The Drillmaster of Valley Forge

The Drillmaster of Valley Forge by Paul Lockhart

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Authors: Paul Lockhart
Steuben began work on a proposal for the organization of the inspector general’s office, to be submitted to the Board of War for its approval. His early draft proposals reflected his frustration with the “obstacles thrown in his way.” Some of his ideas were clearly excessive. One, for example, gave the inspector general total authority over all “matters of discipline and military police”; without exception, any officer or enlisted man who did not obey the orders of the inspector or his assistants would be subject to immediate court-martial. 22
    The Board of War did not raise any significant objection to the tone or scope of Steuben’s proposed regulations. The Board, after all, was happy with the Baron. He had accomplished what Washington’s generals had not been able to, and as Steuben had made no demands on them, financial or otherwise, they were inclined to give him whatever he wanted.
    But the Board, prudently, decided to sound out Washington, and Washington did what he did best: to keep peace within the army. Washington knew Steuben’s worth, and did not feel threatened by the Baron in any way, but he recognized the rancor that would result if Steuben’s ideas were implemented. So, instead of trying to negotiate with Congress and the Baron, the general-in-chief took the matter into his own hands.
    In orders dated June 15, 1778, Washington made his own provisions for the conduct of the inspector general and presented them to the army. The purpose of the inspector general’s office, he declared, was to institute “a System of Rules & Regulations for the exercise of the Troops in the Manual & Manœuvres,” to establish some order in guard duty and the “internal Police of Camps and Garrisons.” These “Rules & Regulations,” however, would first have to be approved by the commander in chief, and then they would be issued as orders by Washington himself—not by Steuben. From now on, generals and field officers would take charge of drilling their respective commands, although a representative of the inspector’s office would attend to assist them and to ensure that the regulations were indeed being followed.
    It was a brilliant order, demonstrating the very qualities that made Washington such a great leader. He reduced Steuben to the position of a mere staff officer, who could not act independently of the commander in chief, thereby negating any complaint about the inspector’s excessive authority. At the same time, he made the generals and the field officers responsible for seeing to it that the new regulations were enforced and the new drill put into practice. If Steuben’s regulations were not followed to the letter, then the generals and the regimental commanders would have to answer to Washington, not to the Baron. Finally, Washington’s order married Steuben’s authority to his own. Since every measure the inspector introduced would have to go through general headquarters, the inspector spoke for Washington. At one stroke, Washington silenced those critics who thought the inspector’s power excessive, and yet augmented that same power so that it was unquestionable. 23
    Steuben did not object outright to the order. On the surface, he seemed to be pleased with it. “It gives me great Satisfaction,” he wrote to Washington, “to see that Your Excellency has taken such a wise Step…as to engage the General Officers and the Field Officers…to take Command of the Troops in our daily Exercise.” He meant this sincerely; he wanted the officers to take charge of drill. But the rest of his letter fairly reeked with sarcasm. He had taken charge of drill, he told Washington—clearly tongue in cheek—because he had hoped to “save [the officers] the trouble of descending to those Toilsome & fastidious details which we chearfully [ sic ] encountered from the beginning for the good of the Service.”

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