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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 retreat saved the Southern Army, and in the months that followed, Greene and his generals drove the British out of one Carolina post after another. Greene described the situation well when he wrote: “We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.” Throughout most of the campaign Kosciusko was at the general’s side, reconnoitering and selecting and fortifying Greene’s campsites and battle positions. Late in the spring of 1781, during the siege of the British outpost known as Ninety-Six (so called because it was thought to be ninety-six miles from the nearest frontier post, Fort Prince George), Kosciusko worked closely with Greene in planning the assault—too closely, according to Greene’s critics. On the basis of his own observations, as well as those of his chief engineer, Greene concentrated his efforts against the strongest point in the British defenses, a star-shaped redoubt which commanded all other fortifications in the area. Kosciusko directed the building of ramparts and the digging of mines and trenches, some of them within seventy yards of the British line. Almost captured during a British sortie against the forward siege works, Kosciusko managed to escape with, according to a British officer, an inglorious wound in the “seat of honor.”
There was later a good deal of debate as to the wisdom of attacking the Star Redoubt, but at the time there seemed to be no reasonable alternative. And although the approach of a British relief column forced Greene to abandon the siege, he remained con- vinced that Kosciusko’s works “were judiciously design’d and would have infalliable gained success if time had admitted of their being Compleated.” In any case, the setback at Ninety-Six was only temporary. By the end of the summer the British had been driven from the Carolina backcountry and were confined to a few positions along the seacoast; and in October Cornwallis surrendered to Washington at Yorktown.
Peace was now in sight, but hostilities dragged on through 1782. Kosciusko, billeted at a plantation house near British-occupied Charleston, savored a few weeks of easy living, good food, and the company of the local belles, one of whom interrupted a letter he was writing to a friend, Colonel (later General) Otho Williams: “Mrs. Hayne stroked head juste now at the vue of Dinning with me tête àtête and made very Deep sigh.” He went on to describe how one afternoon he had been besieged by a bevy of rather indecorous ladies importuning him to sketch their portraits:
Soon they Came to Mistres Haynes they fluu immediately at me one with Shovel and the other with tongues, this with Iron hook, that with fork and Charged me with great fury and barbarity, at the wiew of such cruel apparatus Sc instruments of death I finted away. Some kind hand of my Sex broud me again to life but Soon renewed their Charge I beg them for explanation not one would listen to it, at last by accident Come to my mouth utered draw their pictures very handsome, immediately they trow their tools down, approached me with very smiling Countenaces, kissed me half dousen times each, and beged I would instantly draw them but hansome—Such unexpected Change put me almost to extasy, I drew my pencil, paper Coulours and in a half hour time made perfectly like them, but unlocky for me they drinck more rum in the Closete as usuel, and found it unanimosly to be very ogly, they renuwed the Charge and realy would kill me if I should not ron away with was very easy done as they could not follow me one step without fallen down so much rum affected their poor heads. …
Little wonder that Kosciusko ended his stay without having grown attached to any of the gentle ladies.
Throughout the campaign of 1782 Kosciusko fought more often as a soldier than as an engineer. Commanding an advance guard near Charleston, he seized every opportunity to harass the enemy, ambushing patrols, carrying off horses, and disrupting British supply units. As late as November 14, 1782, he led a party of fifty or sixty men against a troop of British woodcutters on James Island, near Charleston. British infantry appeared, however, and gave the Americans more of a fight than they had bargained for. Five Americans were killed, but although Kosciusko had his coat pierced by four balls, he and most of his men escaped unhurt from what proved to be the last skirmish of the Revolutionary War. A month later the British evacuated Charleston, their last southern outpost, and Kosciusko took part in the Americans’ triumphal entry into the city.