J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, July 30, 2018

Steuben, Walker, and North (and Fairlie)

For the last few days I’ve been discussing statements about Gen. Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben’s sexuality made in this comic published by The Nib. I think there’s good evidence for Steuben being gay, but there are also a lot of errors floating around. To whit:

“President George Washington rewarded his prize general with an estate in Valley Forge, the site of perhaps his greatest military victory.”

The source for that misstatement is probably this article by Mark Segal, or one of many like it making a similar error. That article shares a timeline of the baron’s war activity and then says, “Washington rewarded von Steuben with a house at Valley Forge…” That can easily be interpreted as a grant after the war by the first President. But there was no such gift.

Gen. Washington assigned the baron a house within the Valley Forge encampment in 1777-78. That wasn’t a lifelong grant of real estate. It wasn’t a reward for service since, after all, Steuben had just arrived. That house was just where the new general and his staff could live so snow wouldn’t fall on their heads.

Baron de Steuben did receive some grants of real estate after the war in recognition of his service to the new republic. The Continental Congress offered western lands to any officer meeting certain terms, but the baron also got special gifts. His holdings are a bit hard to suss out, not least because he overstated them in his wills. But it looks like his major properties were:
  • rented houses in New York City where he lived in the 1780s.
  • an estate that New Jersey confiscated from a Loyalist family and granted the baron in 1783 on the condition that he live there, not rent it out. He spent considerable time and money fixing it up, receiving full title in 1788—and a month later he sold it to pay off debts.
  • a large amount of land granted by New York in Oneida County. In 1792 that area was even named the town of Steuben.
None of the general’s real estate was in Valley Forge.

Lastly, Valley Forge was the site of an army camp, not a battle and thus not a “military victory.”

“Steuben spent his finals [sic] years with two younger men he had served with in the war: Captain Benjamin Walker and Brigadier General William North. Who later became a US Senator.

“He adopted both as his ‘sons’, but speculation about their relationship remains.”

While this statement acknowledges ambiguity in the historical evidence, it simplifies and skews the facts of Baron de Steuben’s life and of the lives of Walker and North. Steuben did live with those men for a while after the war. He did write in his final will that he wished to “adopt [them] as my Children.” However, those two former aides left the baron’s household to get married in the 1780s, so he didn’t spend his “final years” with them. Here’s the more complex story.

At Valley Forge, Steuben picked up three aides de camp: Benjamin Walker (1753-1818), William North (1755-1836), and James Fairlie (c. 1757-1830). He became very close to them all. In the first will the baron wrote after coming to America, dated 28 May 1781 (P.D.F. download), he bequeathed £1,050 to each of those three men. (He also left half that sum to two Frenchmen who had accompanied him to America, Peter Stephen Duponceau and Capt. Louis de Pontière, and to Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, the diplomatic fixer and playwright who helped him connect with American envoys in Paris.) But Steuben’s main heir was a nephew back in Germany, whom he wanted to renounce his baronial title, emigrate to America, and become a republican.

In Male-Male Intimacy in Early America: Beyond Romantic Friendships, William E. Benemann describes a web of shifting relationships among Gen. de Steuben and his military aides: North and Fairlie as a couple before North realizes he likes Walker more and they become intimate, and then Steuben becomes infatuated with both North and Walker, but Walker strings the general along for favors while North is truly affectionate, though more like a son to a father… All this in only two years of those men being in the same military family. And with, frankly, very little textual support for such a level of detail.

But the evidence is clear that Steuben, North, Walker, and Fairlie became very close. Though assignments took them in different directions in the last years of the war, afterward they reunited and lived in the baron’s house on the outskirts of New York City.

That last decade of Steuben’s life is particularly significant to the question of his sexuality because it’s the only period when he wasn’t serving in an army or in a court and thus could live as he chose—or as close to that as circumstances allowed. And what Gen. Steuben wanted to do was spend his time in the company of young men. He used his martial celebrity to sponsor militia units and military academies. For money, he borrowed a lot and sought rewards for his wartime service.

Steuben, then in his fifties, was happy in his bachelor lifestyle. His young friends, however, took more traditional paths in their society. First Walker married a Quaker girl named Molly and set up his own household. Around 1786 Steuben, North, and Fairlie all had their portraits painted by Ralph Earl while he was locked up in debtors’ prison, but later that year Fairlie married and moved to Albany. The next year, with the baron’s help, North married Mary Duane, daughter of the city mayor; they eventually had six children.

Walker, North, and Fairlie all lived for many decades as prominent members of New York’s political class—not leading politicians but lawyers, civil servants, and occasional officeholders. North would be elected to the New York legislature and appointed for a few months to the U.S. Senate. In the early 1800s Walker would serve one term in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Walker and North remained close to Baron de Steuben once they married, but more like grown sons looking after a failing father—failing in the financial sense. They tried to cajole the baron into not spending so much and to cajole Congress or state governments into granting him more support. The letters that have been preserved don’t say much about physical intimacy, but there’s clearly fondness on all sides.

Meanwhile, Baron de Steuben found some new young friends.

TOMORROW: The baron’s last years.

[The photo above shows relief portraits of Walker and North on the monument to Steuben in Washington, D.C.]

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