The Mythology of American Militia: Von Steuben’s Professionals

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“It has been said by some…that the Revolutionary army was needless; that the Militia were competent for all that the crisis required. That there was then, and now is in the Militia, as brave and as good men as were ever in any army since the creation…but there are any among them too…who are not so good as regulars; and I affirm that the Militia would not have answered so well as standing troops…” Sgt. Joseph Plumb Martin, Continental Army

As discussed in Part 1 of Mythology of American Militia, there’s a pretty big disconnect between what people think of as Revolutionary lore and what really happened. There are many reasons; what we’re presented in popular culture (from Schoolhouse Rock to blockbuster films) almost always reinforces the cherished belief that American citizen soldiers personified by Emerson’s “Embattled Farms” grabbed their rifles and muskets and went out to thrash the Brits. They had some help from friendly Indians and a few Frenchmen, but their American spirit, ability shoot better and the savvy way they used cover and concealment allowed them to beat the Redcoats and send ’em packing back across the pond.

That’s a pretty awesome way of looking at things if you’re in second grade learning the cherry tree legend. But if you think about it, such a simplistic view doesn’t really give those Militia members due credit and it definitely doesn’t reflect what our first professional infantrymen accomplished. Those guys deserve every bit of the same veneration we give to the men who fought on Omaha Beach, the Chosin Reservoir and so many other places. And Friedrich Von Steuben warrants all the regard given to generals like Pershing and Marshall. (We don’t usually give much credit to the full extent of the French, Dutch, Spanish, Polish and Prussian help received either, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

The simple fact is, the Continental Army shouldn’t have won. Why is that?

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Much of it boils down to logistics and training, particularly the latter. Americans of the day had no real martial tradition, nor any mechanism in place to train professional soldiers. In the early days of the war they relied almost exclusively on old training books (according to some sources as many as three different versions of British manuals of Arms and others from two or more European countries). They also imitated the British troops they saw.

Remember warfare as we know it now was a burgeoning science. It was only in 1741 that Britain’s royal Military Academy was founded at Woolwich to teach military science (including mathematics and the use of artillery). Austria followed in 1748 with the Alma Mater Theresiana and Hesse-Kassel with the Collegium Carolinium, the French in 1749 with the French Royal Engineering School at Mézières and then the École Militaire (which didn’t actually begin instructing students until 1760). There was nothing like them in the United States until 1802.

As for training manuals, treatises on war weren’t entirely new. Queen Elizabeth I’s tutor Roger Ascham wrote a book called Toxophilus in 1545 on the subject of archery in warfare not too long after Niccoló Tartaglia wrote Quesiti et Inventioni Diverse on ‘questions and inventions’ dealing with military matters. Jacob de Gheyn the Elder illustrated a book on instructions for the drill of infantry called Exercise of Armes for Calivres, Muskettes and Pikes half a century later. In 1615 Johann Jacob von Wallhausen wrote Kriegskunst zu Fuss (The Art of War on Foot), showing soldiers in baggy pants, hose and morion helms shooting muskets with help of a fork rest.

There were more recent works. In 1742 Benjamin Robins wrote New Principles of Gunnery1; in 1757 Count Maurice de Saxe’s Mes Rêveries was published, revealing “…a better grasp of the problems of leadership and generalship than any writer since Vegetius.” It was de Saxe (who incidentally believed the conduct of warfare as an art had declined), who said, “Battles are not won by big armies, but by good ones.” The Prussians used a manual called the Preussisches Infanterie Reglement of 1750 while the British armies drilled according to what seems to have been the most up to date manual, the Manual of Arms of 1764.

Training-Manuals

“Battles are not won by big armies, but by good ones.” Count Maurice de Saxe 

There were lots of books — but can you imagine trying to teach an infantry battalion how to fight from the bottom up with a few copies FM 3-21.8 and nobody (from Commander to NCOs to the newest boot) with any experience or formal training?

For established militaries the instruction of drill and tactics was largely one of experience and tradition; the regiments of England, France, Prussia, Hesse-Kassel (and other German states that sent troops), Spain and other countries possessed an institutional body of knowledge based on decades of constant warfare which militia of the Thirteen Colonies did not. The “War of American Independence” came after the Wars of the Spanish and Austrian Succession, the Seven Years’ War, the Anglo-Maratha War and any number of colonial actions in the Middle East, Africa and other distant parts of Empire.

Although there were a few veterans of the French and Indian War, the expeditions by Lawrence Washington and William Gooch to Colombia, Cuba and Panama and of service in certain British Regiments of Foot posted to the colonies in the Continental army’s ranks, until February 1778 they mostly had to learn as they went. That they performed as well as they did is a testimony to their determination and the “American spirit” to which Steuben referred. There was certainly no ingrained or dogged (even slavish) adherence to anything like British Manual of Arms of 1764 (The Manual Exercise as Ordered by His Majesty, 1764).

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That was both a good and a bad thing — though it put the Continentals at a disadvantage in a traditional fight, it did give them many advantages. Many armies taught massed fire without aiming for instance. Others failed to use rifles (vice muskets) to any real effect. Others were unable to respond to events that required battlefield flexibility (often at great cost in casualties even in victory). It is true that the American army learned fast and adapted well, if for no other reason than even the Americans in the military often took issue with authority.

“The genius of this nation is not in the least to be compared with that of the Prussians, Austrians, or French. With them, you say to your soldier, Do this, and he does it. But here I am obliged to say, This is the reason why you ought to do that—and then he does it.” Von Steuben

Still, even rugged individualism, initiative and self-reliance so foreign to European troops (and so remarked upon and admired by contemporaries) would not make up for a lack of severe training and ability to fight in the formations required by warfare of the day.

Enter Baron Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand Steuben, unemployed Prussian army officer wooed by Benjamin Franklin and eventually the Inspector General of the Continental Army (and Washington’s Chief of Staff).

The 47 year old Steuben arrived at the continental army’s winter cantonment approximately two months after the soldiers were encamped there; to call the situation dire would be a banal description. 11,000 soldiers settled into Valley Forge, Pennsylvania in December, 1777. 3,000 of them were unfit for duty. Over the following six months approximately 2,500 of them died of exposure, disease and malnutrition, and over 1,000 left to join the British in Philadelphia.

Steuben, traditionally referred to as a Prussian but possibly a Saxon (remember, at the time there was nothing like the modern state of Germany) had been a soldier since the age of 16. He came from a military family with a military tradition. He’d been a Lance Corporal of the Breslau-based Lestwitz Infantry Regiment, promoted rapidly up the ranks from Ensign to Lieutenant. He fought in several campaigns during the Seven Years’ War and was present at the Battles of Prague and Rossbach. In 1758 he withdrew from regular army service and served in the command of a man described as the “most promintent soldier of fortune of his day,” Maj. Gen. John Mayr. He continued to excel in military service, serving in the staffs of a succession of Prussian generals after Mayr’s death.

Von Steuben put all his experience and talent to use on Washington’s behalf and has been, in fact, called the ‘Father of the NCO Corps.’ He arrived in Valley Forge in February of 1778 (the tale of how that came to pass would be another entire story), a volunteer without rank and drawing no pay, and began instructing Continental soldiers immediately.

“I commenced operations by drafting one hundred and twenty men from the line, whom I formed into a guard for the general in chief. I made this guard my military school. I drilled them myself twice a day and to remove that English prejudice which some officers entertained, namely, that to drill a recruit was a sergeant’s duty and beneath the station of an officer, I often took the musket myself to show the men that manual exercise which I wished to introduce. All my inspectors were present at each drill. We marched together, wheeled, etc., and in a fortnight my company knew perfectly how to bear arms, had a military air, knew how to march, to form in column, deploy and execute some little maneuvers with excellent precision.” Friedrich Von Steuben

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Gen. George Washington was well aware of Steuben’s worth.

“The importance of establishing a uniform system of useful maneuvers and regularity of discipline, must be obvious; the deficiency of our army in those respects must be equally so; but the time we probably shall have to introduce the necessary reformation is short. With the most active exertions, therefore, of officers of every class, it may be possible to effect all the improvements that may be essential to success in the ensuing campaign…” Excerpt from general order, George Washington, 28 MAR 1778

Blue-Book

In May Steuben was appointed to the office of Inspector General, with rank and pay of Major General (and at some point, supposedly, back pay to when he entered Washington’s service). The Continental “long term” soldiers were soon benefiting from the Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, Part I, which was mostly commonly just called “The Blue Book.” A simplified and improved version of the British Manual Exercise, as Ordered by His Majesty in 1764, with a seasoning of the Prussian Code, it remained the official manual of U.S. Army for the next three decades. The Blue Book was written in German, translated into French and then English before the first copies were received from bookbinders in 1778.

Had it not been for the solidity of this foundation of professionally trained soldiers it is doubtful the American War of Independence would have lasted the Summer, regardless of French assistance. As it was the war continued for more than another three years, and was nearly lost several times. This is not to say militiamen played no further role in the war—they did, by the thousands. They were part of the American order of battle at the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse in fact, where for the first time the Continental line faced and successfully traded volleys with (and fended off bayonet charges from) British regulars including the Black Watch, Coldstream Guards and Hessian Jägers and grenadiers. Though tactically a British victory, the Americans’ ability to hold their own in a linear battle had a tremendous impact on the morale of both the army and the Continental Congress at a critical time. That achievement rests almost solely on the shoulders of Von Steuben’s new professionals.

Many Americans continue to believe the mythology of the Revolutionary militia; that their forebears rallied up on the village green and sallied forth with their Kentucky rifles to thrash the Redcoats by sniping at them from behind the rocks and trees. This just isn’t the case—in fact, memoirs of contemporary soldiers frequently refer to militia units with more than a little disdain (or even rancor). In many ways that relationship would foreshadow the antipathy seen between regular military units and the Guard/Reserve today.

“That the Militia did good and great service in that war, as well as in the last, on particular occasions, I well know, for I have fought by their side; but still I insist that they would not have answered the end so well as regular soldier; unless they were very different people from what I believe and know them to be, as well as I wish to know. Upon every exigency they would have been to be collected, and what would the enemy have been doing in the mean time! –The regulars were there…” Sgt. Joseph Plumb Martin, Continental Army

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We should admire and remember the Minute Men and “Embattled Farmers” for what they achieved, but also be sure to give our first true professional infantrymen all the credit they deserve. If you know who George Washington is, have heard of the Crossing of the Delaware or are familiar with any other traditional Revolutionary lore, add Von Steuben to that list. If you have the time, do some reading about them. You might find you have much more in common with them despite the 200 years between you than you do with some civilians you meet today.

“Fighting the enemy is the great scarecrow to people unacquainted with the duties of an army. To see the fire and smoke, to hear the din of cannon and musketry, and the whistling of shot; they cannot bear the sight or hearing of this. They would like the service in an army tolerably well, but for the fighting part of it.” Sgt. Joseph Plumb Martin, Continental Army

You can read Von Steuben’s “Blue Book” here. A later “improved” version from 1803 can be found here. You can read excerpts from His Majesty’s Manual of Arms of 1764 here. Here is an excellent reading copy of The Manual Exercise as Ordered By His Majesty, in 1764.

Von Steuben: A Closer Look at the ‘Father’ of the NCO Corps Pablo Villa

A Plan of Discipline for the Use of the Norfolk Militia Windham 1759

Fighting Instructions 1530-1816: Publications of the Navy Records Society Vol. XXIX

Preussisches Infanterie Reglement of 1750

The United States Infantry: An Illustrated History Gregory J.W. Urwin

The American Combat Shirt: “kind of armour, being peculiar to America  Neal Thomas Hurst

Arms through the Ages William Reid

A Narrative of a Revolutionary War Soldier Joseph Plumb Martin

The Glorious Hour of Lt. Monroe Richard Hanser

Science in the Enlightenment: An Encyclopedia William E. Burns

Soldiers: A History of Men in Battle John Keegan and Richard Holmes

A History of Seapower William Oliver Stevens and Allan Westcott

Frederick William Von Steuben and the American Revolution Joseph Beatty Doyle

1Robins is one of the first to research what we now know as ballistics (Tartaglia preceded him); he wondered at the behavior of a cannon ball before and after its muzzle, he proved flaws in the hypotheses of both Galileo and Newton and is the first to have made definitive statements on the effect of air currents on a bullet’s flight. His book was translated into German and French and other languages, but even it was three decades old by the time of the “shot heard round the world.”

2“In the military history of our Revolution, if we class men according to their services, no one after Washington and Greene stands so high as Steuben. For the services that Lafayette rendered, important as they were, were rather the effects of influence and position than individual superiority. All that Steuben owed to position was the opportunity of action, the action itself was the fruit of his own strong will and the thorough knowledge of his service. He was the creator of our regular army, the organizer of our military economy. The impress which he made upon our military character remained there long after his hand was withdrawn.” Professor G. W. Greene, Historical View of the American Revolution

That’s it for today. Go forth and conquer.

Mad Duo David

Mad Duo, Breach-Bang& CLEAR!

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Reeder Profile Picture 5About the Author: Someone has to corral the writing team, handle business expenses and bail the Mad Duo (and their minions) out of jail. For years the Pentagon, JSOC and the International Association of Chiefs of Police sought an impeccable man to lead the pedagogic and frequently obstreperous team of Breach Bang Clear writers. They needed someone charismatic, a warrior, able to maintain mental acuity under the worst stressors. Unfortunately the program suffered severe budget cuts so they ended up with David Reeder. Reeder is the Mad Duo’s Chief Wretched Flunky and Breach-Bang-Clear’s HMFIC. A LEO for many years and former AF Security Forces SNCO, his mastery of tactical sesquipedalianism is unmatched in modern times. He’s a self-professed POG who taught MOUT at the Bold Lighting Urban Warfare School and later combat tracking to members of all branches. As a LEO he worked patrol, training, SWAT and counter-narcotics and was on the OC-evaluation team at the National Homeland Security Training Center. You can read more about him here.

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2 thoughts on “The Mythology of American Militia: Von Steuben’s Professionals

  • July 4, 2015 at 1:02 pm
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    Great info, thanks for taking the time to put this together! If anything good has come from continuous combat since 1990-91, its that a ton of Americans are better prepared than pre-DS/DS.

    Reply
  • July 3, 2015 at 6:39 pm
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    Very well written and researched piece. This whole series has been excellent.

    -Unclean

    Reply

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