"A HERO OF TWO WORLDS"
by Stan Griffin
The United States has always been a "land of immigrants." From the earliest explorations of the American continent, to its taming and colonization, to the struggle for independence, through our emergence as a world power: people from other lands have played important parts in U.S. history.
Consider those of foreign birth who volunteered their services in 1776 when our fledgling nation was trying to throw off the heavy hand of Great Britain, one of the most powerful countries in the world. They came from their homelands, risking lives and reputations by fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with the colonists as they battled for freedom.
A roster of those names rings out like the Liberty Bell: LaFayette; DeKalb; von Steuben; Pulaski. And Thaddeus Kosciuszko.
Freedom was a "burning flame" with Kosciuszko. He fought for it in two democratic revolutions, one in America and the other in his native Poland.
On the grounds of the U.S. Military Academy in New York is a statue of Kosciuszko. Inscribed on its base are the words: "To the Hero of Two Worlds." At various times during his lifetime he was praised by George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson for the part he played in our Revolution.
President Adams wrote: " ... no one has a higher respect for your character than I have ..." Jefferson described Kosciuszko: " ... as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known, and of that liberty which is to go to all, and not to the few (and) rich alone ..." General Nathanael Greene, one of his commanders, described him as " ... unwearied by any labor ... fearless of every danger .." George Washington wrote: "I have experienced great satisfaction from his general conduct ... (his) attention and zeal with which he has prosecuted the work committed to his charge ..." (At the end of Kosciuszko's service in America, Washington presented him with a sword, a pair of pistols, and a cameo ring.)
Kosciuszko is an outstanding figure in European history and a national hero in Poland. Today it's a rare Polish home that doesn't have his picture hanging on a wall. His grave is located in a vault of the Royal Castle in Cracow, Poland's most holy shrine.
Thadeusz (tah-DEH-oosa)--often written "Thaddeus" in English--Kosciuszko (kahs-ee-OOZE-koh) was born in 1746 of moderately wealthy parents and noble background. His place of birth was likely the village of Mereczowszczyzna in eastern Poland. The youngest of four children, he studied with a "relative of his mother" until age 12. At that time he went to live and study at the College of the Piarist Fathers in the city of Lubieszow. (This was a private Catholic boarding school with a reputation as the best in Poland.) There he studied Latin and Greek; he was also taught " ... both piety and love of country ..." During this period of his life, Kosciuszko set as his personal goal the restoration of his nation's freedom. This led him into a military career.
In 1765 at the age of 19 he entered the Corps of Cadets at the Royal Military School in Warsaw. A year later he was commissioned an ensign and became an instructor at the school. While serving on their staff, he was advanced to the rank of captain. The same year (1768) Kosciuszko received a scholarship from the King of Poland to continue his military engineering studies in France. In Paris he studied fortifications at the "Ecole Militaire" (National Military School). He also traveled to Germany, Italy, and Switzerland before returning to Poland after five years abroad. (1774).
Two years earlier three of Poland's neighbors (Russia, Prussia, and Austria) took advantage of the country's weaknesses and divided (partitioned) part of it.. (First Partition) They took about one-third of Polish territory in which resided one-half of the Polish population. This left a small Polish state at the mercy of their neighbors.
King Stanislaus of Poland was very ineffective, being controlled by Russia's Catherine the Great who had actually helped him gain the throne. Kosciuszko looked at their conduct with disapproval. He found that the Polish army was being reduced in strength and that there was no chance for a commission. It was his opinion that " ... Poland wasn't ready for him but America was ..." Word of the colonies' resistance and imminent conflict with Great Britain had filtered across the ocean to Europe. By summer, 1776, Kosciuszko was in Philadelphia ... "looking for a new experience (but finding) a new career ..."
He offered his services to the Continental Congress, the legislative body conducting the American War for Independence and was accepted. His first assignment was from the Pennsylvania Committee of Defense. He was to draw up plans for fortifying the Delaware River and oversee their construction. The Committee was pleased with his work. In fact, some of those fortifications are still standing over 220 years later. In recognition of his success, Kosciuszko was commissioned a colonel of engineers.
In the spring of 1777 he was given a position on the staff of General Horatio Gates in New York. A British army was marching through the colony with the Continental Army retreating in front of them. British General Burgoyne and his men took Fort Ticonderoga when the Americans abandoned it. The retreat continued.
Near Saratoga, Gates decided to make a stand. A high point (Bemis Heights) was chosen as the main fortification. (One source credits Kosciuszko with its selection, while another says it was local farmers who suggested it.) In any case, Kosciuszko was responsible for erecting well-planned defensive positions that stymied the British.
When General Burgoyne's men attacked the American troops, the Continentals fought fiercely. Through strategic errors committed by other British generals, Burgoyne received no reinforcements or supplies. As a result, he was forced to surrender his whole army to General Gates on October 17, 1777. This was a pivotal victory for the Colonials. When the French heard about the outcome at Saratoga, they immediately recognized the infant nation as an independent nation and soon joined the war with soldiers and warships.
General Washington called their fort at West Point in New York " ... the key to America." During the period 1778-1780, Kosciuszko took on the job of supervising fortifications there. The 2,500 men working under him suffered with insufficient supplies of food and clothing. As might be expected, they were not happy. Kosciuszko won them over with kindness and consideration as he created an indestructible stronghold. He certainly deserves the credit for erecting defenses that stopped the British and established American control of the Hudson River. West Point was soon described as "a fortress far ahead of its time."
Kosciuszko later suggested that the site be used as a training school. (The U.S. Military Academy was established in 1802.) He is sometimes referred to as the "architect of West Point."
After completing the West Point project, Kosciuszko was transferred to the southern theater of operations. There he served under General Nathanael Greene in the Carolinas for a period of 2 1/2 years. His duties were described as follows: " ... survey field of operations ... indicate strategic positions ... determine possible food and water sources ... devise rapid transportation of troops and supplies ..." (The last involved the building of a large number of flat-bottomed boats to move Continental troops across a river at a crucial time early in 1781.) Kosciuszko served both as an engineer officer and as a cavalry officer.
During action just outside Charleston in the latter capacity, Kosciuszko was involved in what was probably the last engagement of the American Revolution at James Island, S. C. It was on November 14, 1782 as Kosciuszo's men attacked a small British raiding party. Reinforcements soon gave the British superior numbers so Kosciuszo's force had to retreat. During the fighting, his coat was pierced by four musket balls, and a weapon (spontoon) was shattered in his hand. (This was a pole with a pointed blade and a crossbar at its base.) Just as one of the enemy was about to strike Kosciuszko down with a saber, he was saved by a shot from a Continental infantryman.
After the entire British army surrendered and the peace treaty was signed, Kosciuszko was rewarded by the new nation. He was granted U. S. citizenship, a pension, and land in Ohio (located on the east side of the Scioto River in present-day Franklin County). Kosciuszko was also awarded the rank of major general by brevet (a commission granted as an honor, promoting a military officer in rank without an increase in pay or authority), and membership in the newly formed Order of Cincinnati. This was an organization of commissioned officers with George Washington as its first president. Its purpose was to preserve friendships formed during periods of " ... dangers and distresses ..." (Kosciuszko was only the third foreign-born member.)
In 1784 Kosciuszko returned to Poland. There he sensed a "new democratic spirit." What he had witnessed in America, the " ... miracle of a national struggle ... , burned in his soul ..." He had seen professional soldiers, among the world's best, beaten decisively by part-time "citizen soldiers." He couldn't help making a comparison to the Polish peasants.
For a five-year period Kosciuszko lived the life of a " ... small Polish landlord ..." dealing with financial difficulties. The legislature passed reforms that, among other things, rebuilt the army. It needed good officers, and Kosciuszko was a natural choice. His experiences in America qualified him for leadership. On October 1, 1789 he was appointed brigadier general in the Polish army.
In 1791 the Polish lawmakers wrote a new constitution which was approved by King Stanislaus. The Russian Empress Catherine, disturbed by its implications, sent her armies into Poland in 1792 to annul the document. The Polish army fought back and won a few minor battles. Kosciuszko fought with distinction and was promoted to major general. In the end they were beaten, primarily because King Stanislaus ordered them to cease their resistance.
With his performance, Kosciuszko became a "champion ... a living symbol ... to the people ..." and his name became a "rallying cry" for freedom.
Forced out of Poland in 1792, Kosciuszko traveled through Europe looking for support. He appealed to French revolutionaries but was rejected. In 1793 the Second Partition took another 1/3 of Poland and gave it again to Russia, Prussia, and Austria. The next year Kosciuszko returned to Poland and became the spark behind a rebellion.
When the Russians left Cracow to intercept another Polish force, Kosciuszko proclaimed himself commander-in chief of the Insurrection with " ... almost dictatorial powers ..." as both political and military leader of the rebels. Unlike other military tyrants, he no doubt would have relinquished his power willingly at the successful end of the revolution. Kosciuszko entered the city in March, 1794, and read an "Oath of Uprising" (or "Act of Insurrection") to a crowd in the center of Town Square. He had written this document himself, inspired to a great degree by Thomas Jefferson and his "Declaration of Independence."
Kosciuszko led an army of 6,000 out of Cracow and against the invaders to strike a blow for Polish independence. About 2,000 of his soldiers were peasants whose only weapons were pikes and scythes. They were referred to as "Reapers of Death."
Peasant participation in a European military force was unusual in the 18th century. It was common practice then for only nobles to serve in the army. In Kosciuszko's mind, peasants were deserving of the chance to fight for their country as the Americans had done.
In April, the Polish army met the Russians near the village of Raclawice and won a smashing victory. Kosciuszko personally led the attack of his peasant battalion which stormed through the enemy lines and forced them to retreat.
A Russian army occupying Warsaw was driven out in June, 1794 by another wing of the Polish rebel force. Kosciuszko, still with his army, reached the village of Szeczekociny. Here they met a combined force of Russians and Prussians. After a bitter struggle, Kosciuszko's men were forced to retreat toward Warsaw. The enemy might have been able to destroy the dissidents and end fighting had they followed up their success. Instead, they merely followed the Poles into Warsaw.
For the period of July through September, Kosciuszko's men were kept under siege by the army which had driven them from Szeczekociny The Polish soldiers were able to hold out until the Russians and Prussians withdrew. Keeping the enemy in a stalemate until they were forced to pull back was probably Kosciuszko's greatest military achievement.
In October of the same year, Kosciuszko again took the offensive even though his armies were badly outnumbered. At the village of Maciejowice, they met reinforced Russian troops; and in the battle which followed, the Poles were badly defeated. Kosciuszko was critically wounded, became a prisoner of war, and was sent to a prison in St. Petersburg.
During the time he was a POW, Kosciuszko reportedly was " ... tortured by cross-examinations ...: and " ... became a physical and nervous wreck ..." His wounds were neglected so they didn't heal, and he lost the use of his legs. He was required to use crutches for years afterward.
Catherine the Great died in 1796. One of the first acts of her successor, son Paul I, was to free Kosciuszko. As a condition of his release, however, Kosciuszko had to take an oath of allegiance to the Russian emperor which was the " ... greatest sacrifice of his life ..." He was able to gain amnesty for all Poles and the release of 12,000 other prisoners. Kosciuszko never returned to Poland but " ... resolved he must live in exile ..."
At about the same time the Third Partition erased Poland completely from the map as Russia and Prussia absorbed what was left of Poland. However, " ...they (the Partitions) spurred a powerful patriotism ... (and made it) ... possible for Poland to survive in the hearts of the Poles ..."
After leaving Poland for the last time, Kosciuszko received a hero's welcome in Stockholm and London when he visited those cities in 1797. He came as a 50-year-old invalid who had to be carried from place to place, sat in a chair or laid in bed most of the time, and always wore a head bandage. English doctors examined him and reported the following: (1) The pain in his head was most likely caused by the stroke of a blunt saber that severed a nerve in the lower part of his head; (2) The paralysis in his legs was probably the result of a pike (spear) wound in the hip that injured the sciatic nerve. They were encouraging about at least partial recovery and recommended that he consult Dr. Benjamin Rush in America. Kosciusko then took a ship that landed in Philadelphia in a few months. Treatments from Dr. Rush improved his condition somewhat.
While he was in the U. S., Kosciuszko renewed his friendship with Thomas Jefferson. In fact, when Kosciuszko drew up a will for his American property, Jefferson was named as executor. In this will, Kosciuszko stipulated that the land he owned in America be sold and the proceeds used to buy freedom for black people held in slavery--including some of those "owned" by Jefferson. (Legal technicalities prevented action on Kosciuszko's conditions.) This will " ... stands as a noble deed that proclaimed his unshakeable conviction in the right of all individuals to be free of enslavement and oppression .. "
Kosciuszko abruptly left America in the summer of 1798 on a secret mission for Vice-President Jefferson. Its purpose was to end the friction between the U.S. and France. He was able to persuade the French government that war with the U.S. was a bad idea.
Kosciuszko settled in France and kept up his correspondence with Jefferson. His health was poor, but he continued to work toward Polish independence within his limitations. Around 1800 Kosciuszko met with Napoleon, hoping he could help in Poland's quest for a new beginning. Unfortunately, the two men did not get along.
Kosciuszko encouraged the formation of France's "Polish Legion," but he refused to accept active command or any other role when Napoleon wouldn't promise to assist in the restoration of a Polish state.. Sent to Santo Domingo (Haiti), the Legion suffered horrendous casualties.
Russian Czar Alexander pledged to help restore Poland and then reneged (did not do as promised) . Kosciuszko finally realized that neither France or Russia was going to help return Poland's sovereignty--the Poles would have to depend on themselves. "No European power saw any advantages of a restored democratic Poland."
At some point, very likely in frustration, Kosciuszko renounced his pledge of allegiance to the czars. Alexander ordered his arrest should he ever return to Russia. (He never did.)
Kosciuszko left France in 1801 and settled in Switzerland; to him " ... the only remaining haven of freedom on the European continent ..." He said many times that he considered himself to be the " ... only true Pole in the world ..." Kosciuszko spent his last days as " ... a man without a country, a soldier of liberty without a battlefield, (and) a liberator without an opportunity to benefit his fellow man ..."
Thadeusz Kosciuszko died in Soleure, Switzerland on October 15, 1817 and was buried in a vault of the Jesuit Church there. The following year Kosciuszko's body was moved to Cracow and reburied in the Cathedral of Wawel Castle " ... among the kings and national heroes ..."
In 1820 the city of Cracow built a high mound made up of soil from fields where Kosciuszko and his armies had fought gallantly, and " ... of that Polish earth he so gloriously loved ..." For three years men, women, and children carried earth in their hands, baskets, and wheelbarrows to complete it. That mound can be seen today on the outskirts of Cracow.
A Memorial Mass was held in Paris on October 31, 1817 in St. Roche's Church. Among those who paid homage to Kosciuszko was the Marquis de Lafayette, his compatriot in the American struggle against Great Britain.
No great man is immune to criticism, and that includes Kosciuszko. There continues to be today a negative feeling among some Polish citizens about his oath of allegiance to the Russian rulers, taken in order to obtain release from prison. That sentiment is expressed by them as follows:
"Poles cannot forgive him that when defeated by Russia and taken as POW, then set free by the other Russian tsar--that Kosciuszko gave his word of honor that he'll never again raise his arms against the Russian empire. Some prominent Poles--then and now--were of the opinion that promising the tsar to never fight again was wrong, and the greater benefit of Poland and the Polish nation would justify the breaking of his word of honor. No oppressor today has the right to demand any concession from the prisoner of war. And any promise given in this circumstance can be revoked later when the fate of the nation is at stake. But Kosciuszko was of a different opinion unfortunately, and Poland was under Russian domination for another 200 years."
Kosciuszko came to America not because he pursued fame and fortune but because of his personal commitment to freedom. He said: "The first step to throw off the yoke is to dare to believe ourselves free. And the first step to victory is confidence in our strength."
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