Instructions for Privates

In February 1778 Frederick William Augustus, Baron von Steuben (or de Stuben), bearing a letter of recommendation from Benjamin Franklin, offered his services to General George Washington at the Continental Army's Valley Forge encampment.

Having gained his military experience in the Prussian army during the Seven Years' War (1756-63), Steuben quickly gained the respect and confidence not only of Washington but also of the rag-tag, dispirited American army. After personally training an elite drill company to demonstrate his principles of discipline, order, and method throughout the revolutionary forces, he began writing a manual titled Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States. First published in 1778 and reprinted in 1794, it remained the U.S. army's official handbook until 1812.

Steuben's book was much more than a "blue book" of military regulations and procedures. It concluded with guides to character, pride and conduct for men of every rank, from regimental commanders and their subordinates, to non-commissioned officers and privates.

Von Steuben's Directions to Privates

The recruit having received his necessaries, should in the first place learn to dress himself with a soldier-like air; to place his effects properly in his knapsack, so as to carry them with ease and convenience; how to salute his officers when he meets them; to clean his arms, wash his linen and cook his provisions. He should early accustom himself to dress in the night; and for that purpose always have his effects in his knapsack, and that placed where he can put his hand on it in a moment, that in case of alarm he may repair with the greatest alertness to the parade.

When learning to march, he must take the greatest pains to acquire a firm step and a proper balance, practicing himself at all his leisure hours. He must accustom himself to the greatest steadiness under arms, to pay attention to the commands of his officers, and exercise himself continually with his firelock, in order to acquire vivacity in his motion. He must acquaint himself with the usual beats and signals of the drum, and instantly obey them.

When in the ranks, he must always learn the names of his right and left hand men and file-leader, that he may be able to find his place readily in case of separation. He must cover his file-leader and dress well in his rank [align himself with the third man in front of him], which he may be assured of doing when he can just perceive the breast of the third man from him. Having joined his company, he must no longer consider himself as a recruit, but as a soldier; and whenever he is ordered under arms, must appear well dressed, with his arms and accoutrements clean and in good order, and his knapsack, blanket, &c. ready to throw on his back in case he should be ordered to take them.

When warned for guard, he must appear as neat as possible, carry all his effects with him, and even when on sentry must have them at his back. He must receive the orders from the sentry he relieves; and when placed before the guard-house, he must inform the corporal of all that approach, and suffer no one to enter until examined; if he is posted at a distance from the guard, he will march there in order, have the orders well explained to him by the corporal, learn which is the nearest post between him and the guard, in case he should be obliged to retire, or have any thing to communicate, and what he is to do in case of alarm; or if in a town, in case of fire and any disturbance. He will never go more than twenty paces from his post; and if in a retired placed, or in the night, suffer no one to approach within ten paces of him.

A sentinel must never rest upon his arms, but keep walking on his post. He must never suffer himself to be relieved but by his corporal; challenge briskly in the night, and stop those who have not the countersign; and if any will not answer to the third challenge, or having been stopped should attempt to escape, he may fire on them.

. . . When arrived at camp or quarters, he must clean his arms, prepare his bed, and go for necessaries, taking nothing without leave, nor committing any kind of excess.

He must always have a stopper for the muzzle of his gun in case of rain, and when on a march; at which times he will unfix his bayonet.

1. Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the troops of the United States . . . , by Baron de Stuben [sic], Late Major General and Inspector General of the Army of the United States. (1794; Reprint, New York, Dover, 1985), 147-51.