ULG’s Language Solutions Blog

The Hero of the American Revolution Who Didn’t Speak English: Honoring Baron von Steuben’s Contributions

Posted by Kyle Slick on July 4, 2017

The Fourth of July is an American holiday celebrating the Declaration of Independence from the British Empire in 1776 (sorry ULG’s London office). Like more formal holidays like Christmas or Thanksgiving, Americans use this holiday as an excuse for another family get together.

In between spending time outside with friends and family and watching fireworks, some Americans will remember the efforts of the Founding Fathers who gave birth to their nation. With all their virtues and faults, famous figures such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and John Hancock are an enormous part of America’s historical consciousness.

Foreign Heroes

Along with efforts from many Americans, the revolution relied heavily on aid from France. A pinnacle figure in many American history books, Marquis de Lafayette is perhaps the most famous foreign son of the revolution (he certainly has plenty of American streets named after him).

Although praise for Lafayette is well deserved, another man’s contributions are lesser known. Enter Baron Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich von Steuben of Prussia.

Von Steuben was an experienced Prussian officer which in that era was considered the cream of the military crop. Although he was indeed experienced, his introductory letter from Ben Franklin (serving as ambassador in France) wildly exaggerated his credentials. Despite this, von Steuben gained Washington’s attention.

Washington was in desperate need of someone with knowledge on drilling and training soldiers and von Steuben was the master at this. With his exaggerated military experience, immaculate uniform, and strange charm, von Steuben took over drilling Washington’s army.

The Hero of the American Revolution Who Didn’t Speak English: Honoring Baron von Steuben’s Contributions

Language Barrier

During the infamously miserable winter at Valley Forge in 1777-78, von Steuben trained and drilled a  company of soldiers in skills of European line infantry. After training, these men dispersed throughout the Continental Army with new knowledge for their peers.

This training had a direct impact on the Army’s professionalism and combat effectiveness. What makes von Steuben such a fascinating character in American history is that he did all of this with little to no English-speaking abilities.

No one in the Army spoke German, so von Steuben’s instructions and reports to Washington would be translated from German into French and then from French to English.

While conducting drills with the soldiers (between swearing and screaming in several other languages) the general relied heavily on his interpreters. Despite his temper, von Steuben became incredibly popular amongst the American soldiers. His efforts to install discipline amongst the rank and file were extremely effective.

In the battles following his time at Valley Forge, the American Army could stand toe to toe against British forces at the battles of Stony Point, Barren Hill, and Monmouth. These victories served as great morale boosters for the fledgling nation. General von Steuben would go on to serve as a commander in the southern campaigns and was present at the British surrender of Yorktown.

Von Steuben’s Legacy

Von Steuben’s knowledge had a lasting effect on the U.S. Army. In addition to his training, von Steuben wrote the Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States which would serve as the basis for American military training for decades.

His legacy continues to this day with many American cities celebrating Von Steuben Day (this holiday is featured in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) which celebrates his efforts as well as German-American history and culture.

If you happen to be reading this article in the States, raise a glass in honor of General von Steuben over the holiday weekend, he deserves it.

Topics: Language Learner, Interpreting