- 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
In 1792 Kosciusko helped to lead the army in its gallant resistance to the Russian invaders, and the part he played in the struggle put him in the forefront of his nation’s leaders. So it was to him that Polish patriots turned for leadership after the Second Partition of 1793, when Poland was robbed of half of her remaining territory and her government was made a hostage to Russian authority. Invested with the powers of a dictator for the duration of the emergency, Kosciusko took the oath in the great square at Cracow in March, 1794, swearing to fight to the end for the liberty, integrity, and independence of Poland. For the first time all classes were enlisted in the struggle —not just soldiers and gentry, but the peasants as well, who armed themselves with scythes and pikes.
With Kosciusko at their head the Poles won a series of stunning victories. Warsaw, Vilna, and other towns rose against the occupying Russian army. But Prussia’s entrance into the war sealed the nation’s fate. On October 10, near the village of Maciejowice, Kosciusko’s army was destroyed, and he himself was severely wounded with a saber slash across the forehead, three bayonet wounds in the back, and part of his thigh shot away by a cannonball. Unconscious for two days, he survived to spend the next two years in Russian prisons. During that time Poland was swallowed up altogether by the Third Partition.
The loss of his country was as painful to Kosciusko as his wounds, which were poorly treated by Russian surgeons. An English doctor who was finally allowed to see him wrote: “The physical and mental forces of that upright man are nearly exhausted, as the result of long sufferings. I am losing hope of curing him. He has suffered so much in body and soul that his organism is entirely destroyed.”
Kosciusko remained imprisoned until the death of Catherine the Great in 1796. His release was one of the first acts of the new czar, Paul I, who also promised to release the twelve thousand Polish prisoners being held in Russia and Siberia if Kosciusko and the other leading prisoners would swear their allegiance to the czar. Kosciusko accepted these intolerable conditions but refused to accept the gifts of money offered to him by the czar. Toward the end of December, 1796, he finally left Russia.
Kosciusko spent the years that remained to him as an honored but unhappy exile. He never again saw his own country. Intending to return to America, he passed through Stockholm and stopped briefly in England at the end of May, 1797, where he was lionized by London society and where his portrait was painted by Benjamin West [see the front cover of AMERICAN HERITAGE, August, 1968]. The portrait shows him reclining languidly on a sofa, his crutch and his sword close at hand, and with a black silk handkerchief tied around his brow to cover the scar of the saber cut. But the pose was not chosen for romantic effect. His wounds still pained him, and he was unable to sit upright.
Given a hero’s welcome in Philadelphia, he renewed his acquaintance with old friends like Gates and found some new ones, including the Vice President, Thomas Jefferson, whom he had first met in 1780 while on his way to join the Southern Army. “I see him often,” Jefferson wrote to Gates in February, 1798, “and with great pleasure mixed with commiseration.” Kosciusko still could not move without the help of his crutches or of a servant, and a friend with whom he stayed recalled later that he “spent nearly all his time reclining on a sofa, sketching with a pencil and painting in water colors and India ink.” Yet that winter he did have the satisfaction of finally settling his accounts with Congress, which paid him more than fifteen thousand dollars, including the principal of his claim plus interest.
Kosciusko was now fifty-two years old, and he might well have remained in America for the rest of his days. He had a little money and many friends, and he was making plans to buy a farm at Saratoga Springs, near the site of his first great victory for America. But in the spring of 1798, after receiving a mysterious packet of letters from Europe, he suddenly and secretly sailed for France, Jefferson having provided him with false passports in the name of Thomas Kanberg. Before leaving the country, however, Kosciusko drew up a will naming Jefferson as his executor and directing that his American assets be used to free and educate Negro slaves, whose wretched condition had first aroused his compassion twenty years before, during the southern campaign. Though the will later encountered legal difficulties and was never carried out, Kosciusko’s original intention was clear. As Jefferson wrote of him: “He is as pure a son of Liberty as I have ever known, and of that liberty which is to go to all, and not to the few or the rich alone.”