Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben by Charles Willson Peale
Historians often describe the harsh winter of 1777 when the Continental Army was camped at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, as a turning point in the American Revolution—and it was. During that winter, almost three years into the war, Gen. George Washington initiated a new set of drills and regimental regulations that helped to turn a ragtag collection of ill-supplied, untrained enlistees into a more disciplined and professional fighting force.
Historian Richard Bell tells the story of that crucial Valley Forge winter through the perspective of Baron Friedrich von Steuben, whom Washington had appointed to train his soldiers. Von Steuben was a Prussian immigrant who had to overcome anti-German bigotry and rumors about his sexuality in order to do his job. Recalling that winter through von Steuben’s eyes provides an outsider’s perspective on America’s founding conflict. It brings into clear focus the problems plaguing Washington’s army and the significance of the changes von Steuben engineered. It also reflects the central role played by foreign soldiers in the Revolutionary War.
After the war, von Steuben became a naturalized U.S. citizen and settled in Manhattan with his longtime companion, William North. Living as an openly gay man when he did took grit, which von Steuben had in abundance: He earned the reputation as the gay man who saved the American Revolution.
Bell is professor of history at the University of Maryland.
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