…when I wax snobbish and say that history should be left to professional historians. My wife brought this article in HuffPo to my attention just a little while ago. It’s not so much the minor errors that bug me (nobody “renamed” Steuben’s regulations; Ben Franklin barely lifted a finger to help Steuben, because his much-less-famous colleague Silas Deane was the one who pushed for Steuben’s advancement in the Continental Army); it’s not just the tried-and-true-but-nonetheless-wrong “factoids” about Steuben that have been made “true” by constant repetition (e.g., “he actually wasn’t even a real Baron” — yes he most certainly was — he had been awarded, legitimately, the title Freiherr, and as any German immersing himself in the Anglophone world, he translated his title into French…hence “Baron”). Those are really minor errors, and as far as I know my book (Drillmaster of Valley Forge) is the only work that refutes them. Nor is it all that shocking to a person of my political leanings that Steuben might have been gay. What bothers me is the use of historical figures in current political/social debates in which they have little place. Was Steuben gay? Was “gay,” as we understand it today, even a concept in the eighteenth century? Did Steuben have one or more homosexual encounters? Is that enough to consider him gay? Was he bisexual? Was he asexual?
Having been — as far as I know — the only historian to have gone through Steuben’s papers (and the correspondence of others about Steuben) at any length since John McAuley Palmer wrote his biography of Steuben back in the 1930s, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that the jury is out on all those questions. We just don’t know. I’ve been through this material and I have yet to find a single instance (no offense intended to the author of this article) in which anyone referred to Steuben as a “sodomite.” He was likely accused of pederasty while still in Europe, before his coming to America in 1777-78, but further details have been lost to time. Was he close with his aides? Certainly. Was he their lover? Who the hell knows. There’s simply no evidence one way or t’other, and excerpts from Steuben’s correspondence to his aides — which make frequent reference to his “love” for his friends — reveals nothing out of the ordinary for written correspondence between men in the late eighteenth century. There’s at least equal evidence to suggest that he had a romantic tie with at least one close female friend during his life in Europe. So what does that mean? Heterosexual? Bi?
But this has all been left out of “the history books,” hasn’t it? Surely Americans would be ashamed to know that one of the key figures in American military success in the Revolution might have been — gasp — gay? Undoubtedly there are those who would feel somehow offended by this revelation…but a surprise? No, not hardly. Every now and again there’s an article, or a chapter, or an encyclopedia entry that includes Steuben in the list of famous gay men in American history. Google it and see for yourself. So, no, no real shock at all.
What am I trying to say here? I’m not sure entirely. I guess what I want to convey is that…what difference does it make? Who the hell cares? We can’t say anything definitive about Steuben’s sexual orientation or his romantic life. It may be — and this is what I suggested in Drillmaster — that Steuben was so tightly-wound inside that he found it impossible to have a truly intimate relationship with anybody. Of course it shouldn’t make any difference, and there’s far too many people out there for whom it would make a difference. I find that sad. But it does no one any good to warp history to suit current political debates.
Shameless plug: buy Drillmaster of Valley Forge and judge for yourself!