Lessons of von Steuben – Thoughts from the Past

steuben peale thoughts from the past

Thoughts from the Past

We all have seen images of downtrodden soldiers at Washington’s encampment in 1778 at Valley Forge…soldiers who were underclothed and resorted to rags wrapped around their feet because there were not enough shoes to go around. By all accounts, the Army was downhearted and disorganized, and Washington was in need of an effective fighting force. Enter an outsider, someone of  solid reputation, strong military bearing and a colorful personality. He quickly gained the Commander-in-Chiefs confidence, became one of his trusted military leaders. Washington trusted him to take a small band of soldiers and form a “model” company and train them so they were precise in all their drill movements. His results were what were called “the most remarkable achievement in rapid military training in the history of the world.” That effective trainer and leader were non-other than Frederick William Baron von Steuben, a self-proclaimed Prussian officer, and creator of the drill techniques that quickly spread out from that initial 100-man outfit, and the rigorous drill he infused quickly spread among the encampment.

von Steuben created a written standard and published the techniques he instituted, but he also provided instructions to key members of the regiments. In his instructions for the Sergeants and Corporals, von Steuben noted that the discipline and order of the company is an important duty for them, along with treating soldiers with respect. von Steuben implied the basic missions of the Noncommissioned Officer Corps…welfare of the soldier and responsibilities to accomplish the mission. There are a number of lessons buried within von Steuben’s instructions, lessons that hold true still today.

What a modern warrior can gather from von Steuben’s lessons are that basic standards matter. Noncommissioned officers today continue to train soldiers, treat them with dignity and respect, and enforce standards. von Steuben led by example in his comportment and bearing, and he personally led the most important training himself to ensure the precision of the Company. Often today’s leaders who face the trials of an Army under strain could easily question themselves and question their leaders, today’s NCO could find themselves in a similar predicament and wondering where to turn. Caring for and leading soldiers (and their families), honoring the Army values, and completing the tasks as directed never go out of style, but are the glue that holds this Army together.

CSM (Ret.) Dan Elder, USA