On this day: Baron Von Steuben, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Baron von Steuben Don't Ask Don't Tell

Gay Prussian military officer Baron Von Steuben, born September 17, 1730, whipped the US colonial army into shape contributing to the American victory in the War of Independence. Online sources like Wikipedia describe him as openly gay. But that’s a bit of a stretch. More like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Friedrich Von Steuben’s military engineer father had a strange idea of Take Your Kid to Work Day. He dragged 14-year-old Friedrich along while he directed siege operations at Prague during a Central European war. Friedrich then enlisted in the Prussian Army at the age of 16 or 17. He rose to the rank of captain and became aide-de-camp to Frederick the Great.

But after 17 years of exemplary service, he suddenly found himself unemployed. He blamed the otherwise unexplained discharge on an ‘implacable personal enemy’.

Friedrich next found less-prestigious employment managing the royal household of Hohenzollern-Hechingen, a small German principality. During a trip to Paris, he met Benjamin Franklin who offered him work training American revolutionary troops — but no pay. Friedrich, now Baron Von Steuben of Hohenzollern-Hechingen, declined.

However, the baron returned home to accusations of criminal sexual activity. He’d previously applied for work with the Grand Duchy of Baden. An anonymous official of the ducal court had forwarded a poison pen letter to the Prince of Hohenzollern-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.”

(It seems unlikely that ‘young boys’ meant children. More probably, junior subordinate soldiers.)

What do they say? Discretion is the better part of valour. Baron von Steuben high-tailed it back to Paris.


Benjamin Frankin, reputedly aware of the scuttlebutt, also decided on discretion. The American colonies desperately needed to impose organisation and discipline on their ragtag army. The Prussian military enjoyed worldwide renown for its ruthless efficiency. However, the Americans couldn’t afford to pay. The baron volunteered to do the job and work out payment after the war.

Baron Von Steuben departed for the US with his greyhound, his 17-year-old military secretary and probable lover, Pierre-Etienne Du Ponceau, another young aide-de-camp and two others.

Although prone to exaggerating his achievements, the baron knew his stuff.

He arrived at Washington’s Valley Forge encampment in 1778. The place was a mess: no organised layout and sick soldiers dressed in rags. Discarded animal carcasses dotted the camp and men pissed and shit wherever they chose.

Baron Von Steuben immediately rearranged the camp on Prussian lines. Kitchens on the uphill side of the camp and toilets on the downhill. He began training a model company of men who could in turn train others. The Prussian trained the Americans to fight tactically, rather than just fight. The soldier’s health, discipline and fighting prowess showed immediate improvement.

Baron Von Steuben also socialised with the soldiers as he worked to raise their morale. Pierre-Etienne Du Ponceau later wrote about a potluck dinner in his quarters.

“Once, with the Baron’s permission, his aids invited a number of young officers to dine at our quarters, on condition that none should be admitted that had on a whole pair of breeches…. Torn clothes were an indispensable requisite for admission… The Baron loved to speak of that dinner, and of his sans-culottes (pantsless), as he called us.”

It certainly sounds like a gay old time. But it is unlikely the baron’s secretary would have documented the dinner party if it later descended into an orgy. More likely, an opportunity for a bit of a perv. Not long after Baron Von Steuben’s arrival at Valley Forge, the first ever discharge of an American soldier for homosexual acts occurred at the camp.

Ensign Frederick Enslin

George Washington ordered Ensign Frederick Enslin drummed out of the camp for attempted sodomy with an 18-year-old subordinate. English Common Law, still widely used in the colonies, demanded death for sodomy. But the law also required proof of emission (cum) or at least penetration. Minus such evidence, the charge of attempted sodomy allowed for the prosecution of men caught in flagrante delicto but without visual or medical evidence of emission or penetration.

So Ensign Enslin at least escaped with his life, even if subjected to the humiliating ritual documented by an officer in his diary.

“I this morning proceeded to the grand parade, where I was a spectator to the drumming out of Lieut. Enslin of Col. Malcom’s regiment. He was first drum’d from right to left of the parade, thence to the left wing of the army; from that to the centre, and lastly transported over the Schuylkill with orders never to be seen in Camp in the future. This shocking scene was performed by all the drums and fifes in the army— the coat of the delinquent turned wrong side out.”

baron von steuben don't ask don't tell
A detail of the Von Steuben Statue in Lafayette Square, near the White House.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

It would seem extremely unlikely Von Steuben was ‘openly gay’. More probably, a case of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Sure, he was flamboyant. Rocking up for duty in a grand horse-drawn sleigh, constantly stroking his miniature greyhound. And those elaborate silk-lined uniforms bedecked with furs, plumes and other elaborate accoutrements. But Europeans were all a bit dandified compared to the rugged American colonials.

However, it stretches credulity that no one noticed the baron’s consistent choice of notably younger good-looking men as his aides. And his affectionate relationships with those men.

But the revolutionary war effort benefitted greatly from Von Steuben’s efforts and the top brass liked the charismatic baron. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Benjamin Walker, William North and John Mulligan

The baron became particularly close to Benjamin Walker and William North, two officers in their 20s and conjectured by some to have been a couple even before meeting Von Steuben. Despite Walker and North later marrying, all three remained lifelong friends. North named two of his children after Von Steuben who legally adopted the two men and made them his heirs.

Years after the war, another young man came into Von Steuben’s life.

John Mulligan met Baron Von Steuben soon after graduating from Colombia College in 1791. That same year, John also met Charles Adams, son of then-Vice President John Adams. He and Charles moved in together. But the future president and his wife started to worry about the intense nature of the relationship between their son and young Mulligan. They insisted Charles and John split up.

The heartbroken couple wrote to Von Steuben who immediately replied with an offer to take them in. His letter to John Mulligan survives.

“My heart and my arms are open to receive you. In the midst of the attention and fetes which they have the goodness to give me, I enjoy not a moment’s tranquillity until I hold you in my arms…

“If our friend [Charles Adams] could accompany you! Embrace him for me, with the same tender friendship I feel for you.”

Charles Adams didn’t stay long but 19-year-old John Mulligan remained, working as Von Steuben’s secretary until the baron’s death a year later. Baron Von Steuben came to regard John as his third ‘son’ and made him a beneficiary of his will along with Benjamin Walker and William North.

Von Steuben Day

Baron Von Steuben remains a celebrated hero of the War of Independence, but with little mention of his sexuality. Many cities celebrate Von Steuben Day in mid-September each year, close to the anniversary of his death.

A statue in Lafayette Square, across from the White House, honours the great gay American war hero and father of the US Army.

Read also: James Buchanan, the gay US president.

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