- 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
The garden and the parties, through, offred only brief diversions. During most of the twenty-eight months he spent at West Point, Kosciusko devoted his time and enrgy to strengthening the fortifications and doing what he could to alleviate the shortages of food, clothing, and comforts for his men. Writing to one of Washington’s aides during the bitter winter of 1779-80, he again complained of having insufficient manpower to do the job and had to plead as well for basic necessities for his workmen:
I beg you to inform [his Excellency] I have but Eighty fatigue men for all the works at West Point and I expect less and less every day: this will be the Cause, that the works will not be Completed and not to be imputed to my neglect. I wrote to Governor Clinton two days ago, that he would send some teams with the Fourage of the opulent and rich inhabitants, I have not yet received an answer. … I have three masons from the Virginia line, and [they] are best mason of few number that I have. I should beg to keep them, but as they are in Great want of shoes, I will thank you to procure an order for three pairs of shoes on the Commissary of the Clothing at Newburgh.
With such attention to detail and solitude for his men, Kosciuosko did his work and did it well. Visiting West Point in November, 1780, a few months after Kosciusko’s departure from the post, the French officer and writer de Chastellux was astounded by the engineering feats accomplished there. He marvelled at “these magazines completely filled, the numerous artillery one sees in these different fortresses, the prodigious labour necessary to transport, and pile up on steep rocks, huge trunks of trees, and enormous hewn stones.”
By the time of the Frenchman’s visit, in fact, the garrison had been made so formidable as to render an attack unthinkable. For a few months during the summer and fall of 1779 the British did entertain the idea of launching an assault and even moved troops into the area to await their chance. But the longer they waited, the less likely appeared their hope of breaching what was by then being called the American Gibraltar. Finally, at the end of autumn, without even attempting an assault, the British generals ordered their troops withdrawn, thus ending the threat to the Hudson Highlands and the upper reaches of the river. Although West Point very nearly fell into British hands in September, 1780, thanks to the treachery of its new commander, Benedict Arnold, no attempt was ever made to take it by force.
Early in August, 1780, a few days after Arnold’s arrival at West Point, Kosciusko left the Highlands outpost to join General Gates, who had been newly appointed to take command of the Southern Army in the hope that he could turn the tide against the British in the South as he had done in the North, at Saratoga. Washington was reluctant to let Kosciusko go, explaining to Gates that “I have experienced great satisfaction from his general conduct, and particularly from the attention and zeal with which he prosecuted the Works committed to his charge at West Point.” In the end the commander in chief did give his permission, but before Kosciusko had time to reach the Southern Army, Gates was dealt a crushing defeat at Camden, South Carolina, and was relieved of command.
The news must have weighed heavily on Kosciusko’s mind as he travelled south. Certainly the southern campaigns were taking a miserable toll of lives and reputations. Not only were Georgia and South Carolina now in British hands, but the fall of Savannah the year before had claimed the life of Kosciusko’s heroic young compatriot Casimir Pulaski, who had been such a gallant leader in the war of resistance against the First Partition of Poland. Now Kosciusko’s dear friend General Gates had been disgraced as well. Nevertheless he continued on his southward journey and assumed the duties of chief engineer under Gates’s successor, General Nathanael Greene.
In the busy winter months that followed, Kosciusko explored by canoe the Catawba and Pedee rivers in the rugged western wilderness of North Carolina, reporting to Greene on the feasibility of using these rivers not only as transport routes for men and supplies but also as possible highways of retreat to the North if such a move became necessary. Then, while Greene set about rebuilding and resupplying the demoralized Southern Army—in a camp chosen by Kosciusko—the chief engineer was put in charge of building a fleet of flat-bottomed boats that could be moved by wagon from one river to another. All this gave Greene the mobility he needed when, in January and February, 1781, Britain’s General Cornwallis threatened to destroy the entire Southern Army. In one of the greatest episodes of the Revolution, Greene, with Cornwallis pressing hard on his heels, led a barefoot, ragged, and hungry army on a mad dash of two hundred miles across North Carolina and into Virginia. There Kosciusko’s boats got the troops across the Dan River just ahead of the enemy, who had neither boats nor supplies with which to continue the pursuit.