Tadeusz Kosciuszko fought for independence in America and Poland.
When Congress established the Continental Army on June 14, 1775, few observers could have guessed it would ultimately evolve into one of history’s most powerful armies. Most of the fledgling force’s new officers were gentlemen farmers, and most of its soldiers had no formal military training. A handful of the most senior officers, including Commander in Chief George Washington, had limited experience, mostly as British colonial officers during the French and Indian War.
Facing one of the world’s best armies, the new American force desperately needed military expertise—technical, tactical and organizational. The Americans almost certainly would not have prevailed during the Revolutionary War had they not acquired such expertise beyond their own borders. Congress sent Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane to Paris to lobby European governments for support and to screen and recruit foreign military volunteers for the American cause. Many of the officers they recruited went on to become honored names in early American history.
While Germany’s Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben and France’s Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, are widely ranked among the most important of the foreign volunteer officers, equally significant was a young officer named Tadeusz Kosciuszko—the sort of crusading romantic idealist for which Poland is famous. Trained in some of Europe’s best military schools, he was self-effacing and painfully modest and ultimately had glory thrust upon him—both in his native land and in the adopted country he served so well.
Tadeusz Kosciuszko was born in 1746, the youngest child in a modest but distinguished family of the minor nobility. His father was a colonel in the Polish army, and in 1765, under the sponsorship of Prince Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski, Kosciuszko entered the newly established Corps of Cadets in Warsaw. He rose to first king’s cadet the following year and in 1769 earned one of four royal scholarships to pursue advanced military education in France. He studied at the École militaire in Paris and at the French artillery and engineering school at Mézières. But by the time Kosciuszko returned home in 1774, Poland and its economy were in shambles. Russia, Prussia and Austria had partitioned the country two years before, and there were no open officer slots in the small army to which Poland had been restricted. In frustration Kosciuszko returned to France.
The historical record is unclear on exactly how and why Kosciuszko arrived in Philadelphia in August 1776. He was not one of the foreign officers recruited in Paris by Franklin and Deane. Some historians speculate Kosciuszko must have had a letter of introduction from his mentor Prince Czartoryski to Maj. Gen. Charles Lee, then the second-ranking major general in the Continental Army. Lee had served as a general in the Polish army from 1765 to 1770, and he knew Czartoryski well.
Although Kosciuszko was the first major foreign volunteer to the American cause, no one quite knew what to do with him at first. He petitioned Congress for a commission and in the meantime patiently volunteered as a civilian engineer, building forts along the Delaware River. That work so impressed Congress that in October it commissioned Kosciuszko a colonel of engineers. The following March he was made chief engineer of the Northern Department under Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates. Arriving at Fort Ticonderoga in upper New York, Kosciuszko immediately set to strengthening the position’s defenses against an anticipated British attack from Canada.
Kosciuszko developed an innovative plan to fortify the surrounding high points and tie them together with interlocking fields of fire. The key to the plan was a battery of guns on nearby Sugar Loaf Hill. But before Kosciuszko could start, Washington turned over control of the department to Maj. Gen. Philip Schuyler, who cancelled the plan. The British, however, also understood terrain, and as soon as the forces under Lt. Gen. John Burgoyne closed on Ticonderoga, they put cannon atop Sugar Loaf with a line of fire straight down into the fort. Recognizing the threat, the Americans abandoned Ticonderoga on July 5, 1777, and retreated south, with “Gentleman Johnny” in close pursuit.
As Burgoyne advanced south, another British force under Lt. Gen. Sir Henry Clinton moved north from New York City in an attempt to trap the Americans in the middle. During the American retreat Kosciuszko directed rearguard delaying actions, slowing Burgoyne’s advance to just a mile per day. Gates, meanwhile, resumed command of the Northern Department. He rallied the American force and returned north to engage Burgoyne, who was fast running out of supplies. Gates sent Kosciuszko with an advance force of 1,000 combat engineers to select and prepare a site from which to spring the trap on Burgoyne. Kosciuszko chose a position near Saratoga, and under his direction sappers prepared entrenchments, redoubts, fields of fire and avenues of approach, concentrating American firepower on Bemis Heights. Gates soon occupied the positions, and Burgoyne tried to assault them on September 19 and again on October 7. Both attempts failed, and the British were forced to surrender on October 17.
The Battle of Saratoga was the turning point of the American Revolution. For the first time the rest of the world took the American insurrection seriously, and France soon entered the war on the American side. Although Gates was hailed as the victorious commander, he had the integrity to later admit, “Let us be honest…the great tacticians of the campaign were hills and forests, which a young Polish engineer was skillful enough to select for my encampment.”
Such praise embarrassed Kosciuszko, who was very sensitive to the widespread resentment among American officers over the high ranks bestowed on foreign volunteers for political reasons. (French Captain Lafayette, for example, was made a Continental major general five weeks shy of his 20th birthday.) Although far more professionally qualified than most of the American and European officers wearing Continental Army generals’ stars, Kosciuszko never maneuvered or politicked for a promotion. As a result, he served longer in the rank of colonel than any other officer in the Army.
So well regarded was Kosciuszko by the Army’s senior leaders that in March 1778 he was assigned to design and build the Hudson River fortifications at West Point, the key blocking position from which to prevent the British armies in New York City and Canada from linking up. Kosciuszko’s appointment, however, irritated Brig. Gen. Louis Duportail, the Continental Army’s French chief of engineers. Duportail filed charges with Congress against Kosciuszko for failing to obey the orders of a lower-ranking French engineer whom Duportail had sent to West Point to oversee Kosciuszko. Supported by Washington, however, Congress backed Kosciuszko. He continued to develop his innovative defensive works—which included a network of redoubts with interlocking fields of fire and a 60-ton chain stretched across the Hudson River and covered by shore batteries to close off the river approach to the British.
When Clinton launched his long-anticipated offensive up the Hudson from New York City, he quickly took Stony Point in July 1779. He then moved against West Point, even as Kosciuszko was finalizing its defenses. But when Clinton reached the massive and imposing defenses, he hesitated. That operational pause gave Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne the opening to retake Stony Point in Clinton’s rear. The entire British offensive campaign collapsed.
After spending two years building and fortifying West Point, Kosciuszko in July 1780 wrote to Washington, requesting an infantry command. About the same time Gates assumed command of the Southern Department, and he requested the assignment of his old comrade as chief engineer. As Kosciuszko dutifully proceeded to his new assignment, however, Gates suffered a crushing defeat at Camden, S.C., on August 16. About six weeks later Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold attempted to surrender West Point to the British, along with a trunkful of Kosciuszko’s maps and plans of the fortress.
Replacing Gates in the Southern Department was Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, who not only retained Kosciuszko as chief engineer but also made far greater use of his military skills. Kosciuszko commanded the reconnaissance of the Catawba River during the winter of 1780–81, and during Greene’s February 1781 Race to the Dan River in advance of British Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis, Kosciuszko was chief transportation officer. Using a fleet of special Kosciuszko-designed wagons with removable wheels and axles for rapid conversion into flatbottomed boats, Greene’s troops used the Southern rivers and waterways as mobility corridors, while the British bogged down in those same waterways. Throughout the Southern campaign Greene was able to stay one step ahead of the British. After several months of cat-and-mouse pursuit, Cornwallis withdrew his exhausted force to Virginia and moved into positions at Yorktown—and a rendezvous with history.
Kosciuszko served in the South through war’s end. In May and June 1781 he directed the Siege of Ninety-Six in northwestern South Carolina, the last British position in the region. Kosciuszko was slightly wounded during the operation, and a British relief force lifted the siege before his sappers could complete the mine they were digging. On Nov. 14, 1782, Kosciuszko commanded a small cavalry patrol in what is believed to be the last skirmish of the war, when his 60 troopers attacked a British foraging party of about 300 on James Island, S.C.
When the hostilities ended, Kosciuszko accompanied Greene back north and was finally promoted to brigadier general on Sept. 30, 1783, when Congress conferred a general brevet, advancing by one rank all officers below the rank of major general. Washington then pressured Congress to pass a special resolution on October 13, specifically confirming Kosciuszko’s promotion and recognizing the “high sense of his long, faithful and meritorious service.” Later that year Kosciuszko participated in the founding of the Society of the Cincinnati, and on Dec. 4, 1783, he was present at Fraunces Tavern in New York City when Washington bade farewell to his officers; Lafayette and von Steuben were the only other foreign officers present. When Kosciuszko left New York to return to Poland on July 15, 1784, he carried an IOU in his pocket from Congress in the amount of $12,286.49—the total back pay for his seven years of service.
Although Kosciuszko spent his first few years back in Poland as just another impoverished nobleman in rural semiretirement, history was far from finished with him. Poland was caught up in the great social and political changes sweeping Europe at the time. The Great Sejm (assembly) of 1788–92 enacted a series of broad reforms and expanded the Polish army. The young and inexperienced Polish commander, Prince Józef Poniatowski— who would later become one of Napoléon Bonaparte’s marshals—offered Kosciuszko a major general’s commission and the position of second-in-command.
On May 3, 1791, Poland adopted eastern Europe’s first liberal constitution, sweeping away the long-entrenched powers and privileges of the nobility. Catherine the Great responded by declaring war, and the Russian army invaded Poland. Despite being vastly outnumbered, the Poles fought back. Kosciuszko’s skillful defense at the Battle of Dubienka on June 18, 1792, allowed the Polish army to withdraw intact to fight another day. King Stanislaw August Poniatowski promoted Kosciuszko to lieutenant general and awarded him Poland’s highest military decoration, the Virtuti Militari. But the king himself soon capitulated. Kosciuszko left for exile that December, and the Second Partition of 1793 further dismembered Poland.
After trying in vain to rally support for Poland from France’s revolutionary government, Kosciuszko returned from exile in 1794. In Krakow on March 24 he proclaimed a general uprising against Russia and took command of all Polish forces. He also assumed the powers of the government with the title of Naczelnik (“leader”). Kosciuszko personally wrote the act of insurrection, a close copy of the American Declaration of Independence.
Russia again invaded—and as they did in 1792 and would do again in 1939, the Poles fought back. On April 4 Kosciuszko won a stunning victory at Raclawice, personally leading a force composed largely of peasant soldiers armed with scythes and pikes. On May 7 he issued the Polaniec Manifesto, freeing Poland’s serfs. Then, in an eerie foreshadowing of 1939, Prussia attacked Poland from the west. Between July and September, Kosciuszko successfully beat back a Prussian siege of Warsaw. But the law of numbers is a powerful force in warfare, and on October 10 the Russians crushed the badly outnumbered Polish main army at Maciejowice and captured the severely wounded Kosciuszko. The following year Poland’s enemies partitioned it for the third time, wiping it from the map of Europe for the next 123 years.
Russia freed Kosciuszko from prison after two years but banned him from Poland for life. He first returned to the United States, via Sweden and Britain. To his surprise the British received him like a hero; King George III even sent his personal physician to treat Kosciuszko’s still unhealed wounds. Reaching Philadelphia in August 1797, Kosciuszko met with an overwhelming reception from his adopted country. Congress finally awarded him his back pay from the Revolution, plus a land grant of 500 acres in Ohio. When Kosciuszko left America for the last time in May 1798, he asked his close friend Thomas Jefferson to liquidate his American assets and use the money to purchase the freedom of slaves and provide for their education.
Kosciuszko’s final years of exile in Europe were frustrating. Napoléon Bonaparte offered him a general’s commission but tried to manipulate him into endorsing France’s Polish Legions. Invited to the 1814–15 Congress of Vienna after Napoléon’s defeat, Kosciuszko hoped to see the restoration of Poland, but it was not to be during his lifetime. He died in Solothurn, Switzerland, on Oct. 15, 1817. His body was eventually returned to Krakow and interred with the Polish kings and national heroes in St. Leonard’s Crypt beneath Wawel Cathedral. In the 1820s the people of Krakow constructed the Kopiec Kosciuszki, a 112- foot-high earthen mound beneath which are buried urns containing soil from all of Kosciuszko’s American and Polish battlefields. It remains one of Krakow’s most popular attractions.
Perhaps the best assessment of Kosciuszko came from Thomas Jefferson, who said, “He is 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 or rich alone.”
For further reading David Zabecki recommends The Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Kos´ciuszko and the Age of Revolution, by Alex Storozynski, and Thaddeus Kosciuszko: The Purest Son of Liberty, by James S. Pula.
Originally published in the November 2011 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.