The Prussian Baron von Steuben, being a newcomer to the Revolutionary cause in America, was in a position to see many of the deficiencies in military discipline and their causes. The reasons for his unique insight may have been due to the fact that he was distanced from the revolutionary ideals in America, and as a result, was able to better observe and understand them; and ultimately use them to shape his new and successful form of discipline in the Continental Army.
Most of the commanders of the Continental Army, from the commander in chief to the lower officers had subscribed to the traditional European method that relied on fear to achieve discipline. This method of fear was probably not essential, and had little if any effect in the early days of the war because the soldiers were mostly fighting for their own ideologies. To the soldiers, the commanders were of little importance. The soldiers were going to fight their own fight, and leave the battle when they felt it necessary. The soldier saw himself as a volunteer, a citizen fighting in a group of citizens, and as a result did not respond well to the traditional forms of discipline. The soldier knew it wasn't necessary for him to serve, and he knew that he would not be looked down upon for not serving or leaving the army by his fellow revolutionaries. He had the freedom to chose how he wished to serve the revolution, and military service was not an obligation.
One aspect of the traditional European system that Baron von Steuben felt needed change was the relationship between the officers and the soldiers. Officers in the Continental Army felt it was necessary to distance themselves from the common soldiers, as an officer had an obligation as a gentleman as well. This division was along social lines, and by separation, the officers felt the common soldiers would show even greater respect. Royster describes this accurately by saying that the officers tried "to make themselves haughty objects of the soldiers' awe." (215)
Steuben did several things to put the officers and the soldiers on common ground. First, sergeants were no longer to do the training and drilling of soldiers. Officers were encouraged to train, drill, and march with their soldiers. They were also encouraged to eat with the common soldiers as well, whenever possible. The officers needed to show love of the soldiers to earn their respect, and in doing this the officers needed to set themselves as an example to the soldiers by overachieving, rather than distancing themselves and underachieving in the eyes of the soldier.
Before Steuben arrived, the forms of drills, training, and discipline in the Continental Army were mainly achieved at the discretion of each particular officer. There was no set standard for drills and training, and each battalion, company, and regiment had different methods. Baron von Steuben set a standard that became universal in the army and all soldiers and officers were to follow it. Through constant repetition of these rather simplified drills and training methods, coupled with the newly evident compassion and caring being shown by the officers, soldiers soon began to show a level of pride and professionalism in doing their duties in the Continental Army.
Steuben catered to the needs and ideologies of the men in the Continental Army. He knew that soldiers who felt that military service was not a necessity, would often question authority. When given an order many soldiers would ask 'Why?' This was what Steuben realized and built his form of discipline around. If a soldier asked why, and there was a good reason for it, then the soldier would ultimately obey the order. This is why the uniformity and simplicity of SteubenÕs system was so successful in the Continental Army.
Steuben's method of discipline and training was so successful for one main reason, it was catered to the soldier and not to the officer. It had the ultimate result of making the soldier feel like a soldier and not like a volunteer. It established a sense of pride in the soldiers and in the job they did. By the later years of the war, native courage, virtue, and liberty were not enough to encourage soldiers. Steuben method created a professionalism in the Continental Army which, along with the ideologies of the men, was enough to keep the moral of the soldier high despite the many hardships of winter camps like Valley Forge and Morristown.