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Von Steuben turnaround artist

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Looking at the Revolutionary army at Valley Forge, Baron von Steuben hardly knew where to begin.

The weapons at Valley Forge were in “horrible condition,” the men “literally naked” and discipline nonexistent. In every campaign, the army lost 5,000 to 8,000 men through desertion or discharges. Soldiers didn’t even know how to drill or march.

Steuben had to clean up this mess.

With his likable but explosive personality, Steuben didn’t fit the stereotypical stern and detached Prussian officer. He was nothing more than a captain. Still, he came recommended to George Washington. Within a month, Washington asked Congress to commission Steuben as a major general. How it happened:
  • He took charge. He reorganized the thin regiments so battalions could train and maneuver as battle units. That made it possible to pull together a fighting team no matter how depleted the regiments.

  • He delegated. Because he struggled with the language, Steuben at first got along on pantomime. Consequently, he delegated, requiring officers to supervise their own troops.

  • He liked people, particularly Americans. Even though his hot temper scared subordinates, Steuben genuinely liked the troops.

  • He organized. He not only trained the army, but also through regulations taught it how to train itself, from standing at attention to maintaining camp sanitation.

  • He simplified things. In particular, he streamlined the drill manuals.

  • He moved fast. Instead of marching troops in single file, he fanned them out, deploying them much faster.

    “In our European armies,” he said, “a man who has been drilled for three months is called a recruit; Here, in two months I must have a soldier.”
Bottom line: Steuben created the American army’s first set of regulations. He also gave his ragtag soldiers their first burst of confidence.

— Adapted from Adopted Son, David A. Clary, Bantam Books.

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