- 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
Again, the truth is rather less romantic. Washington was occupied in New York that summer, trying to hold back the advancing British. Kosciusko was in Philadelphia, where having presented himmself to the Board of War, he was put to work laying out the town’s defenses on the Delaware River. Commissioned by Congress on October 18, 1776, with the rank of colonel of engineersand pay sixtydollars a month, he spent the fall and winter at work on the river fortifications at Billingsport Island and at Red Bank, on the New Jersey side of the river. He was remembered by one who knew him during the early years of the war as a “rather young man—of unassuming manners—of grave temper.” Small of stature but muscular and agile, he is shown in his portraits to be romantically good-looking, almost Byronic, with dark eyes and a head of wavy brown hair.
In the spring Kosciusko was posted to the Northern Army, with orders to improve the defenses at Fort Ticonderoga, which guarded the main water route south from Canada, on the southern shores of Lake Champlain. “Lieut. Col. Kusiusco,” wrote his new commanding officer, General Horatio Gates, “is an able Engineer, and one of the best and neatest draftsmen I ever saw.” Unfortunately more was needed at Ticonderoga that year than engineering skill and a fine hand with a pen. Kosciusko’s plans for the defense of the garrison called for a battery of guns to be planted on the summit of nearby Sugar Loaf Hill, more commonly called Mount Defiance. Some eight hundred feet high, the hill overlooked not only Ticonderoga and the fortifications that had been erected on the opposite side of the lake atop Mount Independence, but also the boat bridge that connected the two forts. It was an important position, and although the hill was steep and pointed, Kosciusko believed a road could be cut and the top levelled to furnish a site for a battery. Gates agreed, but Gates was just then replaced as commander of the Northern Army by his rival, General Philip Schuyler of New York.
Schuyler was unwilling to make the experiment, since among the three armies that had occupied Ticonderoga—French, British, and American—no engineer had ever believed it practical to place a battery atop the hill. Instead Schuyler chose to concentrate his efforts on strengthening the already existing defenses at Ticonderoga and Mount Independence. Kosciusko, for his part, was unwilling to risk transgressing either friendship or discipline by forcing his opinions. A fellow officer complained that he was “timidly modest” about pressing his case. Kosciusko himself had a different explanation. “I declare sincerely that I am susceptible & love peace,” he wrote to Gates. “I would chuse rather to leave all, return home and plant Cabbages” than to be on anything less than “good terms with all the world.”
Probably the American force of twenty-five hundred men, which was already insufficient, would have been seriously overextended if a battery—and troops to defend it—had been planted atop Mount Defiance. But that the hill was crucial and could be fortified was proven by the British a month after Schuyler took command. Marching south from Canada with a well-disciplined and well-equipped army of seventy-seven hundred regulars and another twenty-five hundred Canadian, Hessian, and Indian auxiliaries, General John Burgoyne arrived at Ticonderoga on June 30, and five days later the Americans could see “Gentleman Johnnie’s” troops hauling cannon to the top of the mountain. Ticonderoga was suddenly rendered untenable, and that night the Americans abandoned the fort, leaving behind substantial supplies.
During the Americans’ difficult retreat, with the enemy pressing close behind and with both officers and men “badly armed … half-naked, sickly, and destitute of comforts,” as one officer later recalled, Kosciusko directed the work of obstructing the progress of the pursuing British. Trees were felled across trails and creeks, bridges destroyed, streams flooded, and trenches dug to make quagmires in what was already swampy country. As a result of Kosciusko’s efforts Burgoyne’s headlong pursuit was slowed to a crawl, and the American army had time to rest and regroup.
The fall of Ticonderoga posed a grievous threat to the American cause, leaving the way open for Burgoyne to advance on Albany and perhaps to effect a junction with British troops moving north up the Hudson from New York City. If this happened, the British would control the main north-south water route between loyalist Canada and New York. They could spread their troops and provisions along the entire line and thus sever communications between the New England trading states and the food-supplying middle and southern states. The northern armies would soon go hungry, and in that quarter at least the rebellion would come to a halt.
Fortunately for the Americans, Burgoyne’s supply lines from Montreal were now stretched almost to the limit, and there had still been no word that help was coming from New York. Fortunately, too, General Gates was once more in command of America’s Northern Army, Schuyler having been relieved as a result of the debacle at Ticonderoga. Gates immediately ordered his troops out of their defensive position south of Stillwater, where they had been huddling, as one witness reported, in a “miserable state of despondency and terror.” The army was put on the move north toward the enemy, and Kosciusko was sent ahead to select a site for battle.