Fredrich von Steuben was born on 15 November, 1730 in Magdeburg, Prussia. His father was an engineer lieutenant in the military. At the age of 15, he served as a volunteer under the command of his father at the siege of Prague. He served with distinction through the Seven Years' War, and became a captain on the general staff. In 1762, he was appointed an aide-de-camp to King Frederick II1.
When peace came in 1763, he was discharged. For the next 14 years he was unable to find military employment. He acquired the title of baron by serving as the chamberlain at the court of a minor prince.
During a visit to Paris, France in the summer of 1777, he was introduced to American ambassador Benjamin Franklin and was offered a position in the Colonial Army. Franklin's letter of introduction to General George Washington described von Steuben as a 'lieutenant general' in the Prussian army to ensure his acceptance and obtain the necessary funds to get him to American soil.
Von Steuben arrived in America on 26 September, 1777, and the British were in the process of capturing the rebel's capital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He eventually joined the army on 23 February, 1778 while it was in its winter quarters in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
When he saw the condition of the army, he is said to have been horrified. Soldiers were without weapons, adequate food and clothing, and there was no discipline in the camp. Washington expected von Steuben to fix all this.
The training program von Steuben implemented consisted of a 'model company' of about 100 men whom he personally trained. His training methods were similar to the 'boot camp' model still used by most armed forces today - right down to the cursing. Of course, since he didn't speak English, most of his obscenities were delivered in a mixture of German and French. His aide Captain Benjamin Walker then translated them for the men.
He improved the sanitary conditions of the military camps by placing latrines away from drinking water sources. He had the men set up their tents in rows so the camp began to have a military structured appearance. By April 1778, the Colonial Army had become an organised and trained military force. In May, Washington confirmed Von Steuben's appointment as Inspector General of the Army giving him the rank of major general.
After the British capture of Philadelphia in 1777 and defeats at Brandywine and Germantown, the morale of the Colonial Army was rather low. When the Americans charged out of Valley Forge in June 1778, it was a different army as the results of the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey quickly proved.
During the next winter, while the Colonials were in their winter camp in Morristown, New Jersey, Von Steuben drafted his 'Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States', which was also known as the 'Blue Book'. It was based on the lessons learned during the winter at Valley Forge.
He continued to serve in the Colonial Army, commanding one of Washington's three divisions at Cornwallis' defeat at Yorktown in 1781. He aided in the dismantling of Washington's army in 1783 and helped draw up an organisation for the peacetime army. In 1784, he retired from military service.
The legislature of Pennsylvania granted him American citizenship in 1784. In honour of his service, he was given land grants in Pennsylvania, Virginia and New York, where he settled on 16,000 acres near Utica in 1790. He was also granted a yearly pension of $2,500 in 1790.
He died a bachelor in 1794, leaving his property to his former aides, William North and Benjamin Walker. His relationship with these two men was so close that their busts are included on the back of the pedestal which supports a large statue of Von Steuben located in Lafayette Park in Washington, DC.