Informative biography of the Prussian soldier who helped George Washington train America’s revolutionary army.
Lockhart (History/Wright State Univ.) acknowledges the character shortcomings of Friedrich von Steuben (1730–94), including the petty European nobleman’s penchant for enhancing his back story. By the time he arrived on American soil in 1777, the honorary title Freiherr von Steuben had been very loosely translated into the more distinguished (and Gallic) Baron de Steuben. Still, the author admires Steuben for his legitimate knowledge of military training and tactics. Working his way into General Washington’s command structure, the Prussian professional could see that America’s army was a shambles: poorly trained, poorly supplied and almost certain, it seemed, to lose battle after battle until it lost the war. Steuben knew how to whip the tattered troops into shape, Lockhart avers, lucidly delineating his tactics and psychological skills. Even readers who care little about the details of Revolutionary War battles may well find Steuben’s maneuvers captivating. His biographer credits him with combining expertise in military training, empathy for the beleaguered troops and a forceful personality (unafraid of calculated theatrics to make his points) to make this ramshackle army battle-ready in a scant three months. Lafayette is the most famous of the foreigners who came to America to help defeat the British, but Lockhart believes that Steuben deserves more credit. The states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York agreed, giving the baron grants of land in gratitude for his services, and newly elected President Washington in 1789 solicited his advice on the structure and mission of the postwar army. Having gained citizenship and a modest pension from in his adopted country, Steuben showed his enthusiasm and loyalty by never returning to Europe.
Unusually well-written for an academic history, with incisive character sketches of Washington, Jefferson and other patriots complementing Lockhart’s full-bodied portrait of Steuben.