It began in February 1778 when Ensign Anthony Maxwell faced a court-martial after being charged with "propogating a scandalous report prejudicial to the character" of Lieutenant Frederick Gotthold Enslin, an officer in General Washington's Continental Army. According to Maxwell's report, Lieutenant Enslin had been found in bed with another soldier, John Monhort. After carefully weighing the evidence, the court concluded that Maxwell was not guilty of the charge and had not acted "no further than the strict line of his duty". Maxwell was acquitted and Frederick Enslin was then charged with Attempting to Commit Sodomy and committing Perjury in Swearing to False Accounts. The court then ruled that Enslin was guilty of breaching the "5th. Article 18th. Section of the Articles of War and do sentence him to be dismiss'd the service with Infamy". In reviewing the court's decision, General Washington wrote that he "approves the sentence and with Abhorrence and Detestation of such Infamous Crimes orders Lieutt. Enslin to be drummed out of Camp tomorrow morning by all the Drummers and Fifers in the Army never to return; The Drummers and Fifers to attend on the Grand Parade at Guard mounting for that Purpose."
While there is no other record relating to whether the sentence was carried out or what happened to him afterward, what isn't in dispute is that Frederick Gotthold Enslin has the unwelcome distinction of being the first American soldier to be dishonourably discharged for homosexual conduct. Harsh penalties for "infamous crimes" such as sodomy were hardly limited to the American military however. Especially considering that homosexuality and other "crimes against nature" were still punishable by death or long imprisonment in many European countries. Well into the 20th century, the very suspicion of "sexual impropriety" was enough to destroy military reputations just about everywhere.
That was certainly the case for another prominent 18th century soldier...
Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Friedrich Gerhard Augustin von Steuben was a Prussian soldier who served honorably in various German and Prussian campaigns until his career ended in scandal. In 1776, he was accused of "improper sexual behaviour" with young boys and forced to seek employment elsewhere. Based on a favourable meeting with the French Minister of War, he was referred to Benjamin Franklin and later, to George Washington. As a professional Prussian officer, he seemed ideal for the largely untrained Continental Army. After receiving funds to travel to Boston, von Steuben arrived with his military staff and his Italian greyhound. He quickly set to work as Inspector General and Major General of the Continental Army. His contributions to the fledgling American side in their fight with Britain were incalculable.
Not only did Steuben write the Revolutionary War Drill Manual that became the standard drill manual for the United States Army for decades afterward, but he also served in various capacities including being George Washington's chief of staff in the last years of the war. His accomplishments were all the more remarkable considering his limited English and his need to work through interpreters until his language skills improved. Whatever rumours there were surrounding von Steuben's sexuality, they didn't seem to affect how he dealt with General Washington and his soldiers.
After the war ended, von Steuben retired from the military and eventually settled in Utica, New York (he had been made a citizen in 1784 by the Pennsylvania legislature). Although he never married or had children, his later life seemed free of the earlier scandal that had plagued him in Europe. He did have a very close relationship with several younger men who had served with him in the military but there was no real evidence that he was anything less than discreet. He left his estate to General Benjamin Walker and Captain William North, two military men with whom he had a long relationship. While the actual nature of that friendship is open to debate, one historian who examined their surviving correspondence has suggested that "ample evidence shows that the intimacy extended well beyond mere friendship".
If von Steuben was homosexual, then it would have led to a strange irony concerning the punishment for poor Lieutenant Enslin. Whether or not von Steuben actually presided over Enslin's expulsion or was simply present, having one accused homosexual being part of the public shaming of another certainly highlighted the very real dangers facing anyone with same-sex leanings in that era. Those same repressive policies continued in most Western military services until well into the 20th century. Although many Western countries have belatedly opened up military service to openly gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals, the United States was one of the most notable exceptions up until very recently.
Though the same Articles of War that convicted Lieutenant Enslin and others like him remained in force until 1942 when homosexuality was formally recognized as grounds for nonselection or dishonourable discharge from service. Despite numerous cases of gay and lesbian soldiers serving honourably and a 1957 military report that concluded that there was "no sound basis for the belief that homosexuals posed a security risk", known or suspected homosexuals were still forced to conceal their sexuality to avoid dishonourable discharge or harassment from fellow soldiers. While the passage of the " Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) compromise policy in 1993 officially banned harassment of gay and lesbian soldiers, the erratic implementation of the policy and deeply entrenched attitudes towards homosexuals in the military did little to change matters. Despite the passage of DADT, an estimated 13000 troops have been discharged under the policy since 1993 and cases of suspected homosexuals being killed by fellow soldiers have continued.
Will President Obama eventually repeal DADT and allow gay and lesbians soldiers to serve openly (in keeping with his own public promises on the matter)? It would definitely help end the discrimination that doomed Lieutenant Enslin and the countless soldiers that came after him. Although unofficial discrimination still persists even in countries where military service for gay and lesbian soldiers has been legalized, the old attitudes are slowly changing. Whether or not simple justice will prevail remains to be seen.