I’ve often been led to believe this quote attributed to George Washington referred to discipline in the punishment sense. This is often combined with the additional statement that one of his first decisions upon taking command of the Continental Army was to appoint LT William Tudor as Judge Advocate General. But it is much more likely he referred to discipline in the training sense. And to obtain the discipline Washington sought to save his army, he turned to the most capable man for the job—an immigrant.
Paul Lockhart’s book, The Drillmaster of Valley Forge, tells the story of the Baron de Steuben, a Prussian (read German before Germany) who ultimately served General Washington in the role of Inspector General. Lockhart describes the Inspector General as “[t]he most vital staff officer in an eighteenth-century army.” His job included keeping the army properly trained and well-drilled, ensured soldiers maintained their discipline during a march and while in camp, and was “the enforcing arm of the supply officers.”
Washington wanted a European-style army that fought using the traditional tactics of the time. But others advocated for a guerilla war (a war of posts). These were freemen unaccustomed to deference. Advocates for guerilla war viewed them to be better suited for an irregular war of raids and ambushes. It was less expensive to have an improvised militia than a standing army, which was viewed with disdain.
But guerilla war required patience and stamina, two qualities not common amongst Americans. And the British had a lot of experience facing guerilla tactics. Washington believed he needed both approaches to win the war and gain the respect of Europe’s great power, but guerilla war would supplement, not supplant, traditional 18th century warfighting.
Success in 18th century warfare required mastering two central concepts—firepower and movement. Succeeding in firepower required exceling in three areas. It was most efficient to fire at the same rapid rate. Soldiers must also fire by volley when required. Just as importantly, they must restrain from firing until ordered.
The concept of movement required forming an army from column of march to line of battle through a series of complex movements. Think of troops marching to the battle in a long column. They then have to deploy to specific positions along a line facing the enemy. This large army breaks up into individual subunits, battalions, or regiments—all next to each other, 2-3 rows deep. This can take hours to form, and become even more complicated after the initial deployment as armies adjust to the battle.
Mastery required drill—lots of it. Practice instilled discipline. It replaced the instinct to think with the instinct to obey. The Prussians were renowned to be have the most precise firepower and fastest movement. This was the army Steuben came from.
Steuben joined his first unit at the age of 16. Interestingly, Lockhart notes that “[l]ike all aspiring officers in the Prussian army, Friedrich had to serve time in the ranks before he could qualify for his commission.” An officer must first spend time as an enlisted person. Though he served as a noncommissioned officer when on duty, as an officer cadet Steuben was discouraged from fraternizing with other enlisted persons. He made ensign 2 ½ years later and lieutenant at 22.
After recovering from getting seriously injured in battle during the Seven Years’ War, Steuben volunteered to serve as a Staff Officer in a new light infantry unit known as the “Free Battalions,” a unit not of the line but focused on scouting, recon, and raiding—and a notoriously undisciplined organization.
But Steuben did an admirable job and his star rose quickly. He garnered the attention of senior commanders. Frederick the Great’s brother, commanding a brigade, selected Steuben (now a veteran lieutenant) to serve on his staff as brigade-offizier. Wounded again in a subsequent battle, Steuben was rewarded with an additional promotion to first lieutenant and got the attention of Prince Henry—the king’s son—due to his administrative abilities, physical courage, and good nature. He was transferred to the King’s personal headquarters for temporary duty as quartiermeister-lieutenant, assisting the King and his staff with intelligence and strategic planning
But Seven Years’ War deprived the King of experienced officers. So, Steuben soon found himself re-assigned to the line since he was one of a dwindling number of officers with combat experience. But the unit he was assigned to was outmanned and in bad shape. They eventually surrendered. As an officer with high-ranking connections, Steuben was entitled to comfortable accommodations and substantial freedom. Steuben spoke Russian and befriended the heir to the Russian throne, who had an affinity for all things Prussian. So when the Russian Duke’s aunt died, Steuben wrote to King Frederick’s foreign minister noting the new Tsar was eager to discuss peace with his idol, King Frederick. Lockhart concludes this missive was the difference between life and death for Prussia.
The King was thankful enough to write Steuben personally and receive him in person upon his return to Prussia. With the war over and facing a dearth of talented generals, King Frederick created a “rudimentary staff school—the ‘Special Class on the Art of War’—an intense course in generalship that he himself would teach.” Steuben, recently promoted to captain, was one of thirteen students selected for the course.
But that was the end of the road for Steuben in Prussia. He ran afoul of a classmate, a sitting General with a reputation for wrecking the careers of officers he disliked—and he was in the King’s favor. Steuben completed the course but was immediately demoted and assigned to a mediocre regiment in a remote location. He bounced around Europe and became interested in the American cause, as well as the opportunity to serve in an influential position in an Army. He tried to secure a position in advance of traveling to America, but he did so during a period in which Washington’s generals complained of too many foreigners being given influential assignments. So, Steuben eventually traveled to America with no guarantee of an assignment—committed to the American cause.
“Discipline, as Steuben—and most European soldier-philosophers—saw it, was the universal application of rules and procedures that came from following a common code of conduct.” The Continental Army he encountered had none of that. There was no uniform system in the national army. The choice of a drill manual was left to the individual regimental commander, and those Colonels often used whatever resources they had in hand. Drill was not evenly practiced nor enforced. Commissioned officers rarely participated in drill and often left this task to their sergeants, following British practice. This shocked Steuben, who was used to a deep connection with his men.
In time, Steuben accomplished Washington’s goal of instilling universal discipline amongst the army. His magnum opus, the Regulation for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, became “one of the most significant and enduring documents in American military history.” It was composed of three parts: (1) a drill manual for the infantry; (2) a set of official regulations or the use of an entire army; and (3) a treatise on the conduct of officers and enlisted men.
His drill manual became the most famous. It was uncommonly straightforward and was easily grasped by officers even with the most rudimentary skills.
Lockhart’s work demonstrates Washington’s focus discipline in the form of training, rather than punishment. Make no mistake, Washington did not shrink from strict discipline, but perhaps an understanding of military social history can educate us on the topic of military discipline. It is a great work definitely worth the read.