Baron von Steuben

There is probably no character in American history more miscast than Baron von Steuben. Since he was from Germany and since he taught the manual of arms and orders of march to the American army during the revolution, it is assumed that he was a precise martinet, a perfect Prussian. He was the opposite, very much a dreamer who overindulged his appetites. Though a master of his trade, he won the hearts of the men he led, especially the younger officers who formed his "military family."

Alone of all the men mentioned in these pages, Steuben was accused of engaging in homosexual acts. In 1777 a friend of Steuben's wrote to his former employer, the Prince of Hechingen:

It has come to me from different sources that M. de Steuben is accused of having taken familiarities with young boys which the laws forbid and punish severely. I have even been informed that that is the reason why M. de Steuben was obliged to leave Hechingen and that the clergy of your country intend to prosecute him by law as soon as he may establish himself anywhere.

The reply of the prince, for whom Steuben served as court chamberlain, has not been found. Steuben's inability to find a position in Germany prompted him to go to France, and there he caught the enthusiasm, as did L'Enfant, for the American Revolution. Innuendo as to his sexuality evidently followed him to America. An article written in 1796, two years after his death, mentions an abominable rumor which accused Steuben of a crime the suspicion of which, at another more exalted court of that time (as formerly among the Greeks) would hardly have aroused such attention.

The "more exalted court at that time" was that of Frederick the Great, who was certainly Steuben's ideal. We can't be certain that the crime of seducing young boys would have been so readily countenanced at Frederick's court. While consensual sexual relations between men was not an issue in Germany in the late 18th century (Isabel V. Hull, Sexuality, State, and Civil Society in Germany 1700-1815 p258,) seduction of boys, as the letter quoted above demonstrates, was. The question then is exactly what crime was the American eulogist referring to: consensual homosexual relations among adults or the man-boy relations which were celebrated by the Greeks?

To approach an answer to that question, we first must try to understand why Steuben came to America. In Europe he was as much a courtier as a professional soldier. His war record makes clear his intentions as a soldier. The question is then did he consciously set about creating a court of handsome men in America, as his idol Frederick the Great had done in Berlin? According to Griswold's Republican Court (p 139) one of the select troops that greeted President-elect Washington included "Captain Harsin's New York Grenadiers, composed, in imitation of the guard of the great Frederick, of only the tallest and finest-looking young men of the city, dressed in blue coats with red facings and gold lace broideries, cocked hats with white feathers, and white waistcoats and breeches, and black spatterdashes, buttoned close from the shoe to the knee." Perhaps Steuben had something to do with the outfit.

Needless to say, he was surrounded by younger men during the war. He became the "military father" to many younger soldiers, including L'Enfant. One, Pierre Duponceau, a young French officer, described the type of play this "father" allowed:

Once, with the baron’s permission, his aides invited a number of the young officers to dine at our quarters, on condition that none should be admitted that had on a whole pair of breeches... Instead of wine we had some kind of spirits, with which we made ‘salamanders’, that is to say, after filling our glasses, we set the liquor on fire and drank it up, flame and all.

Yet this reminiscence was in an 1854 biography of the baron, and we might presume that readers then recognized this as the typical behavior of young army officers, not young homosexuals. The biography has other reminiscences of Duponceau including his pursuit of young girls in Boston. After the war Steuben perpetuated his military family. He was an important force in the creation of the Society of the Cincinnati. He contemplated land settling schemes both in the US and in the Spanish Mississippi. The latter had military overtones and he planned to enlist old associates. But on a more personal and emotional level, for all his brilliance as an officer, he seemed to cultivate his weaknesses, whether it be the need for a translator or a younger roommate to do things for him. A case can be made that he needed to surround himself with sons, not to seduce them, but to actually fulfill the functions of sons to an aging father.

Steuben was certainly not against the traditional family. Two of the young officers he subsequently boarded with General John Armstrong and Colonel William North subsequently had wives and many children. Steuben eventually made North and Colonel Benjamin Walker his sons by adoption. The fact that he gave two men this honor again argues that his project was brotherhood not homosexual love. Kapp, the author of the 1854 biography, thinks that a third man, James Fairlie, would have shared in the inheritance but that he offended Steuben when he traded 200 acres the Baron gave him for some of Col. North's china.

Kapp's biography quotes and prints in full letters that show a degree of affection not common in letters between men in the late 18th century. For example, North writes to Steuben, I shall go to New York, kiss you and Ben; go to Boston, comfort my old mother, & return here to drudge in getting my living. In a letter to Walker, Steuben tries to entice him with the prospect of a pretty girl and then writes of his own affection for him: I want to see you here, in the course of next week. I board at Mrs. Clark's in Front Street. You will find there a young widow, & a lady from New York with a beautiful waist, a reason the more for you to hasten your departure. I expect you with the impatience of a lover for his mistress, or to speak without figures, with all the sentiments of true friendship. Walker writes to Steuben complaining of ennui in Gen. Washington's camp, and jokes that he may have to seek some neighbor's daughter pour passer le temps. Then he regrets that there is so little sociability among officers. Finally he laments, When shall I have the pleasure to embrace you? You express a wish to have my picture. If it was a miniature you meant, we have a miniature painter here in New York, as superior to Peale as light to darkness.

Toward the end of his life he evidently had one secretary,  John W. Mulligan, Jr., of whom I have found one contemporary description. Elihu H. Smith wrote of him "young Mr. John Mulligan, my host's son, a very amiable & agreable young gentleman, had returned from the country, & I was induced to sit longer, on his account." When Steuben died, Mulligan, who was there, wrote: "Oh, my god, my parent died! O, Col. Walker, our friend, my all." Below I provide a link to more on Mulligan including a letter Steuben wrote to comfort him after an emotional crisis.

Given that Steuben likely engaged in homosexual acts in Europe and that he inspired passionate devotion in men in America, it would not be surprising if gossips and his enemies used his reputation for homosexuality against him. However, he seems to have maintained a standing in New York society. He was on Mrs. Jay's invitation list for 1787 and 1788. During and after the war, Steuben was involved in a number of controversies. Given the context of the time, we should not expect direct accusations of sodomy. We should look at the language and tactics of opponents. A cursory examination of Rufus King's correspondence show an intense dislike of Steuben, but I am not familiar enough with King to know if others inspired the same disdain.

by Bob Arnebeck

I have more information about Steuben in my web page Steuben and John Mulligan and I also wrote more in my 2005 essay To Tease and Torment: Two Presidents Confront Suspicions of Sodomy

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