- 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
He settled on a place called Bemis Heights, about midway between Stillwater and Saratoga. Directing a thousand working soldiers, he laid out redoubts and entrenchments upon a series of steep slopes and terraces. Woods and ravines cut up the country below the American encampment. As Gates himself noted after the American victory: “the great tacticians of the campaign, were hills and forests, which a young Polish Engineer was skilful enough to select for my encampment.” Burgoyne assaulted the American position on September 19, 1777, and again on October 7. Unable to breach the American defenses, lacking reinforcements, and surrounded by an army that had grown to three times the size of his own, Burgoyne called for an end to hostilities and surrendered his entire force to Gates on October 17.
The first great American victory of the war, Saratoga won for America the support of the French, and for a time it even seemed as though Gates might replace Washington as commander in chief. By rights Kosciusko ought to have shared in the honors as well as the triumphs of this much-needed victory. His superior officers were well aware of his contribution, and even Washington recommended him for promotion, despite Kosciusko’s close personal attachment to the man who was then Washington’s chief rival. Writing to the president of Congress concerning the promotion of some French officers, the commander in chief added: “I have been well informed, that the Engineer in the Northern Army (Cosieski, I think his name is) is a Gentleman of science and merit. From the character I have had of him he is deserving of notice too.”
But for reasons as much of politics as of modesty Kosciusko felt compelled to renounce any claim to promotion. He was too sensitive to his position as a foreigner and too much aware of the resentment that was being caused among American officers by the wholesale promotions of French adventurers for purely political reasons. To a friend in Gates’s camp he wrote: “My dear Colonel if you see that my promotion will make a great many Jealous, tell the General that I will not accept of one because I prefer peace more than the greatest Rank in the World.”
Kosciusko’s attitude must have puzzled his superiors. Certainly it was contrary to the spirit of the times, when so many other young officers were clamoring for distinction. But personal gain was never Kosciusko’s prime objective, and it was perfectly in keeping with his character that he should decline advancement under the circumstances. In the process, however, he cut himself off from any chance of promotion for the rest of the war, and though he might have resorted to badgering Congress and flattering his superiors, he was unwilling to do either. When Gates again wanted to put forward his name in 1780, the answer was still the same. “For my part,” Kosciusko wrote in his faltering English, “nether Confidence I have enough to thing I deserve it nor resolution to ask, [although I] am extremely obliged to you for your kind offers.” Only when the war was over would he seek his rightful due, and then his efforts were too little and too late.
Early in March, 1778, Kosciusko was sent to West Point, where, on the heights above the Hudson River, the American command was planning to build fortifications to guard the upper reaches of the river against penetration by the British fleet. The ease with which the British had captured the nearby forts at Bear Mountain the preceding autumn had proved the inadequacy of the existing river defenses. Indeed, had they then pressed their advantage, the enemy could easily have reached Albany and so might have tipped the balance at Saratoga. The lesson learned, the Americans planned to build much stronger defenses at West Point; and a more formidable position could hardly be imagined. Located on a high cliff above a double right-angle bend in the river and approached only with difficulty on the land side, the site was well out of reach of any guns that might be aimed at it by ships on the river below. At the same time the British square-riggers would have to negotiate the narrow bends right under the American batteries.
West Point was a barely inhabited wilderness when Kosciusko got there. A French engineer, Lieutenant Colonel Louis de la Radière, had made a start at planning the defenses. But little had been done, and shortly after Kosciusko’s arrival de la Radière was transferred elsewhere at the request of the senior officers at West Point. “Mr. Kosciousko is esteemed by those who have attended the works at West Point, to have more practice than Col. Delaradiere,” wrote General Alexander McDougall to Washington, “and his manner of treating the people more acceptable, than that of the latter.”