A Prussian-born military officer, Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus von Steuben lived from 1730 to 1794 and significantly contributed to the U.S. success in the Revolutionary War. He may have been the first soldier to be subjected to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. He served as Inspector General at the rank and pay of a Major General after coming to the United States in the winter of 1778 to whip the Continental Army into shape.
Von Steuben got an early start as a successful military man, being named as an officer at the age of only 17 years old. Serving bravely in Europe and sitting in Frederich II’s court as the main protector for the King (or, as historical accounts indicate, as a personal escort), von Steuben established himself as a capable and competent soldier. However, rumors flourished in 1776 about his dalliances and improper sexual behavior with young boys, and von Steuben was labeled as a homosexual.
Historians indicate that von Steuben was unable to find employment after these rumors became prevalent throughout Europe. He actively sought posts in Germany, Austria, Baden and France, to no avail. However, it may also be argued that there was little need for a professional soldier as war was not an issue at this time.
In France, von Steuben became acquainted with Ben Franklin, who was looking for someone to train the troops of the army in the newly-founded United States of America. Von Steuben traveled to America in the winter of 1778, offered his services as a volunteer initially, and accepted the task of training the Continental Army. The Continental Army was a varied group of men with no experience or knowledge of warfare.
Von Steuben arrived in America with a young French man John Baptiste Lazare Thereneau de Francy, who served as his personal assistant and escort. Officials in the Continental Army could see that von Steuben’s relationship with this young French man went beyond simple companionship, but von Steuben’s contributions to the Continental Army were too great for any action to be taken against him.
While training the troops, von Steuben established basic military procedures and drilling routines for the soldiers, many of which are still implemented today. He organized the camp to create the most sanitary setting possible and trained the soldiers for combat using their bayonets. Without bayonet training, it is surmised by many historians that the American soldiers would have lost the war to the British.
Despite von Steuben’s many great contributions to the success of the American army, suspicions still surrounded his sexual orientation. As a lifelong military soldier, von Steuben consistently surrounded himself with other men and formed great friendships with many of them. Rumors surrounded his relationships with General Benjamin Walker and Captain William North due to how close he became with each of them, among other young soldiers he took under his wing in camp.
It was common for men during this era to bring slaves or other companions with them to war as their personal assistants who would attend to escorting matters among others. Many of these relationships were ignored, however openly homosexual behavior involving free born white males from established families was usually punished.
Officials in the U.S. government turned a blind eye to von Steuben’s activities and obvious escort-like friendships with men. It is speculated that von Steuben’s knowledge and expertise bought him preferential treatment that kept him in a prominent position for a long time.