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Friday, November 17, 2023

Book review: Washington’s Gay General: The Legends and Loves of Baron von Steuben.

reviewed by Cord Scott

Trujillo, Josh and Levi Hastings.  Washington’s Gay General: The Legends and Loves of Baron von Steuben. New York: Abram’s Surely Press, 2023. $24.99 ISBN 978-1-4197-4372-6.

 In today’s politically charged cultural atmosphere, the argument that history is often written to fit social events of the day is one that resonates.  Permeating aspects of current society across the board, many Americans are uneasy with thinking of national heroes having what they perceive as less than desirable traits. This sort of argument could, and most likely will, be made by anyone trying to ban this book from libraries.  However, Steuben’s life is a great example of how complicated the stories of the Founding Fathers truly are.

The graphic novel centers on Trujillo, the writer, finding out about Friedrich von Steuben, a Prussian soldier who was brought to the American colonies to help train George Washington’s forces.  Von Steuben was instrumental in creating a training regime for the colonial army, was the first Inspector General of the US Army, and created the “Blue Book” a training manual that still has relevance to the modern US military. Trujillo was drawn to von Steuben as an openly gay man in a time of history when it was literally a crime.  While his affectations were widely known, there are few firm pieces of direct evidence, as many personal references or thoughts on homosexuality would be destroyed (p. 15). Narratively interesting is that Trujillo readily identified his own shortcomings in terms of scholarship, interest in history, or proximity to the actual areas where von Steuben lived. But this is something that historians often must face: how does one make a story complete, warts and all?  To that end, the result was commendable.

Friedrich von Steuben was born in Prussia in 1730 and had wanted to pursue a military career.  He was a shy child, and not above exaggerating stories or his own feats to get ahead in life.  As Trujillo wrote (p. 24) von Steuben often embellished stories to attain promotion or higher status.  He felt that he deserved such things as he was professionally that good, but this was a lifelong trait.  Von Steuben came to adulthood at a time when the Prussian military was used as the model for training, discipline, and strength in battle.  King Frederick I (Frederick the Great) of Prussia often outfitted his soldiers in smart-looking uniforms and had requirements for height.  Trujillo argues that Frederick was also gay, and so the “Prussian Giants” (p. 73) appearance may have been for his own proclivities as well as that of military prowess.

He had made close connections with Frederick, Frederick’s brother Prince Henry, and Claude-Louis, Comte de Saint-Germaine, a noted mercenary general from that era.  While von Steuben was known for his dalliances with men, it had never been overly dangerous as his military standing shielded him to an extent. Following the Seven Years’ War in Europe (known as the French and Indian War in America), von Steuben was virtually destitute, and living on the kindness of others.  Due to military cutbacks, the costs of war, and his own indebtedness, von Steuben had constant worry about money.  However, his reputation as a rake was becoming more of a liability and that is when he was introduced to Benjamin Franklin.  The reputation of both men for preferring younger lovers was well known, in Trujillo’s narrative.

Hired by Franklin, Von Steuben was part of a foreign contingent of military officers who rallied to the American cause. Trujillo noted that the stories of von Steuben appearing at Valley Forge in a flamboyant uniform were not true, although he did often have uniforms that were made to impress his importance.  His aides who were often very young (in their teens and early twenties while von Steuben at this point was in his fifties). These aides helped with the problems with his lack of English. When training soldiers, he was having to rely on one or two languages as well as interpreters which made immediate training corrections a bit strained, but his men liked him for the care he took of them.

Where Trujillo comes into some minor historical issue is with descriptions.  He notes that von Steuben was considered an outsider as he only spoke German.  This may not have been the issue it appears as German was under consideration for the official language of the colonies.  Second, the commentary on Benedict Arnold was awkward.  Arnold is correctly considered a traitor, but he was never seen as inept, as Trujillo described him.  Arnold was a tested commander who is recognized at both Saratoga and West Point New York for his importance. He, like von Steuben, felt he was deserving of far more than he had received.  In Arnold’s case, it led to his betrayal of the colonial army.

The later part of the book describes von Steuben’s struggle to be recognized, and more importantly paid, for his contributions following the American victory.  As with anyone had kept personal aspects of his life from the public eye (and history), the book ventures into the realm of speculation.  However, Trujillo acknowledges that it is hard to be accurate when facts are unknown.  A strength of the story also lies in the creator’s relating it to modern hardships of those in the LGBTQIA+ community.  The story also doesn’t shy away from von Steuben’s faults, from excessive drinking and vanity, to his ownership of slaves, to the complicity of treatment towards minorities in America.  People often approach historical figures as perfect people, and either have issues with, or outright deny, any wrongdoing.  This is dangerous as it sets a false narrative, and the authors avoided it here.

The issue of homosexuality in the American military is still a confusing one.  On one hand, the modern military often tries to emulate the warrior ethos of the ancient Spartans of Greece, with motivational t-shirts such as “Molon Labe” (Come and Take them – them being weapons).  However, the Spartans also fought with their male lovers, which runs in opposition of mainstream America’s concept of Greek society. It may be worth noting that Abrams did not publish this under their ComicArts imprint.

This book can create an interest in history, biography, or the American Revolution, and be a good starting point for future reading.  As in other Revolutionary War comics (Rebels from Vertigo and U.S. the graphic novel come to mind), it is a bit muted in colors, as though the past was a less vivid place. There may be some issues marketing it towards teens, beyond the obvious one, as there are a couple of swear words.  There is no gratuitous nudity, which does not detract from the story, but some will no doubt still find it offensive, in the way they might object to Maus.  Any historical-based book should have a bibliography for reference, and it would benefit this book as well.  These are minor issues.  In all, it is a good starting point into the lives of the “Founding Fathers,” glaring issues and all. 


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