George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Steuben, 6 December 1777

From Steuben

Portsmouth [N.H., 6 December 1777]

Honorable Sir,

The inclosed Copy of a Letter whose Original I Shall have the honor to present to your Excellency, will instruct you of the motives that brought me over to this Land. I shall add only to it that the Object of my greatest Ambition is to render your Country all the Services in my Power, and to deserve the title of a Citizen of America by fighting for the Cause of your Liberty.1

If the distinguished Ranks I have Served in in Europe Should be an Obstacle, I had rather Serve under Your Excellency as a Volunteer, than to be a Subject of Discontent to Such deserving Officers as have already distinguished themselves amongst you.

Such being the Sentiments I always profest, I dare hope that the respectable Congress of the United States of America, will accept my Services. I could Say moreover (Were it not for the fear of offending your Modesty) that your Excellency is the only Person under whom (after having Served under the King of Prussia) I could wish to pursue an Art to which I have Wholly given up my Self.

I intend to go to Boston in a few Days where I shall present my Letters to the Honble John Hancock Esqr. Member of Congress, and there I shall wait for your Excellency’s Orders, according to which I shall take convenient Measures. I have the honor to be with respect Honorable Sir Your Excellency’s most obedient and most humble servant


LS, enclosed in William Heath to GW, 17 Dec. 1777, DLC:GW; copy, NhHi: Langdon-Elwyn Papers. The LS is docketed in part “Recd 8th Jany 1778.”

Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (1730–1794), who was born in Magdeburg, Germany, entered the Prussian army at the age of 17. During the Seven Years’ War he served principally as a junior staff officer. After obtaining appointment to the Prussian general staff, Steuben undertook a diplomatic assignment in Russia, and he eventually was attached to Frederick the Great’s headquarters. When the Seven Years’ War ended in 1763, the Prussian officer corps was downsized rapidly, and Steuben, at the age of 33 and having reached the rank of captain, was obliged to leave the army. For the next twelve years he found employment as a chamberlain to the small court of Hohenzollern-Hechingen in southern Germany. Deeply in debt and unhappy with serving a penurious prince, Steuben was ready by the mid1770s to return to military life. Having failed to enter the armies of France, Austria, and Baden, Steuben took the advice of a friend that he seek out Benjamin Franklin in Paris. After a successful interview with Franklin, Steuben boarded the 26–gun French ship Flamand at Marseilles and sailed for America, arriving at Portsmouth, N.H., on 1 Dec. 1777. Steuben served as a volunteer with the American forces from January to 5 May 1778, when Congress appointed him inspector general of the Continental army, with the rank and pay of major general (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 11:465). Several years before coming to America, Steuben added the title of baron to his name based on a spurious family lineage prepared by his father.

1Steuben enclosed a copy of a letter from Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane to GW, written at “Passy near Paris” on 4 Sept. 1777: “Sir The Gentleman who will have the Honour of waiting upon you with this Letter, is the Baron de Steuben, Lieutt Genl in the King of Prussia’s Service, whom he attended in all his Campaigns, being his Aid de Camp, Quarter Master General &c. He goes to America with a true Zeal for our Cause, and a View of engaging in it, and rendering it all the Service in his Power. He is recommended to Us, by two of the best Judges of Military merit in this Country; Mr Le Comte de Vergennes, and Mr Le Comte de St Germain, who has long been personally acquainted with him, and interest themselves in promoting his Voyage from a full persuasion that the Knowledge and Experience he has acquired by twenty Years Study and practice in the Prussian School, may be of great use in our Armies. I therefore cannot but recommend him warmly to Your Excellency, wishing that our Service may be made agreable to him” (DLC:GW).

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