CONGRESS, judging it of the greatest importance
to prescribe some invariable rules for the order
and discipline of troops, especially for the purpose
of introducing an uniformity in their formation and
manoeuvres, and in the service of the camp:
ORDERED, That the following regulations be observed
by all the troops of the United States, and that all
general and other officers cause the same to be
executed with all possible exactness.
By Order of JOHN JAY,
President of Congress
March 29, 1779
Enter, The Baron
The Articles of War approved by Congress in 1775 and 1776 gave it a statuatory identity, but the Continental Army still consisted merely of a number of state-sponsored militias that were entirely independent of one another, each operating according to its own rules and regulations. Taken together, they scarcely resembled a single, unified armed force tactically capable of confronting an army as professional as Great Britain's. In the nick of time, one man—a volunteer from Prussia who spoke no English—almost instantaneously established the identity of the U.S. Army. His name was Frederick William Augustus, Baron Von Steuben. In his Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States he single-handedly gave the structure, texture, and inspiration to the Continental Army that enabled it to meet numerically superior enemies, and triumph over them. Moreover, his influence over the American military establishment lasted for the next three decades.
Indeed, by the time Lewis and Clark set out to build the Corps of Discovery, Steuben's regulations were seriously out of date, yet not until 1812, when an old enemy with new tactics required a new look at order and discipline in the American Army. Meanwhile, it is worthwhile to get acquainted with Steuben, and consider how much—or little—of Steuben's system the captains of the Corps of Discovery might have drawn from it for their purposes.
During the summer of 1777, Frederick William Augustus, Baron von Steuben,1 a Prussian ex-army captain, offered his experience and unique skills to the American cause through Benjamin Franklin, in Paris. Franklin wrote him a letter of introduction to George Washington, the commanding general of the Continental Army. Toward the end of February, 1778, Steuben presented himself to the general at the dismal winter camp at Valley Forge.2 Washington was impressed by the Prussian's accounts of his professional military reputation, but even more by his crisp Prussian bearing and his forceful but engaging personality. By mid-March, Steuben began personally training a special 100-man guard company in the basics of soldiering, demonstrating the powerful effect of a polished and disciplined combat-ready force. Within two weeks, through his exceptional tact and flair, Steuben had proved his ability as a drillmaster. Washington responded by appointing him Inspector General of the Continental Army.
Later that year Steuben began organizing his instructions into printable form. By mid-March of 1779 his Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States were ready for the press, complete with eight engraved illustrations by Pierre Charles L'Enfant.3 On March 29, Congress endorsed it, ordering its use throughout the Army. State militias also took it up. After the war was over, in 1792 Washington pushed through the Uniform Militia Act, which included the requirement that Steuben's Regulations be used.
Owing to wartime scarcity of high-quality papers, the first binder had been compelled to cover the book with some blue paper he happened to have on hand. For that reason it came to be commonly referred to as "the blue book." From 1779 until 1809 nearly 80 successive printings were issued—at least 18 in 1794 alone—plus nearly a dozen abbreviated or otherwise modified editions. The Blue Book remained the official guide to American military training and maneuvers until it was replaced in 1812. Even then, another printing of Steuben's was issued in 1815, and yet one more in 1826.4
In the beginning, Steuben's guidelines overrode the old divisions of class and station that American officers had borrowed from British models, and melded all ranks into a unified force built on the foundation of an inflexible yet even-handed military chain of command, and a discipline in soldiery nearly matching the best of European armies. Whereas officers had formerly left basic training to sergeants, Steuben taught officers how to do it themselves, thereby making field companies more tightly integrated and therefore effective combat units. Above all, Steuben simplified it—compared with European procedures—conveying in plain language not only what needed to be learned, but how it should be taught, and why.
1. The surname is properly pronounced SHTOY-ben in German, but more than likely it was soon Americanized to STOO-bn. On the title page of one of the 1794 editions of the Regulations, for example, the author is identified as "Baron de Stuben [sic]."
2. David A. Clary and Joseph W. A. Whitehorne, The Inspectors General of the United States Army 1777-1903 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1987), 33-44.
3. L'Enfant was later to draw the plans for the layout of the city of Washington, D.C.
4. Joseph R. Riling, Baron Von Steuben and His Regulations, Including a Complete Facsimile of the Original... (Philadelphia: Ray Riling Arms Books Co., 1966), 8-10, 27-31.
5. Robert J. Moore, Jr., and Michael Haynes, Tailor Made, Trail Worn: Army Life, Clothing, and Weapons of the Corps of Discovery (Helena, Montana: Farcountry Press, 2003), 25-26.
Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge Cost Share Program.