Baron Wilhelm Von Steuben
Von Steuben was not one of the political Founders of the United States, but without his contributions to the formation of a disciplined army there would likely have been no nation. Von Steuben inserted military discipline and tactics in an army which had previously shown little of either. He did so despite the snickers of many of the troops under him who were amused by his antics, his deliberate and slow cursing in multiple languages, his dogs which followed him everywhere, and the fact that he was a homosexual, with his lover serving as his aide.
Von Steuben had fled from the Courts in Hechingen to Paris to avoid a scandal which involved a homosexual seduction. He was on the verge of being arrested in Paris for a similar event when the matter was brought to the attention of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin abetted Von Steuben’s exit from the capital through the dispensing of some well-placed cash and provided Von Steuben with a letter of introduction to Congress and to George Washington. Franklin did not refer to the charges against Von Steuben to Congress, but he did hint at the nature of Von Steuben’s troubles to Washington.
Franklin also wildly exaggerated Von Steuben’s credentials to Washington, which may or may not have been deliberate. When Von Steuben arrived at Valley Forge he was accompanied by his young aide and lover, Peter du Ponceau, another young aide, and two additional officers who were traveling with them. Washington was also made aware of the relationship between Von Steuben and his aides by the troops who were assigned to act as their guards in camp. In a short time it was an open secret that there was something different about the Prussian drillmaster, but it did not impede his duties, nor his effectiveness.
At least two other officers in the Continental Army were rumored to have been involved with Von Steuben during the time he served under Washington. Both of these men were later “adopted” by the Prussian following the war, when he opted to remain in America rather than return to Europe. Von Steuben made these two officers his heirs in his will. Du Ponceau too remained in the United States, settling in Philadelphia and becoming an internationally known expert in linguistics, including many of the languages of the Native American peoples.
Von Steuben retired to an estate in Oneida County, New York, after living for a time following the war on an estate loaned to him by the State of New Jersey. Eventually he acquired title to that estate and sold it to pay off debts before relocating to New York. He never publicly admitted his sexual bias, out of awareness of the laws which made it illegal at the time, but it was hardly a secret either in Europe or the United States. He may well have been the first example of “don’t ask don’t tell” in the military of the United States.