People Trivia How A Gay Prussian Who Spoke No English Became A Hero Of The American Revolution  

Phil Gibbons
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If there was ever an outfit in need of an emotional lift, it was the Continental Army in the Valley Forge winter of 1778. Enter the fabulous Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben. This Prussian drillmaster established himself in the pantheon of stylish revolutionaries with his arrival in a horse drawn, fur-lined sleigh, accompanied by his gay lovers and a pet greyhound. American Revolutionary history is filled with similarly outlandish Baron Von Steuben stories as well as evidence that this gay, flamboyant expatriate was a major factor in the Colonial effort to reorganize itself into a fighting force formidable enough to ultimately defeat the British crown. The Baron may not have been as crazy as Teddy Roosevelt or as weird as Wolfgang Mozart, but he definitely is a unique historical character deserving of attention and respect.    

Scandalous Rumors Got Him Kicked Out Of The Prussian Army

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Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben entered the Prussian Army in 1746 at the age of 17. Good at his job and promoted through the ranks, von Steuben saw extensive action in the European "Seven Years War" and even wound up on the personal staff of Frederick the Great. When the war ended, Von Steuben was decommissioned from the Prussian Army. After the war, Steuben served a very brief tenure in the tiny principality of Hohenzollern-Hachingen; however, he was eventually run off of his post by some seriously scandalous rumors about his sex life. Not only was von Steuben rumored to be a homosexual, but he was also said to particularly enjoy the company of young boys (a rumor that has never been substantiated). Because of this salacious and career-ruining gossip, von Steuben headed to France in 1775 in search of a military appointment. 

Benjamin Franklin Gave Him A Free Ticket To The US

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Photo:  Charle Wilson Peale/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Von Steuben's acquisition of a military appointment with the Colonial Army was a long and circuitous process. After he arrived in France, the French government had no intention of commissioning von Steuben in their own military, but, having loaned the Colonies money, they hoped to establish professional organization and discipline in the dismally ragtag Continental Army. They introduced von Steuben to Ambassador Benjamin Franklin, but Franklin had been instructed by the Continental Congress to rebuff high-level mercenaries, and he was unwilling to offer payment in return for von Steuben's service. Eventually, though, von Steuben and Franklin reached an agreement they could both be happy with, and von Steuben agreed to report for the mere cost of free passage to America.

He Introduced The Latrine To The American Army

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Von Steuben's efforts were not just confined to the battlefield. Prior to his arrival, the Continental Army lacked any organized approach to things like hygiene and sanitation. The Prussian drillmaster instituted fundamental changes, placing kitchen and toilet facilities at opposite ends of any encampment, for example. Before von Steuben, the concept of the latrine was unheard of in the Colonial military, so this newly instituted approach made everyday camp life a lot more bearable. For this and other fundamental changes to military administration, in May of 1778, upon George Washington's specific recommendation, von Steuben was officially appointed Inspector-General of the army by the Continental Congress.     

He Threw The First Underwear Party In American Military History

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Photo: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Baron Von Steuben never publicly denied being a homosexual. In fact, on his way to Valley Forge to report to Washington, von Steuben met William North, an officer in the Continental Army. North, quickly became a part of von Steuben's entourage, living under the same roof at Valley Forge and eventually becoming von Steuben's aide-de-camp. Von Steuben even "adopted" North and another young officer, Benjamin Walker, which allowed both men to live with him and not run afoul of any laws governing morality. It also sounds like von Steuben's household at Valley Forge must have been a pretty wild place. He is said to have thrown the first underwear party in American military history:

“The Baron hosted a party exclusively for their lower-ranking friends. He insisted, though, that ‘none should be admitted that had on a whole pair of breeches,’ making light of the shortages that affected the junior officers as they did the enlisted men.”