Baron von Steuben and Well Regulated American Volley Fire
Most Americans believe we won the Revolutionary war by sniping at the Redcoats from behind trees and boulders.
We did a lot of that, especially in the opening days of the war, when we were losing. Such so-called “guerrilla” tactics were little more than a nuisance to the British, one of the most professional armies in the world at the time. Distance and logistics played a large part, as did our eventual alliance with the French, but we did not begin winning till our rag-tag army learned to fight like professionals.
In the late 1700s, that meant close-order drill and volley fire.
Most of my school teachers knew little of battle. Some were WWII, Korea, and / or Vietnam vets, but many of them had stayed in college as long as possible, specifically to avoid the draft, and wound up with advanced degrees only useful in academia.
My history teachers who fell into the latter category sneered at what they called “Gentleman’s Battles,” two armies standing in lines and firing at one another. That’s because they didn’t know what they didn’t know, and they tried to picture that through contemporary eyes. In the modern era of the rifled bore, bullets go where they are aimed, so “an army marches on its stomach”–because (as Firesign Theater pointed out) when they stand up, they get shot.
But the “Brown Bess” and other smoothbore muskets of the Revolutionary War era were slow to load, and incredibly inaccurate. There was no way to predict where that non-stabilized lead ball would go at any distance. The only way to hit anything, or to keep up any significant volume of fire, was to fire in volleys with your comrades, then reload while those who had been behind you stepped up and fired their volleys.
Without training, shooting and reloading with 5 foot long, muzzle-loading muskets around other people would be dangerous slapstick at best. At worst, it would get you and your teammates killed. To get the timing and critical positioning right, soldiers needed to practice close order battle drill extensively.
Volley fire was the 18th Century equivalent of the modern assault rifle, which is intended to produce a large volume of fire to keep enemy heads down as soldiers advance upon (“assault”) an enemy position.
If you want some idea of the effectiveness of volley fire, watch the movie Zulu–although that portrayed a century later, with rifled breechloading Martini cartridge guns, in the desperate defensive battle at Rourke’s Drift. Rourke’s Drift was a small, vastly outnumbered (about 150 to 4000) mission station in Natal, on the border of Zululand.
Zulu was filmed in the early 1960s, with the assistance of descendants of the natives who fought in that remarkable 1879 battle. Although some of the fighting sequences are somewhat cheesy by modern, CGI- and blood squib-enhanced standards, it’s still a great film. It was Michael Caine’s breakthrough role. They don’t write dialog like that anymore. Here’s a sample:
Lt. Bromhead: The entire column [annihilated]? It’s damned impossible! Eight hundred men?
Adendorff: Twelve hundred men. There were four hundred native levies, also.
Lt. Bromhead: Damn the levies, man, more cowardly blacks!
Adendorff: What the hell do you mean, “cowardly blacks”? They died on your side, didn’t they? And who the hell do you think is coming to wipe out your little command? The Grenadier Guards?
Baron Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand von Steuben
A century before Rourke’s Drift, when what was left of our Continental so-called Army was starving at Valley Forge, Baron von Steuben, a trained and experienced Prussian general staff officer, arrived to lend a hand.
He started out with sanitation, introducing the concept of the latrine, and placed the latrines on opposite sides of the camp (and downhill) from where the food was cooked. Then he drilled our boys in how to move as a unit, how to fire and load in volleys, and how to use their bayonets. Later, von Steuben wrote Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, our first military manual (that was our Army’s official combat doctrine, more or less unchanged, well into the next century).
Regulations was NOT, as you might otherwise guess from the modern meaning of that word, just rules, like “Don’t poop where you eat.” Regulations was a How-To manual for close order battle drill: how to load your weapon, how to do volley fire.
After the Revolutionary war, the United States practically disbanded the Continental Army, but every town and village had a militia. It wasn’t a voluntary specialty like being in the Air National Guard. Every able bodied adult male was part of the militia, ready to respond in the event of hungry wolves, marauding highwaymen, Native Americans who wanted their land back, and other emergencies.
Armed citizens who knew and practiced their Regulations, how to act as a team producing effective volley fire, were considered “well regulated” in the American English of the 1780s.
Does that phrase sound familiar?
Close order drill, as practiced in the 18th and 19th Centuries, is no longer a viable fighting technique. Spin-stabilized bullets pretty much go where they are aimed. Guns are self-loading and reloads take seconds instead of half a minute.
For those reasons, soldiers maintain some distance between themselves now, if they have room. But you should still learn to work and fight in close proximity to your loved ones, unless you live in a mansion or an open field.
Why Marching Drill Lingers
Heloderm Range Safety Officers Terence and Martin rode to battle in mechanical conveyances. Taylor “rides” his engine of war to battle from the other side of the planet, every day. But marching as a unit is still one of the first things we learn in basic training, regardless of your branch of service.
It’s not just ridiculous adherence to meaningless tradition (although I thought so when they did it to me). It’s so you learn how to operate as a team. ROTC students and service academy cadets learn how to march and then take turns giving commands to their marching classmates, as a means of learning how to lead.
Von Steuben found teaching Colonials quite a challenge. According to P. Lockhart, von Steuben wrote in his diary:
“In Europe, you say to your soldier, ‘Do this’ and he does it. But I am obliged to say to the American, ‘This is why you ought to do this,’ and only then does he do it.”
–The Drillmaster of Valley Forge: the Baron de Steuben and the Making of the American Army, quoted by the Dolan Consulting Group
Without von Steuben’s contributions, we might be Her Majesty’s subjects to this day. His influence lives on in other ways (not just when Ferris lip sync’ed “Shake It Up Baby” during a Chicago Von Steuben Day parade). The Baron teaches us how to be good instructors, even now.
“Any trainer who isn’t giving you the why really isn’t helping you at all.”
–Jeff Gonzales, former Navy SEAL
When you teach a skill, make sure you have a better answer for “Why?” than ” ‘Cause that’s how we did it in the __________.”
Make sure the skills you choose to teach fit both the environment your students are training for, and the skill levels they can attain in the limited time allotted for training with that team.
Baron von Steuben’s Legacy
For many years, Americans in many towns celebrated “Von Steuben Day” in mid-September (the baron was born on 17 Sep). The holiday was big especially among German Americans, and had a “Oktoberfest” feel. It’s still celebrated in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago (although they skipped 2020, for COVID isolation).
Many Americans have short attention spans and even shorter memories. Most of those ogling Miss German America during a Von Steuben Day parade neither know nor much care about what von Steuben did for us. Fewer still understand how “well regulated” became part of our constitutional lexicon, or what it really means.
But the baron is making somewhat of a cultural comeback on another front. Friedrich von Steuben preferred the company of men. While there is no conclusive evidence that he was (he lived way before children were required to decide and declare their sexuality in elementary school), it is possible, perhaps even likely, that von Steuben came to America, at least in part, to escape persecution for being homosexual. Gays in uniform can look to von Steuben as, potentially, one of America’s first LGBTQIA military heroes.
For many years, the very definition of American was someone ether forced out of their own country, or dragged away from it by indentured servitude or slavery. The USA is a nation of immigrants, most of whom sought a better life than they could find at home.
Even if von Steuben hadn’t contributed immeasurably to our mutual independence, the fact that he came here seeking his own, the right to be left alone to govern his own affairs as he saw fit, made that Prussian general as American as one can get.
–George H, Lead Instructor, Heloderm LLC
Most of the material in this article was taken from the protected post RSO Instructor Development 19 Dec 2020, in the Alumni Only section of this website. Featured image of Baron von Steuben is from the National Park Service (NPS.gov).