Friedrich von Steuben: The Openly Gay War Hero Who Whipped the Continental Army Into Shape

Photo Credit: Charles Willson Peale - Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Throughout American history, homosexual soldiers have been discriminated against in the military. It was only in 2011 that the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was officially repealed, allowing soldiers to be open about their sexuality without fear of discharge. It was enacted by President Bill Clinton in 1993, as a way of “lifting” the ban on homosexual service members that was put in place after World War II. For many, however, it was largely seen as a continuation of the ban.

Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand von Steuben was a Prussian military officer who was openly gay. He is credited with turning the Continental Army into a professional fighting force during the American Revolutionary War.

Friedrich von Steuben was born into a military family

It was always likely Friedrich von Steuben would be a soldier. When he was a child, his father, Wilhelm, took him to Crimea during the Russian war against the Turks. It is alleged von Steuben first served at the age of 14 during a campaign in the War of Austrian Succession (1740-48), before formally joining the German military three years later.

Statue of Friedrich von Steuben
Statue of Friedrich von Steuben in Berlin, Germany. (Photo Credit: Schöning / ullstein bild / Getty Images)

von Steuben experienced a rapid rise in the Prussian Army. He distinguished himself during the Seven Years’ War, and was promoted to the rank of captain and later made the aide-de-camp to Frederick the Great, the Prussian King.

In 1863, however, he was surprisingly discharged from the Prussian Army. The exact reason for his downfall is unknown, but is thought to have been due to the machinations of a political rival.

Benjamin Franklin and George Washington make him an offer

After his discharge, Friedrich von Steuben acted as a hired gun and bounced from job to job. In 1877, he was introduced to Benjamin Franklin. While the Continental Congress certainly needed the help of military men like von Steuben, they didn’t have the money to pay them. Instead, Franklin asked him to aid the American forces as a volunteer.

von Steuben was offended by the suggestion and rejected the offer. Soon after, however, he changed his mind.

Portrait of Friedrich von Steuben
Friedrich von Steuben. (Photo Credit: Ralph Earl / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Franklin and George Washington were aware of the rumors about von Steuben’s sexuality, but it didn’t matter to them. They were thrilled to have an officer with his background and reputation, with Washington saying of him, “He 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.”

Whipping the Continental Army into shape

When Friedrich von Steuben reached the American camps, he was appalled by what he saw. The war had been raging for three years and the Continental Army was struggling to hold their own against the British. As such, morale and discipline were low.

von Steuben immediately established sanitation standards and camp layouts, and began drilling his soldiers in the Prussian way. In addition to acting as a drill sergeant, he also socialized with them, and it wasn’t uncommon for him to entertain soldiers in his quarters.

Drawing of Friedrich von Steuben drilling his soldiers
Friedrich von Steuben drilling American soldiers during the Revolutionary War. (Photo Credit: Fotosearch / Getty Images)

von Steuben developed a particularly close relationship with aides-de-camp Benjamin Walker and William North. Walker and North were likely in a relationship together, and while it’s thought von Steuben was romantically involved with North, it’s unclear how close he was to Walker.

The bond between the men lasted long after the war was over, and von Steuben formally adopted the two men and made them his heirs.

Friedrich von Steuben’s efforts were wildly successful

Friedrich von Steuben didn’t just drill the troops and update their sanitary standards, he also improved their fighting methods. American soldiers had been using their bayonets as cooking tools rather than weapons, and von Steuben taught them how to properly use the attachment. During a nighttime attack at the Battle of Stony Point, the Continental Army used their bayonets to score a crucial victory.

Drawing depicting the Battle of Stony Point
Battle of Stony Point. (Photo Credit: Popular Graphic Arts – Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Over the course of 1778-79, von Steuben penned the Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States. The guide was adopted by the Army and used until 1814, while the drills were practiced until the Mexican-American War.

His actions are widely credited as being instrumental to the Americans winning over the British.

Later life with other Revolutionary War veterans

Friedrich von Steuben was not close to his family in Europe and thus decided to stay in America following the war. After spending time in New Jersey, he eventually settled in New York, close to Oneida. Walker and North lived with him, along with another Revolutionary War veteran, John Mulligan, who was also thought to be gay.

Drawing of Friedrich von Steuben riding a horse
Friedrich von Steuben. (Photo Credit: Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

When von Steuben died, Walker and North inherited his estate. Mulligan inherited his library, maps and $2,500.

Todd Neikirk

Todd Neikirk is a New Jersey-based politics, entertainment and history writer. His work has been featured in psfk.com, foxsports.com, politicususa.com and hillreporter.com. He enjoys sports, politics, comic books, and anything that has to do with history.

When he is not sitting in front of a laptop, Todd enjoys soaking up everything the Jersey Shore has to offer with his wife, two sons and American Foxhound, Wally.