Located just north of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway between Flushing and Steuben Streets, the Steuben Playground is named for Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustus von Steuben (1730-1794), a Prussian army officer and general in the American Revolution. Born in Magdeburg, Prussia (present-day northwest Germany), in 1730, Steuben became an officer in the Prussian army at age 17. He served with distinction during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). Following the war, he became a baron in the Prussian court, and traveled to France to raise money for the Prussian royalty. He returned to Germany in 1775, but went to France again two years later, hoping to secure employment in a foreign army. While in France, he met Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) and Silas Deane (1737-1789) who persuaded Steuben to join the American cause. Armed with a letter of recommendation from the two diplomats, Steuben arrived in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in September 1777. In February 1778, he joined General George Washington (1732-1799) and the Continental Army at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
Although he could not speak English when he arrived in America, Steuben nevertheless played a crucial role in the American victory. At Valley Forge, General Washington gave Steuben the near-impossible task of training his ragtag army. Steuben, speaking through interpreters, completely reorganized Washington’s troops, making them a better disciplined, better trained, and more effective fighting force. In May 1778, Congress appointed Steuben Inspector General of the Continental Army, in charge of training for the entire force. In 1781, after asking Washington for a command of his own, Steuben served as one of Washington’s three division commanders at the Battle of Yorktown, in Virginia. Yorktown was the final battle of the Revolutionary War, a decisive victory that secured American independence.
In March 1784, following the demobilization of the Continental Army, Steuben retired to New York City. That same month, the Pennsylvania legislature made Steuben an American citizen. Living in and near New York City, he tried his hand at business, but most of his ventures failed. In June 1790, Congress granted Steuben a yearly pension of $2,500 in recognition of his service. Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), the first Secretary of the Treasury and a friend from Steuben’s Revolutionary War days, also secured for Steuben a 16,000-acre property near present-day Remsen in upstate New York. Four years later Steuben died.
In 1942, Parks acquired the land for Steuben Playground as part of the condemnation proceedings for the Brooklyn-Queens Connecting Highway. The construction of the highway—now called the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, or BQE—drastically changed the surrounding landscape, prompting Brooklyn's rapid urbanization and separating Brooklyn Heights from the nearby East River waterfront. This park had been called Steuben Playground for years. In 1987, Parks formally conferred the name on the park.
In 2000, Steuben Playground underwent a comprehensive $938,000 reconstruction funded by Council Member Mary Pinkett. The improvements included the replacement of an asphalt ballfield with picnic tables and a horticultural area. The park's open grass area was landscaped, the handball wall and court were reconstructed, new basketball backstops were added, and new exercise equipment was installed. In addition to the two new pieces of boar-shaped animal play sculptures, a new steel fence was added around the jogging area, new concrete game tables were installed, and two animal art sculptures of boars were added. The wild boar, native to Europe, is a reminder of the foreign origins of a great American military leader.