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Monday, September 17, 2012

German-American Spotlight: Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben

Today was a day that I absolutely had to jump back on here for another German-American Spotlight post.  It is September 17, and it's Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben's birthday!  He was born on this day 282 years ago in 1730 in Magdeburg Germany.  He is possibly the most famous German-American, with good reason.  If not for him, our country may not have been able to win the Revolutionary War and gain our independence.

He moved with his family to Prussia when he was young and received a Jesuit education - something I'm familiar with having gone to a Jesuit University.  Before age 17, he was already a Prussian military officer.  He rose in the ranks and was one of a select few to receive training from the king.  The Prussian army is known as one of the best military forces in the world and taught Steuben skills and knowledge beyond what other armies taught.  During his time in Europe, he was introduced to Claude Louis Comte de Saint-Germain, the French Minister of War who introduced him to Benjamin Franklin, who introduced him to George Washington.  Thus began his time in America.

He arrived in America (with his Italian Greyhound Azur) and was soon put in charge of a training program for the troops.  His methods were unorthodox and he often would swear at them in German and French - when this didn't work, he had a translator swear at them in English.  He implemented a progressive training structure whereby soldiers could train each other and do so in more specific regiments.  Another contribution was a previously unheard of sanitation system that took filfth away from the tents and huts where the men were sleeping and living so they were more healthy.  His biggest contribution was teaching soldiers how to effectively use bayonets.  Before then, soldiers were not using them as weapons, but only in ways like sticks for roasting food.  Steuben taught them how to use these weapons effectively at a close range to help them win battles.  Without such training, America may have not been able to survive and fight well enough to win the war.

The legacy of Steuben is clear throughout the United States today.  Many states have cities and towns named after him, warcrafts are  named for him, and statues are dedicated to him, among other things.  There have been books and movies written about him.  And of course, there are Steuben Parades across the country honoring General von Steuben and all other German-Americans - the one in NYC was this past weekend, and the one in Philadelphia is this coming weekend.

Without Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, America would not be what it is today.  We all need to wish him a happy birthday and celebrate all that he did in his lifetime and the legacy he left behind!

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