"His Excellency, Lieutenant General Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben," the man mainly responsible for shaping George Washington's rabble citizenry into the Continental Army, was a fraud. Like many another European phony who has dazzled us provincials, Steuben was just a quick-thinking commoner with an accent and a certain je ne sais quoi. General Washington and the Continental Congress swallowed the whole scam, which was largely set up by shifty old Ben Franklin. And a good thing, too. If our somewhat stuffy Founding Fathers had known that Steuben was only a former Prussian Army captain who had been out of the service for 14 years, he never would have had the chance to demonstrate his superb abilities, and our democratic experiment might have expired at Valley Forge. Freelance heroism sometimes wins battles, but training and discipline win wars; the importance of Steuben to our cause can hardly be overstated. Washington's army had all but wasted away from disease and desertion by the time Steuben arrived in 1778. Many of the ragged tradesmen and farmers who remained in the ranks hardly knew which was the business end of the weapons supplied by our still-secret French allies. Steuben, possessed of a very unPrussian personality, persuaded our good ol' boys to accept standard procedures and reasonable discipline, which built the fighting force that responded so well to Washington's hand. Steuben saw combat, too, leading a division at Yorktown. Most of us managed to get through school all unaware that Steuben stands for more than a glassworks in upstate New York, or that Germany contributed anything to the Revolutionary War except those drunken Hessians we bagged at Trenton. The West German government has undertaken to rectify that with "Steuben: A Secret Aid to the Americans" an exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. The exhibit was made for the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in honor of the 150th anniversary of Steuben's birth, which was widely overlooked here in the other doings of 1980. It's a fine, old-fashioned display with lots of text and pictures and some marvelous dioramas, put together the way these things used to be done before they started awarding degrees in museum science.

STEUBEN -- At the National Museum of American History through April 18.