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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Sunday, July 29, 2018

“The abominable rumor which accused Steuben”

Here’s the continuing discussion about what we know and don’t know about Gen. Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben’s sexuality, keyed to statements in a recent comic at The Nib.

“Rumors about Steuben’s ‘tastes’ were common knowledge, and reported in the American press.”

It would be good to see examples of such American newspaper reports. To my knowledge no one has found any. And that’s significant to how “openly” Baron de Steuben lived as a gay man and how much his American neighbors accepted him.

Now it’s conceivable that such articles are lurking in the big newspaper databases with asterisks and allusions making them hard to spot. But no one researching Steuben has cited such a report, and I’ve kept my eyes open for such a finding.

The most open discussion of Steuben’s sexuality in print in the eighteenth century was an article published in Germany in 1796, two years after the baron’s death. Christoph Daniel Ebeling (1741-1817) was a professor in Hamburg and a fan of the American republic. In his Amerikanisches Magazin he wrote an article (“Nachrichten von den Lebensumständen des Baron von Steuben”) which John Macauley Palmer translated as saying:
Just who it was who spread abroad the abominable rumor which accused Steuben of a crime the suspicion of which, at another more exalted court [i.e., Frederick the Great’s] at that time (as formerly among the Greeks), would hardly have aroused such attention, has not become publicly known.
I couldn’t find any American newspaper or magazine mentioning Ebeling’s article in the decades after it was published.

And of course Ebeling did his best to imply the “abominable rumor” was untrue, spread by Steuben’s clerical enemies and eventually rejected by right-thinking people. Which is not exactly the same thing as stating flatly that it was untrue.

“One story claimed that Von Steuben loved to host cocktail nights for his favorite cadets. No clothing allowed.”

The ultimate source for this statement is the memoir of Peter Stephen Duponceau, a young Frenchman who accompanied Baron de Steuben to America in 1777 (and actually paid for their passage). Duponceau served unsuccessfully as a staff officer during the war and more happily as a linguist in Pennsylvania after it. Late in life he wrote about Valley Forge:
Once, with the Baron’s permission, his aids invited a number of young officers to dine at our quarters, on condition that none should be admitted that had on a whole pair of breeches. This was of course understood as pars pro toto [the part for the whole]; but torn clothes were an indispensable requisite for admission, and in this the guests were very rare not to fail. The dinner took place; the guests clubbed their rations; and we feasted sumptuously on tough beef steaks and potatoes, with hickory nuts for our dessert. In lieu of wine, we had some kind of spirits, with which we made salamanders; that is to say, after filling our glasses,, we set the liquor on fire, and drank it up, flame and all. Such a set of ragged, and, at the same time, merry fellows, were never before brought together. The Baron loved to speak of that dinner, and of his sans-culottes, as he called us.
The point of this gathering was that those young Continental Army officers were wearing torn uniforms and eating “tough beef steaks” because their pay and supplies were so meager. It was a bonding experience. Notably, Duponceau recalled the idea coming from Steuben’s aides, not the general himself.

Now that gathering might have been titillating for some; certainly we’d interpret an anecdote about young women having to wear torn clothing to a party through the lens of sexuality. But as to the accuracy of the statement from the comic above, if people have to wear torn clothing to a party, then that party is not “No clothing allowed.” And since this happened “once,” it’s not evidence Steuben made a habit of hosting such events—however fondly he remembered that one occasion.

Also, an eighteenth-century midday dinner does not constitute “cocktail nights.”

TOMORROW: The baron in retirement.

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