I am at length sufficiently composed to begin, 0 my dear sir, a sad tale. On Tuesday morning last, our friend, my father [Steuben], was struck with a palsy which deprived his left side of motion. The evening before we parted at eleven; he was well, perfectly well. At four o'clock I was alarmed with the cry that he was dying, and when I entered his chamber he was in extreme agony and appeared to have suffered long. I sent for immediate assistance, and dispatched White for Major North. He was sensible and could speak, reached violently, asked for an emetic which I gave him—it operated well. I then put him to bed, from which I had taken him by his desire. He continued to speak at intervals till about six, and from thence was speechless. He remained apparently sensible during the greater part of Tuesday, notwithstanding he was often in convulsions. That night he was pretty quiet, though the fits sometimes returned. He did not show any signs of sense afterwards. Every measure which the situation afforded was pursued to relieve him until the arrival of the doctor on Thursday. He administered medicines which gave some relief, but it was not long. The stroke was too violent, and yesterday, at half past twelve o'clock,-oh, my good God, my parent died! Colonel Walker, our friend, my all; I can write no more. Come if you can, I am lonely. Oh, good God, what solitude is in my bosom. Oh, if you were here to mingle your tears with mine, there would be some consolation for the distressed
John Mulligan to Benjamin Walker, November 29, 1794
I, Frederick William Baron de Steuben, of the city and state of New York, do make this my last will and testament. Sufficient reasons having determined me to exclude my relations in Europe from any participation of my estate in America, and to adopt my friends and former aid du camps Benjamin Walker and William North as my children, and make them sole devisees of all my estates therein, except as herein afterwards is otherwise disposed of. In consequence thereof I bequeath to the said Benjamin Walker the sum of three thousand dollars, and the gold-hilted sword given me by congress. To the said William North I bequeath my silver-hilted [sword] and the gold box given me by the city of New York. To John J. Mulligan I bequeath the whole of my library, maps, and charts, and the sum of twenty-five hundred dollars to complete it. And to each of my servants living with me at the time of my decease, one year’s wages, and besides this to my valet de chambre all my wearing apparel; but I do hereby declare that these legacies to my servants are on the following conditions; that on my decease they do not permit any person to touch my body, not even to change the shirt in which I shall die, but that they wrap me up in my old military cloak, and in twenty-four hours after my decease bury me in such spot as I shall before my decease point out to them, and that they never acquaint any person with the place where I shall be buried. And lastly I do give, devise and bequeath, all the rest and residue of my estate, real and personal, after the payment of my debts and the legacies aforesaid to the said Benjamin Walker and William North, to hold to them their heirs, executors and administrators, share and share alike, hereby appointing the said Benjamin Walker and William North executors of this my last will and testament, and revoking all former wills by me heretofore made.
Baron von Steuben, Last Will and Testament, February 12, 1794
With the coming of peace, the Baron insisted on living like a European nobleman and military hero, even though he lacked the financial resources to support an elegant lifestyle. He had full confidence that the Americans would grant him a fair recompense for his contribution to the war effort, and he saw little reason to wait until the money was in his bank account. It fell to [William] North to try to reason with him, to get him to realize the seriousness of his money woes. In exasperation North wrote to [Benjamin] Walker:
“Used to a country where whatever a Nobleman did was always right & a rascally peasantry dare not call to him to an account, he forgets that here all men affect to be equal & that no man is independent except by being free of debt, & that a Nobleman who owes can neither be screened from paying or from that legal insult which the creditor (tho ever so mean) offers to his debtor.”
In his sober moments, von Steuben understood that his young companion was right in urging caution, and he made many solemn promises to mend his ways - only to turn around and order another five cases of fine French wine. Gentle chiding and sincere repentance soon escalated into messy domestic quarrels. The Baron would lose his temper and denounce North as a “miser” and a “bougre” [f*ggot] and then abjectly apologize and seek forgiveness. A few weeks of probity would follow, but then North would once again find himself trying to placate the hordes of irate tradesmen who pounded on their door with fists full of unpaid bills.
Early in the winter of 1783-1784 von Steuben leased a run-down but spacious estate on Manhattan known as the Louvre. Here he could provide an elegant home for his family: William North, Benjamin Walker, James Fairlie, and any of the other ex-soldiers who chose to join him. The fashionable men came, lived off his hospitality for a while, and then left. Only North remained, though he was frequently on the road. Together with Walker and Alexander Hamilton, North did everything in his power to goad Congress into granting von Steuben at least a portion of the money he deserved, but to little avail.
William Benemann, Male-Male Intimacy in Early America
Early in the winter of 1783-1784 von Steuben leased a run-down but spacious estate on Manhattan known as the Louvre. Here he could provide an elegant home for his family: William North, Benjamin Walker, James Fairlie, and any of the other ex-soldiers who chose to join him. The fashionable young men came, lived off his hospitality for a while, and then left. Only North remained, though he was frequently on the road. Together with Walker and Alexander Hamilton, North did everything in his power to goad Congress into granting von Steuben at least a portion of the money he deserved, but to little avail.
The Baron remained incapable of living frugally, and North found himself in the unenviable (and draining) position of both fighting the government for more funds and fighting von Steuben to stay within a budget. Their relationship degenerated into one long argument over money. In a chastened mood, the Baron wrote:
“Ah, Billy, I am too proud of you not to suffer through your absence. But what folly [for me] to be attached to a man who is so often in a bad humor, scolding and disagreeable. This is what my reason tells me. But hush, my reason, you are mad…. It is true that he often scolds me. But it is because he wants me to be better than I really am. He wishes for order in my business affairs and I have none. He would have me be prudent, but my impulsive nature too often leads me to folly. He wishes that I were one of the seven sages of Greece, but my passions often make a fool of me…. Scold me, Billy, as often as I deserve it - that is to say, scold me always.”
In June 1786 the state of New York granted von Steuben a quarter township of land on the Mohawk River, and he eventually transferred his household to a small farm in the wilderness. By this time, however, the von Steuben-North-Walker triangle had been irrevocably broken. Walker, too, had come to the limits of his patience. “I sometimes wish,” he wrote to North, “I had never seen or never loved the Baron. If he makes his friends happy by his goodness and amiable qualities, he also makes them miserable by his want of management and misfortunes.” Both men still loved and respected their mentor, but they were no longer under the spell of his worldly charm.With the conclusion of their military service, von Steuben, North, and Walker lost their defined role of “family” and there was nothing to take its place, no acceptable social structure that would allow them to retain their intimacy. Even if the Baron’s profligacy had not alienated his companions, the triad could not have continued. North and Walker were ready to move on in their lives, and “moving on” for them meant finding a wife and settling down. In the eighteenth century there were few other choices.
William Benemann, Male-Male Intimacy in Early America: Beyond Romantic Friendships