Facing Proper, According To Von Steuben

Chip Gnam, 1st Virginia Regiment

Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of performing 18th century period drill is keeping our heads turned to the proper position. This was considered an essential aspect of performing the Manual Exercise, as well as for marching in Line. In what direction should a soldier be looking during the von Steuben Manual Exercise, as well as when marching? I have consulted von Steuben, as well as several other period Manuals to find the answer.

The Drill according to von Steuben

Some of the confusion arises when comparing von Steuben's description of the "Position of a Soldier without Arms," and the soldier "under arms." Chapter Five of the von Steuben manual includes the instruction of recruits and describes the position of a soldier without arms (page 10): "...with the head turned to the right so far as to bring the left eye over the waistcoat buttons..." The same chapter ends with a description of the soldier under arms (page 15) which is very similar to the first description but makes no mention of the position of the head or eyes.

This omission has led some people to believe that a soldier under arms was to look straight forward. However, I believe this was not what von Steuben intended. Perhaps the best evidence for this can be found in the many illustrations of the Manual made for the several editions of the book in the years that followed its first publication in 1779 Many of these can be found in Capt. E. W. Peterkin's book on the von Steuben drill, The Exercise of Arms in the Continental Army (Museum Restoration Service, Alexandria Bay, NY, 1989).

Peterkin does a careful evaluation of the various illustrations found in both British and American Manuals published during the late 1700s and early 1800s. The first illustrations showing the von Steuben drill appeared in a 1798 American recruiting poster, followed by illustrations that were included in the von Steuben Manuals published in 1802, 1803, and 1807. In all of these illustrations the soldiers are clearly shown performing the manual exercise with their heads turned to the right, just as the British drill illustrations also show. This similarity between the British and American illustrations demonstrates just how similar the two drills are, and clearly shows that the correct position of a soldier in either army included the head turned to the right.

To further reinforce the point, I have checked earlier drill manuals and found consistency in this detail. The British Norfolk Discipline, published in 1759 describes the position of a soldier under arms, including (page 1): "...the head held up and turned a little to the right, except the right-hand man, who looks full to the Major or exercising officer."

Timothy Pickering's Plan of Discipline for a Militia, published in 1775 describes the position of a soldier under arms (page 13): "...the head erect, and turned to the right, so as to look easily at the fugler..." Pickering includes a footnote on the same page that further explains the importance of the soldiers looking to the right: "...to accustom them to look to the right, as that he also may see the motion of every man at the same glance of eyes. Looking to the right is so essentially necessary both in performing the manual exercise and in marching that at first it might not be amiss to give the command – Look to the Right..."

Marching by the Colors

According to von Steuben not only was a soldier expected to look to the right during the drill but when marching he was expected to look away from the front as well. Which way he looked depended on where he was in the battalion formation. According to the von Steuben Manual (page 33): "In marching to the front, the men must be accustomed to dress to the center, which they will have to do in battalion; and for this purpose a sergeant must be placed six paces in front of center, who will take some object in front to serve as a direction for him to march straight forward; and the men must look inwards, and regulate their march by him." This is restated in Chapter Nine describing the "March in Line" (page 56): "The soldier... must have his eyes continually fixed on the colors, turning his head more or less, in proportion to his distance from them."

The concept of having soldiers watch the colors instead of the ground in front is also found in earlier Drill Manuals. According to the Norfolk Discipline (page 23): "In marching on a large front, the men must look inwards towards the center, and regulate their motions by that." Pickering agrees (page 51): "...in marching on a large front, for instance that of a whole battalion, the men must look inwards to the center, and regulate their march by that; for there are placed the colors... all therefore should look to the colors, and take the utmost care to keep even with them."

Marching in Small Units

Of course, soldiers frequently march in small units of squads, platoons or companies without the benefit of the colors. While von Steuben does not describe the direction soldiers were to look in the 1779 published edition of the Manual, his early draft written at Valley Forge directed: "...at the word of command, To the Front March, all the soldiers raise their Left feet at once, Look to the right, & Advance..." (from Orderly Book No. 17, 1778, Baron Steubens Instructions, p. 99; quoted by Peterkin)

This is also similar to the earlier Manuals. The Norfolk Discipline states (page 23): "In marching straight forward, the men are to look to the right, and take care to regulate their steps by their right-hand man..." Pickering agrees (page 51): "In marching straight ahead, the men are to look to the right..." As stated above, both these manuals make the distinction that troops look to the colors when in large formations.

Whether marching in a battalion front, or in a smaller unit, on the command "Halt," the soldiers stop and turn their heads back to the right (if they were looking to the left), returning to the position of a soldier under arms, and dressing their line at the same time. This is implied in von Steuben from the above text, and is stipulated in the Norfolk Discipline (page 22-23): "...they are to stop at once... looking to the right, and dressing their ranks."

For clarification, the proper head position for soldiers breaks down like this:
In Line formation, stationary: head turned to the right
Marching in company (or smaller) formation, without Colors: head turned to the right
Marching with Colors: head turned toward the Colors

Copyright © 2006 Chip Gnam. All rights reserved.