Things Improve • Anti-Washington "Cabal" • Leaving Valley Forge
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by Ron Avery
Writer for the Philadelphia Daily News
Written exclusively for ushistory.org
• Things Improve •
In early March, the energetic and competent Gen. Nathanael Greene was appointed quartermaster general, and soon things improve rapidly. Greene got down to business by dispatching engineers to improve bridges and roads between Valley Forge and Lancaster. Wagons began arriving with clothing and food.
Also in early March a baking company of some 70 men headed by Philadelphia gingerbread baker Christopher Ludwig arrived at camp. The German-born patriot refused to profit from his labor. Eventually, each soldier got the daily pound of bread promised by Congress. Ludwig, himself, baked for the headquarters staff and often spoke with Washington.
In April great schools of shad surged up the Schuylkill River to spawn. Thousands were netted, and the soldiers gorged themselves. Hundreds of barrels were filled with salted shad for future use. One soldier wrote, "For almost a month the whole camp stank and men's fingers were oily."
Despite Washington's daily orders, there was little real military discipline in the camp. General John Sullivan once commented, "This is not an Army; it's a mob."
There were no regular roll calls. Sizes of units that were supposed to be equal varied radically. Orders prohibiting gambling, fighting, selling Army equipment and wandering away from camp were routinely ignored.
While brave, Continental troops possessed few skills in the art of 18th century warfare. They didn't know how to march in ranks or maneuver on the battlefield. The bayonet — crucial to battlefield success — was used mostly to cook over a fire.
All this was about to change with the arrival in late February of Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin Stuebe, known to history as Baron von Steuben. The title was of his own making. He had served in the Prussian Army of Frederick the Great but rose no higher than captain. Now, at age 47, he was out of work and applying for military posts in several places. In Paris, Steuben impressed American envoys, Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane, who provided the German with a glowing letter of recommendation. Some suggest that Franklin inflated Steuben's military credentials and coached him on how best to get an appointment.
Like the Marquis de Lafayette, the Baron said the right words when he spoke to members of the Congress and the Board of War: He would serve without a salary. He did, however, want his expenses paid. Both the War Board and Washington liked the man's modesty and viewed Steuben as a possible candidate for inspector general of the Army.
Steuben was appalled by what he observed during his first weeks at Valley Forge. Washington asked the German to study the situation and provide reports on camp defenses, troop morale and military readiness. Steuben's reports were detailed and astute. In a short time, Steuben was named acting inspector general. His primary mission involved training, and he attacked the task with dedication and zeal.
Washington liked Steuben immediately even though the Prussian could not speak English. But he could speak French, and Washington appointed two of his French-speaking aides, Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens to work with the Prussian.
Steuben has been called history's only popular drillmaster. The men loved his gruff manner, his cursing in broken English and his hands-on-style of demonstrating every move personally. He insisted that officers drill with their men, and he pared down the officers' staffs of personal servants.
He created his own manual of arms and drill to fit the American situation. Simplicity was the keynote. The training started with a select group of 100. When these men knew what they were doing, he released them to teach others. Soon he was drilling large masses of entire regiments and brigades.
He constantly taught the use of the bayonet. He gave lessons in mounting guard and sentry duty. He insisted that every watch be synchronized with the headquarters' clock. And page-by-page Steuben wrote in French an army drill book that was then translated into English. "Regulation for the Order of Discipline of the Troops of the United States" was then copied by an officer in each brigade.
Within weeks, everyone could see a new proficiency and new pride among the formerly dispirited men.
There were other factors coming together to boost morale and send sagging spirits soaring. Most important, France entered the war as an ally of the new nation. America got the good news in April. Great festivities were held in camp on May 5. Along with prayer, parading and gun salutes, each man was issued a gill of rum. French-made uniforms and military gear soon began arriving in camp.
Back in March, an extra month's pay was issued to all in camp for having stuck it out through the miseries of the winter. Washington added a ration of rum for each soldier.
Farmers began bringing their produce to a camp market and fresh military units arrived at Valley Forge.
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