Major von Steuben was serving as the staff captain and aide-de-camp to Frederick the Great. After many years of service and having reached the rank of Captain, von Steuben's career was ruined by a General named Anhalt.  Von Steuben was soon threatened with prosecution for his homosexuality, and was forced to leave Germany. (He apparently wasn’t very good at passing for straight, while hanging out with so many handsome young soldiers.)

In 1777, an acquaintance of Steuben's sent a letter to his former employer, the Prince of Hechingen:
“It has come to me from different sources that M. de Steuben is accused of having taken familiarities with young men 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.”

18th century Prussian Soldiers

Von Steuben went to Paris seeking work in 1777. At that time, the French were discretely supplying military assistance to the Americans. Word had gotten back to the French that the ill trained troops were squandering the supplies. In order to maintain the appearance of neutrality, they needed an outsider to step in. The French recognized that the well trained von Steuben was the right man for the job so they quickly arranged for him to meet Benjamin Franklin, the American minister to France.   Franklin got word of von Steuben to George Washington, who agreed that his troops could greatly benefit from a heavy dose of Prussian discipline and training.

A 19th century etching of von Steuben

Von Steuben joined Washington's army at Valley Forge in February 1778. By some accounts, he arrived in a grand sleigh, festooned with jingling bells and pulled by large black draft horses.  Sitting in his silk covered lap was his beloved greyhound, Azor.  Sitting behind him were Louis de Pontiere, his aid-de-camp, and Pierre Etienne du Ponceau, his 17-year-old lover. Following the sleigh was his retinue of servants, as well as his personal French chef.

 Despite any misgivings about Von Steuben and his handsome entourage,  Washington and the others were impressed at how effectively he molded the rag-tag group of volunteers into a serious army, trained in Prussian military tactics.  

In full military dress uniform, von Steuben trained soldiers that were often lacking proper clothing of any kind (for a time, Von Steuben volunteered without pay.)

Von Steuben and the troops.

 His eccentric manner of training often involved yelling and swearing at the troupes in French and German, and then leaving his aide to translate the cursing.

George Washington

According to Griswold's “Republican Court,” von Steuben created a select troops of handsome men called “Captain Harsin's New York Grenadiers.” They were described as "the tallest and finest-looking young men of the city, dressed in blue coats with red facings and gold lace broideries, cocked hats with white feathers, and white waistcoats and breeches, and black spatterdashes, buttoned close from the shoe to the knee." They were one of several troops that stood guard at Washington's Inauguration in 1789.

 The Inauguration of President Washington 1789. Harsin's Grenadiers

After the war, Von Steuben became an American citizen and resigned from service. After almost going bankrupt waiting for his commission, he was finally awarded a substantial pension of $2,500 a year for life (thanks to the intervention of Washington and Franklin.) 

Once settled on his estate, Von Steuben adopted several handsome young soldiers.  At a time when homosexuality was a criminal offense, the only way gay men could safely create a legal bond was through adoption. One of his sons was William North, who later became a well-known U.S. Senator and the other was Benjamin Walker.  

Von Steuben eventually hired John Mulligan as his personal secretary, but Walker was not only one of Von Steuben’s employees but also the last great love of his life. Mulligan stayed through all the hardships, while all of the others eventually left. Despite gossip about what went on at Von Steuben’s estate, there was never any investigation since von Steuben’s was considered a war hero and was well connected socially. 

 The Zabriskie estate was given to von Steuben, but it was sold to settle his debts.

In 1783, the State of New Jersey presented him with the use of an estate which had been confiscated from Loyalist Jan Zabriskie. The estate included a gristmill and about 40 acres of land and would have provided a nice income. 5 years later, they deeded Baron von Steuben the full title to the estate. In a letter to William North, von Steuben wrote: "My Jersey estate is advertised but not yet sold, from this Walker shall immediately pay to you the money, you so generously lend me and all my debts in New-York will be payed. I support my present poverty with more heroism than I Expected. All Clubs and parties are renounced, I seldom leave the House."

Von Steuben passed away in 1794, with John Mulligan at his side. Unfortunately, Von Steuben was not very good at handling his money, and even with his generous yearly pension, he was not a wealthy man when he passed away. Baron von Steuben, the man who's training won the American Revolutionary War, was buried in simple tomb near his farm in Starr Hill, New York.  

 Von Steuben's tomb in Starr Hill

 After many years of officially serving as Von Steuben’s “secretary” and as his faithful partner, John Mulligan inherited Von Steuben’s vast library, collection of maps and $2,500 in cash (a handsome sum in those days.)

Von Steuben wrote the Revolutionary War Drill Manual, which was used in the United States Army until the War of 1812. 

 Von Steuben Memorial

 One side of the General Von Steuben Memorial at Monmouth Battlefield State Park in Washington D.C. is extremely homo-erotic; I think von Steuben would have loved it!

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