The Drillmaster

I’m not sure why, but the past year or two has seen me read more books on the American Revolution than any other historical topic (and probably more than I’ve ever read in total).  I had the opportunity the previous  fall to give a presentation at a conference in Valley Forge, and went through the National Park there.  As a souvenir, I got a book about an aspect of the events there that seemed potentially interesting.  I managed to score massively on that random selection!    The book was the fairly easy read titled “The Drillmaster of Valley Forge: The Baron de Steuben and the Making of the American Army” by Paul Lockhart.   I realized from the title that it would be about Baron Von Steuben, but other than his nickname, I knew nothing about him.

The book left me with two major realizations.  The first was about the Baron and his role in the revolutionary war.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that without his skill and abilities (as well as another that I will discuss in a different blog, Gen. Nathaniel Greene), there is a great chance that the war would have been won by the British.  The total lack of drill, discipline, and martial abilities that the ragamuffins of Valley forge suffered from was nearly fatal before that winter, and would have certainly been so in the spring campaigns had it not been for the Baron’s intervention.  In an incredibly short period of time he turned a mob into a military unit, and by the end of the war won the accolades of the French that there was no finer force in Europe…including the British.  The speed at which the Baron worked his miracle, and the immediacy of the positive results on the battlefield, were amazing.

The second major point was the re-enforcing of the realization, gained from the previous books on George Washington,  that the Revolution was a very near-run thing, and that our winning it was truly a series of unforeseen miracles strung together.  This was true for the entire Revolution and how it played out, and seems to be highlighted in the history of nearly every major actor and event.   Just looking at it from Steuben’s perspective:  he almost wasn’t given a commission to come over and help the cause; his time in Valley Forge was incredibly short, and had he arrived a month later, might have been for naught; Gen. Charles Lee’s blundering defeat at Monmouth would have been catastrophic had Steuben not been close enough to rally troops; that without his work in Charlottesville the British might have destroyed enough of the American army to avoid the defeat at Yorktown that effectively ended the war.

The characters of the Revolution may be the most incongruous group of victorious leaders the world has ever seen.  The more I read, the more it becomes clear that there is likely no battlefield that has seen so many accidental heroes and surprisingly effective neophytes in one place.  Washington, Steuben, Greene, Knox, Sullivan, Marion, Mifflin, Morgan, Smallwood. All in some way uniquely unqualified to do what they did, and yet they did it.

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