To appreciate the contributions Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (1730-94) made to the American Revolution, consider this: Before his arrival in Valley Forge in 1778, the colonies were on the path to defeat. Without his leadership, our modern America might still be the British Colonies.
The Sodomite Soldier
Before von Steuben arrived at Valley Forge, the Revolutionary Army was a loosely organized, rag-tag band of men with little military training or discipline. The military fumbled through the beginning of the war for independence lacking training and organization. Gen. George Washington and the Continental Congress knew that, without help from additional seasoned military experts, the colonies would clearly lose.
Since Washington himself was the best the colonies had, they looked to Europe for someone who could train the troops. To that end, Washington wrote the colonies’ representatives in Paris, among them Benjamin Franklin, to see what he could come up with. Franklin, a renowned inventor, was treated as a celebrity in the French court. This would be pivotal in achieving his two major objectives in France: winning financial support for the American Revolution and finding military leaders who could bring a semblance of order to the Revolutionary Army.
Franklin learned of a “brilliant Prussian” military genius, Lt. Gen. Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, who had a string of successes across Germanic Europe. But there was one problem. He’d been asked to depart many of those states and countries because of his “affections for members of his own sex,” according to biographer Paul Lockhart’s The Drillmaster of Valley Forge.
This became urgent in 1777 when von Steuben literally escaped imprisonment in what is now Germany and traveled to Paris. There, Franklin was interviewing candidates to assist Washington back in the colonies when his fellow Colonial representative Silas Deane brought von Steuben to his residence for an interview in June.
During the process, Franklin discovered von Steuben’s reputation for having “affections” with males and the issue became pressing, as members of the French clergy demanded the French court, as in other countries, take action against this sodomite, whom they considered a pedophile. They had decided to make their effort a crusade and run him out of France.
Lockhart’s biography tells of von Steuben’s being summoned from Paris for Karlsruhe, at the court of the Margrave of Baden, for a military vacancy. But, Lockhart notes, “what he found waiting for him at Karlsruhe was not an officer’s commissioner but a rumor, a horrible, vicious rumor” that the Baron had “taken familiarities with young boys.”
Those allegations were fueled by von Steuben’s close ties to Prince Henry and Frederick the Great, also “widely rumored to be homosexual.”
Benjamin Franklin: Smuggler & Scandal Fixer
Von Steuben returned to Paris, and Franklin had a choice here — and he decided von Steuben’s expertise was more important to the colonies than his sexuality. While it can be debated how much a part Franklin played in the recruitment of von Steuben, one cannot doubt that one of the most informed people at the French court would know of the allegations against the baron. With that knowledge, and with von Steuben about to be jailed, Franklin, along with Deane, wrote what must be the nation’s first example of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as they mutually signed a recommendation letter to Gen. Washington that embellished von Steuben’s military expertise and titles and suggested he had been recommended by various princes and “other great personages.” Most surprisingly, it remarked that “his distinguished character and known abilities were attested to by two judges of military merit in this country.”
The judges of character that Franklin referred to were two of the four involved in the plot to bring von Steuben to America, along with Franklin and Deane, and personal friends of the baron: Pierre Beaumarchais, author of the “Figaro” plays and an arms dealer who supplied arms for the ship von Steuben eventually sailed on, and Claude Louis, Comte de Saint-Germain, the minister of war under Louis XVI.
What the letter didn’t mention was that he was about to be arrested and appear before judges in France.