Washington's Gay General: The Legends and Loves of Baron von Steuben is a wonderful new graphic novel from writer Josh Trujillo and illustrator Levi Hastings that explores the oft-ignored life of Baron von Steuben, one of the most important military leaders in American history. A Prussian immigrant and military strategist who bullshitted his way to notoriety, von Steuben was recruited by Benjamin Franklin to whip the scrappy Continental Army into shape during the American Revolutionary War. He advised George Washington during the Battle of Valley Forge, and it was Washington who appointed him as the first official Inspector General of the United States; he even created the organizational framework for the US military, authoring the first edition of the Blue Book, the essential military training guide that's still used today.
He also fucked a whole lot of dudes, and never hid or apologized for it. And that's the much more interesting part of the book. Here's the official synopsis:
A graphic novel biography of Baron von Steuben, the soldier, immigrant, and flamboyant homosexual who influenced the course of US history during the Revolutionary War despite being omitted from our textbooks.
Author Josh Trujillo and illustrator Levi Hastings tell the true story of one of the most important—but largely forgotten—military leaders of the American Revolution, Baron von Steuben, who brought much-needed knowledge to the inexperienced and ill-prepared Continental Army. As its first Inspector General, von Steuben created an organizational framework for the US military, which included writing the Blue Book guide that became the standard for training American soldiers for more than a century.
Von Steuben was also, by all accounts, a flamboyant homosexual in an era when the term didn't even exist. Beginning with von Steuben's career in the Prussian Army, Trujillo explores his recruitment by Benjamin Franklin, his work alongside General George Washington at the Battle of Valley Forge, and his eventual decline into obscurity. In Washington's Gay General, Trujillo and Hastings impart both the intricacies of queer history and the importance of telling stories that highlight queer experiences.
While Washington's Gay General is ostensibly a biography, Trujillo and Hastings smartly frame the work from their own perspectives as gay men living in 2023. This ends up being one of the most alluring parts of the book—the kind of author self-insert that strengthens the non-fiction story told within its pages. The creators deftly grapple with what it means to define queerness throughout the ages. They're careful to point out that "homosexual" and "gay" were not words or identities that existed during the founding of the United States of America; but that there were absolutely were men who had sex with other men, and that some of them, like von Steuben, did not give a shit if you knew. Many of the men with whom von Steuben consorted—and there is historical record of these dalliances!—later went on to marry women with whom they fathered children. But even then, Trujillo and Hastings are thoughtful not to project any sort of identities or labels upon these men. They don't judge, or shame them either; but rather, they embrace and celebrate the complications of queerness of history.
And that's ultimately the point of the book, and the thing that makes it resonate. Yes, it's fun to get to know von Steuben as a larger-than-life military figure with a flamboyant and gaudy fashion sense, the elder queer who took many a fledgling cub and twink under his wing. But Trujillo and Hastings also use von Steuben's story—particularly its most tragic moments—to underscore the multigenerational hurt of queer erasure throughout history. What does it mean that there's a statue of a queer man in Lafayette Square, right across from the White House, erected by several of his former lovers, whose names are emblazoned on the statue alongside him—and what does it mean that no one really acknowledges this?
As I read the book, I kept thinking about Hamilton, and how much that show made me fall in love with character of Hercules Mulligan. That musical also doesn't shy away from pointing out how Hamilton's outsider/immigrant status was still a barrier, even in a brand-new country that only existed because of immigrants. But as much as Lin-Manuel Miranda tackled in that play, he still left out the fact that Hercules Mulligan's son worked for Hamilton, and was also in a relationship with John Adams' son. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the second President of the United States was not pleased with his son's choice in partners. So Hamilton helped connect the two young queer men with another, older queer man who could help them—an immigrant, who, like Hamilton, played a crucial role in the founding of the nation, but was still disrespected as an outsider.
That man's name was Baron von Steuben. And something tells me he's a man who would have loved Broadway musicals.
Washington's Gay General: The Legends and Loves of Baron von Steuben [Josh Trujillo and Levi Hastings / Abrams ComicArts]