During the early stages of the revolution, the Continental Army had a reputation for being disorganized, undisciplined and poorly drilled. That started to change in early 1778, when the extravagantly named Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin, the Baron von Steuben, arrived to assist the patriots. The Baron was a former Prussian military officer who had once served on the staff of Frederick the Great. Though prone to exaggeration—he wore flashy uniforms and styled himself a lieutenant general even though he had never risen above the rank of captain—he also possessed a keen military mind. Upon arriving at George Washington’s winter encampment at Valley Forge, he introduced new sanitation measures and gave the troops a crash course in 18th century military tactics that included bayonet combat and more effective techniques for firing and reloading muskets.
The Baron’s successes saw him appointed inspector general of the Continental Army in May 1778, and over the next two years, his drill methods helped transform the patriot forces into an accomplished fighting force. He also penned the first military manual for the American army, “Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States.” This “Blue Book,” as it was known, remained the bible of the American armed forces until the War of 1812.
Polish-born Casimir Pulaski spent his brief life fighting as a revolutionary on two separate continents. The man later called the “Father of the American Cavalry” first distinguished himself as a leader of the Bar Confederation, a band of nobles who fought against foreign domination of Poland. After being exiled from his homeland in the early 1770s, he made his way to France and came into contact with Benjamin Franklin, who recruited him to the cause of American independence. The dashing young officer immediately proved his value in his first engagement at September 1777’s Battle of Brandywine, where he led a rearguard action that helped cover General George Washington’s retreat.
Despite not speaking a lick of English, Pulaski was later made a brigadier general in the Continental cavalry. By 1778, he had taken over a role as commander of the “Pulaski Legion,” an independent cavalry unit composed of American and foreign recruits. In the spring of 1779, the Legion was posted to the war’s Southern theater and sustained severe casualties in the defense of Charleston. Just a few months later, Pulaski was mortally wounded by grapeshot while leading a cavalry attack during the Siege of Savannah. The 34-year-old’s heroic death established him among the American Revolution’s most famous foreign volunteers. He is now honored with two holidays, Casimir Pulaski Day and General Pulaski Memorial Day.
The Marquis de Lafayette
In 1777, the 19-year-old French aristocrat Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette, left behind a sizable personal fortune and a pregnant wife and set off in search of military glory with the Continental Army. “When I first learned of that quarrel, my heart was enlisted,” he later wrote, “and I thought only of joining my colors to those of the revolutionaries.” The young idealist secured a commission as a major general, and was wounded in the leg during his first engagement at September 1777’s Battle of Brandywine. He soon became a close confidante of General George Washington, and later served with distinction at the Battles of Gloucester, Barren Hill and Monmouth.
In 1778, Lafayette traveled to France to help rally support for the patriots. He then returned to the United States, took command of an army in Virginia and played a pivotal role in cornering British commander Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781. The man known as the “Hero of Two Worlds” later returned to Europe after the war ended, but he remained a beloved figure in the United States for the rest of his life. When he made a visit to America in 1824, nearly 80,000 grateful citizens turned out in New York harbor to welcome him.
Polish military officer Tadeusz Kościuszko arrived in the United States in the summer of 1776, having been forced to flee his homeland after an unsuccessful attempt to elope with a general’s daughter. Commissioned a colonel by the Continental Congress, the 30-year-old soon established himself as one of the Continental Army’s most brilliant combat engineers. Following the fall of Fort Ticonderoga in 1777, Kościuszko oversaw the damming of rivers and the destruction of bridges to delay the British advance. He was also instrumental in setting up the fortifications that secured the Continentals’ crucial victory at the Battle of Saratoga. After spending two years beefing up the defenses of West Point, Kościuszko transferred to the war’s Southern theater in 1780 and served under General Nathanael Greene, who placed him in charge of building fortifications, scouting territory and constructing troop transport boats.
Always a staunch believer in the revolutionary cause—he supposedly wept the first time he read the Declaration of Independence—Kościuszko later returned home after the war and became a leading figure in Poland’s conflicts with Russia and Prussia. Thomas Jefferson, who struck up a friendship with Kościuszko, would later call him “as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known.”
Bernardo de Gálvez
Though never a member of Continental Army, Spaniard Bernardo de Gálvez was one of the best friends the cause of American independence ever had. In his role as the governor of the Spanish province of Louisiana, the young nobleman aided the colonials by allowing munitions, medicine and other vital supplies to be shipped up the Mississippi River. Once Spain entered the war in 1779, Gálvez launched a bold offensive operation against British-controlled West Florida. Raising a diverse army of Spaniards, Creoles, free blacks, Indians and a few Americans, he seized control of several British forts along the Mississippi. Though constantly hindered by hurricanes and a lack of supplies, he then marched on Pensacola in 1781 and captured it following a siege.
While he remains little known today, Gálvez is credited with having transformed the war by bottling up British forces along the Gulf Coast and preventing them from pressuring the colonials. Along with serving as the namesake of Galveston, Texas, he is one of only eight people in history to have received honorary American citizenship.
Johann de Kalb
While he’s now hailed as a hero of the American Revolution—among other places, the city of DeKalb, Illinois is named for him—Baron Johann de Kalb was nearly denied a chance to serve in the Continental Army. The Bavarian-born veteran of the French army first sailed for North America in 1777 alongside the Marquis de Lafayette, and was initially passed over for a commission before finally being made a major general just as he was preparing to return to Europe. De Kalb went on to command a division during the dreary winter at Valley Forge, often working closely with Lafayette and General George Washington.
De Kalb’s final campaign unfolded in 1780, when he took command of around 1,200 Maryland and Delaware troops in the war’s Southern theater. While serving under General Horatio Gates that August, he participated in the Battle of Camden, where British forces under Lord Cornwallis made a ferocious frontal assault against the Continental lines. While Gates immediately fled the field, de Kalb and his men stood firm and even went on the counterattack before finally being overwhelmed. During the melee, the 59-year-old Baron was slashed with a saber, shot three times and repeatedly bayoneted. Taken prisoner by the British, he died three days later, supposedly after uttering the words, “I die the death I always prayed for: the death of a soldier fighting for the rights of man.”