- Historic Sites
The brilliant Polish engineer who made possible the victory at Saratoga was a fighter for freedom in both America and his homeland
June 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 4
A large crowd was on the wharf as the Adriana arrived in Philadelphia from England on the evening of August 18, 1797. Aboard was a distinguished passenger whose name few Americans could pronounce but whose noble reputation was well known. He was Thaddeus Kosciusko (pronounced kôsh-chōōsh’kō), the illustrious veteran of the American and the Polish revolutions. Only recently released from two years in Russian prisons and suffering still from the wounds he had received while leading the ill-fated struggle for Poland’s freedom, Kosciusko was returning to the United States for the first time since the end of the American War of Independence. Word had gone ahead, and now, as the Adriana slipped into the harbor, a welcoming party went aboard to greet the general, who replied in French, saying: “I look upon America as my second country.” As he debarked, the cannon from the nearby fort boomed a salute. There was a great deal of cheering. And then, with cries of “Long live Kosciusko!” the citizens themselves took up the traces of his carriage and drew him in triumph to his lodgings.
Few could have doubted the general’s right to a hero’s reception. The valor of his struggle for Polish independence all but overshadowed the bitter fact of defeat. His brilliant service as an engineer during the American Revolution had largely made possible the stunning American victory at Saratoga in October, 1777—the victory that turned the tide of war in the colonists’ favor. His planning and building of the defenses at West Point had rendered impregnable that most crucial of American strategic positions. And it was his mastery of logistics and terrain that on more than one occasion prevented the British from capturing a retreating American army.
Yet the painful irony of his situation cannot have escaped either the gallant general or the crowd of well-wishers that had gathered on the wharf that evening; for having helped to win freedom for his “second country,” he had failed to obtain liberty for his native land. The melancholy fact was that Kosciusko was returning to America because Poland had ceased to exist as an independent state, and neither he nor any other Poles could now live as free men in their own country.
To the general the circumstances of his arrival in America that evening in 1797 must have seemed strangely familiar. It was in Philadelphia that he had apparently first set foot on American soil more than twenty years before. Then, as now, he had left behind him an unhappy country, Russia, Austria, and Prussia having robbed Poland of a third of her territory and fully half of her population under the terms of the First Partition of 1772. Then, as now, Kosciusko could see no prospect of serving his country—the goal toward which his training and talents and hopes had always been directed.
Born in 1746, the son of an impoverished small landowner, Kosciusko had grown up among the peasants of the provincial districts of Polish Lithuania. Tutored at home and later at a nearby college of the Piarist fathers, at Lubieszow, near Pinsk, he recalled later that when he was a boy, his favorite hero of antiquity had been the Greek patriot Timoleon, because “he was able to restore his nation’s freedom, taking nothing for himself.” Kosciusko was admitted to the royal military academy in Warsaw and eventually received a royal stipend to continue his studies abroad, leaving Poland for France in 1769 or 1770. Having learned the military arts in the school of engineering and artillery at Mézières and having pursued his interest in the fine arts and architecture at the Académie Royale in Paris, he had returned home in 1774, a well-trained and eager young man of twenty-eight.
But Kosciusko’s opportunity to serve his country had not yet come. The king’s treasury was empty, the army reduced by the partition, and a commission to be had only by purchase. To make matters worse, he had the misfortune to fall in love with a girl whose father had higher aspirations for her than marriage to a poor military engineer. There was an elopement, so the story goes, the lovers escaping in the night only to be overtaken by the irate father and his armed men; in the combat that followed, Kosciusko was gravely wounded and left for dead, and when he awoke all he found of his beloved was her handkerchief, stained with his blood. The truth of the story was certainly less romantic, and there probably was no abduction; but in any case the affair was broken off by the girl’s father. With no prospects either for his own happiness or for that of his country, the young officer left Poland in the autumn of 1775, heading, in all likelihood, for Paris, where he had friends and interests.
Whether America was Kosciusko’s goal from the start is not known. Perhaps he had already heard the news of the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill before leaving Poland. Certainly Paris that autumn was alive with talk about the American rebellion against British authority; and by March, 1776, Lord Stormont, the British ambassador to Versailles, was sending his superiors unsettling news: “I am sorry to say, My Lord, I have good Reason to believe that several foreign officers are gone to join the Rebel army.” Kosciusko was evidently among those officers.
One of the many legends that grew up around Kosciusko has it that when he arrived in America in the summer of 1776, he made straight for Washington’s camp to offer his services to the commander in chief. “What can you do?” asked Washington. “Try me,” said Kosciusko. His dash supposedly won him a place on Washington’s staff.