Baron Von Steuben: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell During the USA’s Founding

Homosexuality was punishable by death in all 13 of the new United States. One man, however, was deemed far too valuable to lose to “rumors.”

Feb 28, 2024By Ryan Stalker, BA in History & Political Science

baron von steuben


The Continental Army began the American Revolution as an undisciplined, rag-tag militia comprised of farmers, artisans, and laborers. They had been defeated in every conventional engagement of the war.


As the men languished in the abysmal conditions of Valley Forge during the infamous winter of 1777-1778, contemplating the futility of their cause, a foreign officer arrived at the camp. This foreign officer—openly gay by the standards of the day—would transform the ill-fated rabble of the Continental Army into professionals who could go toe-to-toe with the Redcoats. This was Baron von Steuben.


Who Was Baron von Steuben? His Early Years 

Prince Henry of Prussia, one of the Baron’s early patrons. Source: Royal Collection Trust


Baron von Steuben was born Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin Louis von Steuben on September 17, 1730, in the Prussian fortress of Magdeburg. His father was a Prussian officer close to King Frederick I.


The young Friedrich lived a life of war. He accompanied his father during the Russo-Turkish War of 1735-1739 and volunteered to serve alongside him in the War of Austrian Succession in 1744. Before the war ended, he would officially join the army as a cadet. By 1753, he was a second lieutenant.

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When the Seven Years’ War broke out in 1756, the young officer saw his fair share of action under Prince Henry of Prussia, Frederick the Great’s brother. He fought at the battles of Prague, Rossbach, Kay, and Kundersdorf, experiencing both crushing defeat and resounding victory. At the Siege of Treptow in October 1761, the young officer was captured by the Russians.


He was released in April 1762 and returned to Prussia; Prince Henry promoted him to Captain and sent the young officer on to bigger and better things. The battle-hardened, dashing, and charismatic officer was assigned as aide-de-camp to Frederick the Great himself.


Although he only served the king for a year, during that time, the monarch took great interest in von Steuben, personally supervising his staff training.


For unknown reasons, von Steuben suddenly resigned from the Prussian military in 1763. He would never explain why, simply claiming he left due to “an inconsiderate step and an implacable personal enemy.”


The Interregnum: Thirteen Years in Hohenzollern-Hechingen

The castle of the Principality of Hohenzollern-Hechingen. Source: Burg Hohenzollern


Nonetheless, by the following year, Friedrich was working as the Hofmarschall to Prince Josef, the ruler of the small principality of Hohenzollern-Hechingen. In this role, he oversaw all economic affairs in the principality, ran the Prince’s household, and acted as his senior advisor.


For his services, Prince Josef granted him the title Freiherr—Baron.


During his service to the Prince, the Baron accompanied him on his many trips to France. While lounging in Germain, Steuben was introduced to the future French Minister of War, Claude Louis, Comte de Saint-Germain. The two developed a relationship “of the most intimate and friendly in character.”


But this was short-lived. By 1777, the tiny principality was broke, and the Baron was in need of other employment. That year, his life-long friend, the Comte de Saint-Germain, introduced him to Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane, the American representatives in Paris. The two men desperately needed experienced military officers to lead and train the ill-fated Continental Army. Just as desperately, the Baron needed to get out of France.


Despite the urgency of the situation, the Baron left the first meeting with the men outraged (he was told he’d need to go to Congress as a volunteer and offer his services). He returned to Paris after he failed to obtain a commission in the Dutch military and began negotiating directly with Benjamin Franklin on his terms of service.


Benjamin Franklin greatly inflated the Baron’s rank. The Baron, who never achieved a rank higher than Captain, was erroneously made a Lieutenant General in his letter of introduction. With this letter in hand and having exhausted all other options, the Baron bit the Old West adieu. On September 26, 1777, the Baron set sail for America aboard the French warship Flamand.


Homosexuality Among the Elites of the Western World

Frederick the Great, the King of Prussia, was openly gay by the standards of the day. Source: George Washington’s Mount Vernon


But why did the Baron suddenly leave a life of leisure and luxury behind to cross an ocean and fight for a seemingly hopeless cause?


It is important here to discuss perhaps the most central part of the Baron’s legacy, at least today: his sexuality. For the standards of his time, he was openly gay. While this characterization is accurate—he was romantically attracted to men—it is important to remember that calling him openly gay applies our own 21st-century conception of sexuality and gender to a very different time and place.


Sexuality in the past was just as varied as it is today. For simplicity’s sake, this article refers to Frederick, Prince Henry, and the Baron as “gay,” but this characterization is a modern convenience and not a term that accurately characterizes the unique experiences, perceptions, and expressions of sexuality at the time.


We also need to remember that being publicly outed as a “homosexual” was a severe crime in Europe and the United States. Indeed, in 1776, homosexuality was illegal in the Western world—including the 13 soon-to-be states across the Atlantic. On the mild end of the spectrum, a man found guilty of ”unnatural acts” would be subjected to a fine, imprisonment, and extreme social ostracization. On the more extreme end, the punishment would be death.


A portrait of Baron von Steuben wearing the Order of the Cincinnati, c. 1780. Source: National Park Service


Of course, the reality is far more complex. Prince Henry and Frederick the Great, the Baron’s early patrons, were openly gay.


It’s possible Frederick chose the young, battle-hardened von Steuben as his aide-de-camp because he was infatuated with him. Perhaps even Prince Henry, who frequented spas alongside von Steuben that were ”known to attract those seeking relations with other men,” had been romantically involved with him in the past and recommended him to his brother for this reason.


It’s also very possible that the Baron’s “implacable personal enemy” was Frederick himself after their relationship soured.


Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: A Life in the Shadows

Baron von Steuben instructing the troops at Valley Forge. Source: Founder of the Day


Foreign officers joined the Continental Army for different reasons. Some, like the immensely wealthy Marquis de Lafayette, joined for ideological reasons. Others, like Johann de Kalb, joined as a soldier of fortune, seeking both glory and riches across the sea.


Baron von Steuben joined because he needed to escape France. Despite the fact Benjamin Franklin wrote to Washington that the Baron was leaving behind wealth and power “out of an idealistic commitment to liberty,” the reality is that he was about to be arrested by the French clergy for sodomy.


The American delegation was well aware of the charges against him. As Silas Deane wrote to Prince Josef before von Steuben absconded to the New World:


“It has come to me from different sources that M. de Steuben is accused of having taken familiarities with young boys, which the laws forbid and punish severely. I have even been informed that that is the reason why M. de Steuben was obliged to leave Hechingen and that the clergy of your country intend to prosecute him by law as soon as he may establish himself anywhere.”


Nonetheless, both Franklin and Deane decided that Steuben, an experienced officer trained personally by Frederick the Great, was far too valuable to lose to mere rumors. They needed his expertise if they were going to win the war.


Valley Forge: A Double-Life of Decadence 

William North, the Baron’s protégé and probable lover, in a 1785 portrait by Charles Willson Peale. Source: Detroit Institute of Arts


The Baron arrived at Valley Forge amid a fierce blizzard on February 23, 1778. George Washington was immediately impressed by the Prussian, writing that von Steuben “appears to be much of a gentleman, and as far as I have had an opportunity of judging, a man of military knowledge and acquainted with the world.”


If Washington was impressed, then his men were entranced. One of the men, writing many years later, detailed his first impression of the imposing officer.


“He seemed to me a perfect personification of Mars [the Roman god of war]. The trappings of his horse, the enormous holsters of his pistols, his large size, and his strikingly martial aspect, all seemed to favor the idea.”


While the Baron set out to improve the training, discipline, and organizational structure of the Continental Army, he also enjoyed himself.


He developed an “extraordinarily intense emotional relationship” with William North, a young officer of the Continental Army who served as his aide-de-camp. The unmarried von Steuben later made North his heir, which, at the time, was common practice for homosexual lovers since they couldn’t legally marry. After the war, North and his family would live with the Baron until his death.


At some point, the Baron also got quite close with Charles Adams, the outcast of the Adams family. It’s possible the two were romantically involved.


His dinner parties at the encampment were infamous among the officer corps; for one particularly risqué soiree, the criteria for acceptance was quite bold: “None should be admitted that had on a whole pair of breeches.”


We can only speculate whether this was a tone-deaf joke poking fun at the very-real supply issues facing the Continental Army or whether it was meant quite literally.


Training, Reorganization, & Professionalization

Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge. Source: Cranberry Eagle


Baron von Steuben was horrified by what he saw at Valley Forge. Men relieved themselves wherever they wished. Dead animals were strewn about the camp where they fell. Discipline had broken down. Von Steuben set out to change all this.


He immediately ordered the encampment to be rebuilt in an ordered fashion, with tents and huts laid out in neat rows according to rank and unit. He forbade soldiers from relieving themselves wherever they wished and constructed latrines on the opposite side of the camp from the kitchen, ensuring the waste flowed downhill.


The Baron also went about formalizing the logistical and bureaucratic structure of the army, enforcing the strict keeping of records to remove both the “administrative incompetence” and “war profiteering” that was all too common in the Continental Army.


The Baron’s success in quickly creating a unified drill set for the Continental Army was just as important as the logistical and bureaucratic reforms he implemented. Before his reforms, each regimental commander had their own drill sets and maneuvers, meaning that units had difficulty coordinating in battle.


Washington and another officer at Valley Forge. Source: The American Revolution Institute


He assembled a company of around 120 handpicked men—the best of the Continental Army—and drilled them rigorously twice a day. He taught them how to march properly in a condensed column. He taught them battlefield formations and maneuvers. He showed them how to reload and fire their weapons quicker and the benefit of the bayonet. He showed them how to maintain both themselves and their weapons for peak efficiency.


After training with the Baron, his disciples would train the men of their units, effectively turning the Continental Army into a cohesive fighting force that followed a uniform doctrine, not only increasing their combat effectiveness but also their ability for inter-unit cooperation.


The fruits of the Baron’s hard work quickly became evident during the next campaigning season. At the battles of Barren and Monmouth in 1778, the army marched and fought like true professionals, exceeding all expectations, standing their ground against the British, inflicting severe casualties at Monmouth, and withdrawing quickly in good order at Barren.


While the Baron would continue to serve in the Continental Army, his activities at Valley Forge—shaping an army of rag-tag peasants into a professional army that could go muzzle-to-muzzle with the British in an open field—was his greatest achievement.


Double Standards: Power, Necessity, & Status

George Washington by Charles Willson Peale, 1776. Source: George Washington’s Mount Vernon


George Washington, as well as his close confidants, were well aware of the Baron’s history and his alleged “behaviors” at Valley Forge. Still, much like Franklin and Deane, Washington ultimately decided that von Steuben was far too valuable to lose.


While Washington might have turned a blind eye to von Steuben, he didn’t to other acts of “sodomy.” Shortly after the Baron arrived at Valley Forge, a far less crucial officer of the Continental Army was accused of homosexual acts. On March 10, 1788, a court martial found a Lt. Enslin:


“Guilty [of sodomy and perjury], being breaches of 5th Article 18th Section of the Articles of War and do sentence him to be dismissed the service with infamy. His Excellency the Commander in Chief approves the sentence and with abhorrence and detestation of such infamous crimes orders Lt. Enslin to be drummed out of Camp tomorrow morning.”


Being drummed out of camp was the ultimate humiliation for a soldier of the 18th century. Although no accounts of Enslin’s drumming out exist, he was likely paraded before his regiment, if not the entire army, during morning roll call.


His sword would’ve been ceremonially broken. His insignia of rank (his epaulets) would’ve been either ripped or cut off from his uniform and stomped by his superior officer. At that point, his uniform would’ve been flipped inside out, and he would’ve been forced to leave the camp as soldiers insulted him.


The Baron was shielded from such humiliation due to his necessity. He transformed the half-naked, starved, and disease-ridden men of the Continental Army into a professional army that, with much help from the French, ultimately defeated the British at the Siege of Yorktown.


General George Washington resigned his commission hours after writing the Baron a farewell letter. This painting by John Trumbull commemorates the event. Source: Historic Clothing


Just hours before George Washington officially resigned his commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Army on December 23, 1783, he wrote a letter to the Baron, which read in part:


“My dear Baron: Altho’ I have taken frequent opportunities, both in public and private, of acknowledging your great zeal, attention and abilities in performing the duties of your office; yet I wish to make use of this last moment of my public life, to signify in the strongest terms my entire approbation of your conduct, and to express my sense of the obligations the public is under to you, for your faithful and meritorious services.

I beg you will be convinced, my dear sir, that I should rejoice, if it could ever be in my power, to serve you more essentially, than by expressions of regard and Affection—but in the mean time, I am persuaded you will not be displeased, with this farewell token, of my Sincere Friendship and Esteem for you…

I am, My Dear Baron, Your most Obedient and Affectionate Servant

George Washington”


Later in life, Washington would ensure the Baron received his pension when the Senate questioned his morality.


He had earned it.


Baron von Steuben’s Legacy & Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Today 

President Bill Clinton introduced the concept of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 1993. Source: Fortune


When reflecting on the life of Major General Baron von Steuben, it’s essential to acknowledge the full scope of his life and legacy, not just his modern-day designation as gay.


While his story provides meaningful insight into the experience of being a gay man in the 18th century, it is important to remember that he, like Prince Henry and Frederick the Great, had the privilege of rank and status that protected them. This privilege was not afforded to Lt. Enslin and countless other less fortunate men.


It would take centuries for the United States of America to allow gay men and women to serve in its armed forces. In 1993, Bill Clinton formalized the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy of the United States military, ensuring gay, bisexual, and lesbian people could serve but had to hide their sexual orientation. Before this, all LGBTQ individuals were banned from serving their country.


Those found engaging in same-sex relations were court-martialed.


Although openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual men and women have been allowed to serve since 2011 and transgender people since 2021, much stigma remains, and many service members feel compelled to hide their sexual orientation.


It can therefore be seen as quite ironic that the first Inspector General of the Continental Army, the man who transformed the predecessor of the US Army into a professional fighting force, was the same kind of man who would not be allowed to join for centuries to come.

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By Ryan StalkerBA in History & Political ScienceRyan is a contributing writer who’s never lost his passion for history. Especially interested in the intersection of conflict and identity, Ryan has also worked as a scriptwriter for various political, history, and true crime YouTube channels. He holds BAs in History and Political Science from Oakland University. In his spare time, Ryan enjoys playing video games, reading mythology, and watching all the documentaries he can get his hands on.