While everyone else was busy theorizing about Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens, Josh Trujillo and Levi Hastings were captivated by the story of Baron von Steuben, a Prussian military strategist--and kind of a con man, tbh--who played a pivotal role in the American Revolutionary War. Washington's Gay General: The Legends and Loves of Baron von Steuben is the expansion of Trujillo's much shorter comic at The Nib and is a much more thorough biography supplemented with author commentary, historical context and the inclusion of other figures of the time.
Baron von Steuben grew up poor in a highly military culture and as a highly ambitious and crafty man, he sought fame and fortune through military prowess and social climbing. He was also, in modern parlance, Super Gay.
This graphic biography is engaging and nuanced, with dynamic illustrations, fascinating bits of history and a writing style that fits solidly in the "edutainment" category.
While the focus is on von Steuben, the creators highlight several other queer figures of the time, from royals to soldiers to seamstresses. They also try, somewhat awkwardly at times, to make sure readers don't forget that the entire American Experiment was only possible by the intentional, systematic, brutal destruction of Native bodies and culture and the enslavement of millions of Black people. We are reminded that Washington was an enslaver and that he dragged at least one of the people he enslaved around with him during the war.
"The atrocities of Washington and his allies were well-known and celebrated. He built his reputation on it! Washington was given the grim nickname of "Town Destroyer" for his success in suppressing Native peoples. This was the bloody New World von Steuben was heading into."
We also learn that though chattel slavery didn't exist in von Steuben's home country and he consistently felt like an outsider in the colonies, he quickly adopted the custom and enslaved at least one person.
And while the creators want to lift up this much-forgotten but influential queer man, they also discuss the problematic way he engaged with men and boys much younger than himself. At forty-seven, he was in a relationship with a seventeen year old and brought him to the colonies with him. That young man eventually moved on, married, and had children. We can only guess at the nature of their relationship, but it seems reasonable to conclude that both got something out of it and that von Steuben was aware that many or most of his lovers weren't especially in love with him. How do we reckon with the long history of gay men in relationships with much younger men and boys? The dynamics are different, but are those "Greek" customs necessarily any more problematic than say, Benjamin Franklin who was catting around through his 70's? Von Steuben seems a far cry from *shudder* Thomas Jefferson. Levels of fuckery, to be sure.
As with many other historical figures, the story of von Steuben's life is one of contradictions. How do we as readers and learners celebrate his successes as a Very Gay man and military leader in the 1700's while acknowledging the horrors he and his contemporaries perpetuated? Washington's Gay General is interesting in large part because it directly grapples with these questions and because the authors don't attempt to make von Steuben out as a hero. Yes, he wrote a military training manual that is still used to this day and played a decisive role in turning the war in favor of the colonies. He also lied constantly and sucked up to powerful figures in order to gain favor he hadn't earned. He was accused of sodomy and chased out of one country, but he also appears to have misused his power to surround himself with men who'd sleep with him. He enslaved at least one person. He also died poor and mostly alone.
Queer history is complicated. It's rarely recorded in church records and often intentionally hidden. Washington's Gay General is an interesting book on its own, but placed in context it becomes something really heartening. I hope we can keep the stories told within in mind as we face yet another wave of homophobic, transphobic and anti-free speech rhetoric in the country von Steuben fought so hard to create.
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Washington's Gay General releases on August 15, 2023. I received a digital copy from the publisher for review.