It might have seemed like a good idea at the time. Red is a flashy color, after all, and what soldier doesn’t look dashing in it? Unfortunately, outfitting his aide-de-camp, his secretary, and two other chaps in handsome red coats before they disembarked a ship in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, nearly got Baron Freidrich von Steuben and his companions arrested for being British. This was, after all, 1777, the American War of Independence was on, and the majority of British soldiers wore red coats.
Von Steuben reported to General George Washington in Valley Forge in 1778 making a vivid entrance in a grandiose sleigh pulled by black Percheron draft horses, jingling bells punctuating the silence. Grand appearances aside, Steuben was appointed the Chief of Staff and Inspector General to observe the American soldiers, equipment, skills, and living conditions. He created a standard method of drills for the entire army, all written in French since he couldn’t speak English; his military secretary (the same poor fella who was nearly arrested for wearing red) and revolutionaries, Alexander Hamilton and Nathanael Greene, translated the drills into English which were then given to each company and officer.
Throughout the entire Revolutionary War, von Steuben was accompanied by his beloved and (it was noted) much indulged Italian Greyhound, “Azor.” Even before von Steuben’s party landed on American soil, Azor’s “discerning ear for music” put him in good stead with the crew of the ship which took them to New Hampshire, the IG howling pitifully every time the captain of the ship attempted to sing.
Pierre-Étienne du Ponceau, who also served in the war, wrote in his autobiography: “We travelled on horseback, I must not forget the Baron’s dog Azor, the only pedestrian among us. He was a beautiful Italian grey hound who had an excellent ear for music.”
Baron von Steuben proved to be a godsend to the fledging American army encamped for the winter at Valley Forge. He had a few idiosyncrasies that endeared him to the American troops: He wore enormous pistols in his uniform sash; he cursed in a multitude of foreign languages, and he was constantly followed by Azor. Ultimately, von Steuben went down in history for the bravery, discipline, and grit he brought to the American troops, and a little Iggie was there to provide him companionship and comfort.
Image: “Gentle Whippet” by Justine Osborne