Biographies can intrigue and educate with subject matter alone, but some of the most interesting give both the story of a life and the reason behind the author’s fascination. Washington’s Gay General: The Legends and Loves of Baron von Steuben tells the story of the titular war general, who rose from Prussian obscurity in the 1700s to become a once legendary yet now forgotten leader, and why Eisner Award-winning author Josh Trujillo found his life so interesting.
Ambitious and idealistic, Baron von Steuben quickly rose through the ranks of the Prussian Army through a combination of genius, white lies and good old flirting. However, relationships with Prussian royalty and a reputation as a leader in the army weren’t enough to keep him safe from charges of impropriety, and von Steuben found himself fleeing his home country.
After arriving in America, Benjamin Franklin recruited him to help the Americans organize their untrained rebel army. With the help of young men, some of whom were his lovers, von Steuben shared Prussian army techniques with George Washington, eventually writing the Blue Book guide that laid the foundation for training American soldiers. Yet because of his romantic partners and his immigrant status, it was always a challenge for von Steuben to form a legacy that would be remembered.
Thoughts from Trujillo (and, occasionally, illustrator Levi Hastings) stitch together the gaps in the available information on von Steuben’s life by weaving in compelling modern conversations on queer identity and queer history. They don’t shy away from darkness: The book discusses the fact that von Steuben enslaved people and highlights how his relative wealth and status protected him from what poorer, less powerful queer folk faced.
Hastings ditches the more colorful artwork found in his children’s books in favor of a classy triad color scheme of black, white and blue–quietly patriotic, much like von Steuben himself. The most beautiful piece of art comes at the very end of the book: a single-page spread of von Steuben’s beloved hound, curled up asleep in a bed made of von Steuben’s coat and hat.
Washington’s Gay General examines the same questions of ideology and legacy that permeate the Broadway show Hamilton, and fans of the production will certainly find much to enjoy. For those who are less interested in early American history and simply want to connect with their queer roots, Washington’s Gay General offers an accessible introduction to the life of Baron von Steuben and, through him, the queer people throughout history who have been hiding in plain sight.