An impoverished Prussian nobleman named Baron Friedrich von Steuben showed up in Valley Forge on Feb. 23, 1778, and taught the Continental Army to use bayonets for killing, not cooking.
Nearly two years into the American Revolution, most patriot soldiers didn’t know how to use a bayonet. They didn’t trust the deadly weapon. They often left it behind and relied instead on the musket. British regulars, on the other hand, knew how to attack with bayonets once their artillery and musket fire broke holes in the enemy’s ranks.
Von Steuben understood the importance of bayonets in 18th century warfare. Flintlock muskets were complicated and clumsy to use. It took 15 separate actions to load a musket and two more to fire. And they hit a target about one out of five times.
However, a soldier could count on a lethal bayonet. They weren’t sharp, so they tore the flesh rather than cut it, and often caused infection.
Baron von Steuben
Steuben had fought with the Prussian Army in the Seven Years’ War and may also have fought in the War of the Austrian Succession. By the end of the Seven Years’ War he earned a promotion to captain and became aide-de-camp for Frederick the Great.
After the war ended he served in various European courts. He was made a baron in 1771.
By 1777 he was out of a job, heavily in debt and plagued by rumors he was gay. He solicited Silas Deane and Benjamin Franklin in Paris for a job with the Continental Army. Von Steuben got the job, partly because he offered to serve without pay and partly because Franklin exaggerated his credentials, calling him a lieutenant general in the Prussian Army.
He sailed to America on a frigate carrying munitions, arriving in Portsmouth, N.H., on Sept. 26, 1777. He went to York, Pa., where the Continental Congress agreed to pay him at the end of the war based on his performance.
When George Washington went into the winter camp in 1777, the Continental Army was something more than an ill-equipped mob – and something less than a well-trained army. Washington’s troops had won victories at Harlem Heights, Trenton and Princeton, but they had also disintegrated into chaos at Germantown.
Von Steuben showed up four months after the defeat at Germantown. He made quite an appearance: 47 years old, big, flamboyant, splendidly dressed — and he spoke no English.
He soon found each of the army’s regiments trained and drilled differently, according to the regiment commander’s preferences. Or, as he put it, “Each colonel exercised his regiment according to his own ideas, or those of any military author that might have fallen into his hands,” and, “march and maneuvering step was as varied as the color of our uniforms.”
Drill, Drill, Drill
He learned the soldiers lost thousands of muskets and bayonets. “The American soldier, never having used this arm, had no faith in it, and never used it but to roast his beefsteak, and indeed often left it at home,” he wrote.
Von Steuben went to work. He reorganized the army, insisting that the soldiers polish their arms. He made officers check that their troops had what they needed and visited the sick and wounded.
And he drilled, drilled and drilled some more, furiously swearing at the men in German, then French, then asking his interpreters to swear in English. Brandishing a silver-headed swagger stick, he trained infantrymen to array in line and advance together as a group with the bayonet.
He created the first manual for the U.S. Army: Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, Part I, The manual included specific instructions on the proper way to use a bayonet. (Click here to read the manual’s instructions on the five motions used in fixing and charging a bayonet.) The army used the manual, known as the Blue Book, until 1814, 20 years after von Steuben died.
Battle of Stony Point
On July 16, 1779, the Continental Army engaged in ‘one of the most spirited bayonet charges in history.’
The British had seized an important fort at Stony Point, 30 miles north of New York City on the Hudson River. They had anchored a fleet at New Haven and were rampaging along the coast, burning farms and terrifying civilians.
Washington desperately wanted a victory. He ordered an attack on Stony Point, and put Maj. Gen. Anthony Wayne in charge.
Wayne’s men had trained under von Steuben, and Wayne believed in the bayonet. Washington planned a surprise attack during the dead of night, and ordered the men to carry unloaded muskets to prevent an errant discharge from alerting the British. The attack was to be carried out by bayonet.
Companies of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Maryland troops made the assault, scaling the steep rocky cliffs quickly. So quickly that, once they were discovered, British artillery couldn’t adjust and fired over their heads. The fight ended in 25 minutes, and the Americans took 553 British prisoners in a huge morale booster.
Washington and von Steuben visited the garrison the next day. The men enthusiastically greeted the baron and promised they would take care of their bayonets and use them for purposes other than digging trenches or roasting meat. Von Steuben requested, and got, an order that in the future all bayonets should be continually fixed to the musket.
Baron von Steuben was one of three commanders at Yorktow.n He also helped Washington demobilize the army after the Revolutionary War ended. He became an American citizen, moved to New York City and ran up more debt. Congress awarded him a pension of $2,500 and the State of New Jersey gave him an estate, which he sold to pay off his debts. He moved to upstate New York and died in 1794.
This story was updated in 2023.