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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
Kosciusko’s service to the American cause ended, to all intents and purposes, at Charleston, his two and a half years in the South having won him new laurels and a good many new friends. To the high regard he had already earned from Gates and Washington was now added the warm friendship and commendation of General Greene. Kosciusko was “among the most useful and agreeable of my companions in arms,” Greene wrote to a fellow officer in the spring of 1783, shortly after Kosciusko’s departure for the North. “Nothing could exceed his zeal for the public service, nor … in our small but active warfare, could anything be more useful than his attention, vigilance, and industry. … [He was one] in a word whom no pleasure could seduce, no labor fatigue and no danger deter. What besides greatly distinguished him was an unparalleled modesty and entire unconsciousness of having done anything extraordinary.” By contrast the recognition Kosciusko received from Congress when he returned north was grudging and belated. He had served throughout the war without promotion and had even declined to draw on the meager salary to which he was entitled—living, it seems, on money he had borrowed from relatives before leaving for America. But now that the time of reckoning had come, Kosciusko found himself ill suited for dealing with politicians in his own behalf. “Repeated application may obtain what no influence can effect,” Greene warned him. “I know your modesty and feel your difficulty on this head, but unless you persist I am apprehensive nothing will be done in the matter.”
In the end Congress, fearful of setting a precedent while the entire army was clamoring to be paid, gave Kosciusko nothing more than the promise of payment at some future date and the grant of five hundred acres of public land to which he was entitled as an officer. (Kosciusko’s grant, located near what is now Columbus, Ohio, had little immediate value to him, being then part of a distant wilderness.) However, the superintendent of finance managed to find enough ready cash in . the Continental Treasury to alleviate Kosciusko’s financial difficulties, at least for the moment.
As to his promotion, Kosciusko was brevetted a brigadier general, albeit as part of the general advancement in rank awarded to all officers who had otherwise received no promotion. Thanks to Washington’s intervention, however, Congress did approve a special resolution acknowledging its “high sense of his long, faithful, and meritorious service.” Kosciusko also had the satisfaction of being welcomed by his fellow officers as a founding member of the Society of the Cincinnati [see “A ‘New and Strange Order of Men,’ ” AMERICAN HERITAGE, August, 1968] and of being present in the long room of Fraunces Tavern in New York when, on December 4, 1783, Washington bade farewell to the principal officers of the army.
With his affairs in America as settled as they could be, Kosciusko intended now to return to Poland; though he had spent seven years in the service of his adopted country, he still harbored the hope of somehow being of use to his native land. Seen off at the wharf in New York by a crowd of his brothers in arms, he took ship for Europe in July, 1784. But he was not without feelings of regret when he took his leave. During the years spent in America he had come to think of himself as “more than half a Yankee.” He had made “many acquaintence,” he wrote to Otho Williams; “amongst the number, some are very valuable friends” with whom he was sorry to part. Then, too, the future he faced in Poland was uncertain—or worse, as he learned upon his arrival in France later in the year. “I am going to Poland with some reluctance,” he wrote to Williams from Paris, “as am informed by one of my countrymen that the affairs of the republick as well as mine are in a very horrid situation.”
Yet Kosciusko could comfort himself that he had served the American cause well. As he had written to Williams early in 1783, while still in Charleston: “O! how happy we think our Self when Conscious of our deeds, that were started from principle of rectitude, from conviction of the goodness of the thing itself, from motive of the good that will Come to Human Kind.” More, he had learned a good deal that would be useful to him when he led his own country’s fight for independence: learned tactics and strategy; learned how a vision of freedom and social justice might be made reality by an army of starving, undisciplined, and unpaid men fighting a seemingly hopeless battle against a powerful enemy and a regular army.
Kosciusko’s return to Poland was unheralded outside of his own circle of friends and relations. Still scarcely known to the rest of the country, he was able to enjoy a few well-earned years of peace, living the quiet life of a small country farmer. But the time of tranquillity was brief. Commissioned a major general in the Polish army in 1789, he became increasingly involved in his country’s struggle to save itself. As he wrote to a friend, chiding him for his inaction: “It is a sure fact that every citizen, even the most unimportant and least instructed, can contribute to the universal good, but he to whom the Almighty has given understanding of affairs greater than that of others sins when he ceases to be active. … We must all unite in one aim: to release our land from the domination of foreigners, from the abasement and destruction of the very name of Pole. … and if we are base, covetous, interested, careless of our country, it is just that we shall have chains on our necks, and we shall be worthy of them.”