Hey! Here’s a thing many Americans don’t — but should — know:
That’s right! A gay dude played a pivotal role in America’s independence.
Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand Steuben — known in the history books as Baron von Steuben — was one of America’s most prominent and influential military officials during its war for independence. He was also gay.
“Every kid grows up looking for role models,” says Levi Hastings, who created the comic images in this article alongside fellow artist Josh Trujillo. (The comic is published in full on The Nib.) “Queer people have changed the world since the beginning of time and there is no excuse to hide that fact.”
Von Steuben, originally from Prussia, made a name for himself fighting in Europe’s Seven Years’ War. After the conflict, however, his queerness got him kicked out of Germany, where homosexuality had been criminalized. (I guess it didn’t matter how much of a badass he was on the battlefield — a guy who likes guys was just a no-go.)
Benjamin Franklin wasn’t hung up on von Steuben’s taste for the fellas, though.
Franklin, an American, was in Paris searching out bright and promising military talent to help the embattled rebels defeat the British. (And by “embattled,” I mean struggling hardcore — seriously, the Americans were in dire shape.)
Even though Franklin was aware of von Steuben’s controversial past, he also knew von Steuben’s military know-how could be vital in helping the Continental Army pull off an upset. So he wrote to George Washington, pushing the nation’s future first president to consider von Steuben’s accomplishments.
And voila! Washington liked what he learned, so Von Steuben cruised stateside to join the revolution.
Von Steuben quickly became a critical leader who helped the Americans turn a corner in the war.
He was a fierce fighter and drill master, sure. But von Steuben’s genius was most visible in how he kept military camps up and running, and its men in tip-top shape. He streamlined basic protocols — like how to set up camp and ensure the area remains clean and disease-free — which played a crucial role in saving resources and keeping men alive.
He was a (literal) life-saver. And his leadership is why some historians have dubbed him “the father of the American military.”
Also, he barely spoke any English! (Shoutout to those handy translators in America’s earliest, most vulnerable years.)
Von Steuben’s ideas on camp operations and personnel management eventually made it to print in the “Blue Book” — a set of standards adopted by the U.S. Army. Incredibly, many of its same ideas are still used today.
After the Revolutionary War, von Steuben lived out his final days on a nice property in Valley Forge given to him by a grateful Washington.
There, I imagine he napped his afternoons away and enjoyed the company of his … um … “sons.”
Yes, von Steuben — who never married or had biological children — officially adopted Gen. (and future U.S. Sen.) William North, as well as Capt. Benjamin Walker, with whom he had an “extraordinarily intense emotional relationship.” Laws — and certainly our understanding of LGBTQ relationships — were a bit different back then.
By now you may be thinking, “OK, so one of our military leaders was gay. Who cares?”
But von Steuben’s identity as a queer man — which, in many ways, has been brushed over or erased entirely — really does matter.
“For every Von Stueben, there are a thousand other queer people we forget about,” Hastings says. We often don’t realize it, but LGBTQ people helped shape history throughout the ages in ways both big and small. “There’s so much work to do, but I hope our comics help expand our understanding of history.”
“Especially now, we have to celebrate the achievements of queer figures,” Trujillo adds. “There are those that will purposefully overlook us, or try to forget that we exist at all. It’s vital everyone recognizes that we’re here, we have always been here, and we always will be here.”
Captivated by von Steuben’s story? Same. You can check out the whole comic that tells the story of his role in the Revolutionary War over at The Nib. You can also watch von Steuben’s story — told in hilariously drunken fashion — on Comedy Central’s “Drunk History” below:
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