- 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
With conflicts of rank and personality out of the way, work at West Point went forward rapidly under Kosciusko’s direction, with forts and redoubts rising on every hill and every eminence in the vicinity. Fort Arnold, later called Fort Clinton, was built on a forty-acre plateau out on the tip of the main point of land, where the river turned abruptly from east to south. Fort Constitution was erected on the opposite side of the river on Constitution Island, and a great sixty-ton chain, each link weighing 140 pounds, was stretched across the Hudson between the two points. On the hill above and to the west of Fort Arnold was Fort Putnam, the ramparts being constructed at first of tree trunks but later rebuilt with stone. At the summit of the hill were three strong redoubts, mounted with cannon, designed for mutual protection as well as for that of the forts lower down the slope. A similar system of forts and redoubts barred the land approaches from the south.
Work went on from five in the morning until sunset, with only a few hours’ break during the hottest part of the day. By the end of the summer the works were pronounced “almost impregnable” by Washington’s chief engineer, the French general Duportail. What minor criticism the Frenchman did have was brushed aside by the commander in chief after his own tour of inspection. As Kosciusko reported to his friend Horatio Gates early in October, “His Excellency was here with General Portail to see the works after all Conclusion was made that I am not the worst of Inginier.”
Kosciusko was at West Point for almost two and a half years, manning and strengthening what Washington considered the “key to America.” It was a difficult time in many respects. There was sometimes little food available and often only inadequate clothing. At times Kosciusko had to share his log hut and even his bed with fellow officers. What made matters worse, at least at the beginning of his stay, was that he had been separated from his friends and comrades of earlier campaigns. “I am the most enhappy man in the World,” he wrote to one such friend in September, 1778, “because all my Yankees, the best Friends is gone … and Left me with the Skoches and Irishes impolites as the Saviges. The satisfaction that I have at present only is this to go all day upon the Works and the Night to go to bed with the Cross Idea of lost of good Compani.”
Then, too, while the excitement of battle was going on elsewhere he found himself tied down with the tedious but necessary details of garrison life. The chain and boom that stretched across the Hudson had to be pulled up in winter and put out again in spring. The boom logs had to be tarred and the rotten ones replaced. Timber had to be cut for redoubts and parapets, new barracks built, new plans drawn, and additions made to the fortifications. And all this had to be accomplished under the most trying conditions, in steep and rocky country, with chronic shortages of men, of food and clothing, of fodder for the animals, of teams and equipment to keep the work going.
“I have only two Masons as yet come from the Main Army, and do not expect any more, the Officers being unwilling to part with them. …” Kosciusko wrote to Washington in midsummer of 1779. “I have Twenty Carpenters Sick by raison of drinking Water in this hot Weather (as they say) they suppose that one Half Gill [of rum] added to their daily allowance would remedy the Evil.
“Col. Stewart was so good as to let me have a Stone Cutter from his Regiment for One Week. I wish to have him for a Month, having much to do and know not where to find another.”
There were respites from such worries, as well as from the long, boring periods of inactivity that had to be endured by a garrison engineer posted far from the scene of battle. There were parties now and then: to celebrate the news of the French alliance, for instance, or to welcome friends who were passing through en route from one post to another; and occasionally there were ceremonies for visiting dignitaries like the French envoy or the commander in chief. Such events provided the garrison officers with the rare pleasure of enjoying female company; and although Kosciusko formed no lasting attachments, he delighted in the company of ladies “and alle Handsom Girlls,” as he wrote to a friend. He was gregarious and flirtatious and seems to have been “good Compani” himself, whether among the wives and daughters of visiting officers or among his comrades in arms. As one friend later recalled, “his manners were soft and conciliating and, at the same time, elevated. I used to take much pleasure in accompanying him with his theolodite, measuring the heights of the surrounding mountains.
When there were no parties to break the outpost’s dull routine, Kosciusko amused himself by sketching portraits of his friends or by working in the elaborate rock garden that he had laid out on the cliff below Fort Arnold. The garden was his favorite pastime, and he took great care in planning it, in constructing a fountain and waterfall, and in carrying baskets full of soil to the rocky site so that the flowers might have some earth in which to grow. Here, according to legend, he often secluded himself with his thoughts of Poland. Although nothing is now left of the stout fortifications he built at West Point, “Kosciuskoଁs Garden” can still be seen there, having been restored in 1802 and kept up by the cadets of the military academy.