The brilliant Polish engineer who made possible the victory at Saratoga was a fighter for freedom in both America and his homeland
A large crowd was on the wharf as the Adriana arrived in Philadelphia from England on the evening of August 18, 1797. Aboard was a distinguished passenger whose name few Americans could pronounce but whose noble reputation was well known. He was Thaddeus Kosciusko (pronounced kôsh-chōōsh’kō), the illustrious veteran of the American and the Polish revolutions. Only recently released from two years in Russian prisons and suffering still from the wounds he had received while leading the ill-fated struggle for Poland’s freedom, Kosciusko was returning to the United States for the first time since the end of the American War of Independence. Word had gone ahead, and now, as the Adriana slipped into the harbor, a welcoming party went aboard to greet the general, who replied in French, saying: “I look upon America as my second country.” As he debarked, the cannon from the nearby fort boomed a salute. There was a great deal of cheering. And then, with cries of “Long live Kosciusko!” the citizens themselves took up the traces of his carriage and drew him in triumph to his lodgings.
Few could have doubted the general’s right to a hero’s reception. The valor of his struggle for Polish independence all but overshadowed the bitter fact of defeat. His brilliant service as an engineer during the American Revolution had largely made possible the stunning American victory at Saratoga in October, 1777—the victory that turned the tide of war in the colonists’ favor. His planning and building of the defenses at West Point had rendered impregnable that most crucial of American strategic positions. And it was his mastery of logistics and terrain that on more than one occasion prevented the British from capturing a retreating American army.
Yet the painful irony of his situation cannot have escaped either the gallant general or the crowd of well-wishers that had gathered on the wharf that evening; for having helped to win freedom for his “second country,” he had failed to obtain liberty for his native land. The melancholy fact was that Kosciusko was returning to America because Poland had ceased to exist as an independent state, and neither he nor any other Poles could now live as free men in their own country.
To the general the circumstances of his arrival in America that evening in 1797 must have seemed strangely familiar. It was in Philadelphia that he had apparently first set foot on American soil more than twenty years before. Then, as now, he had left behind him an unhappy country, Russia, Austria, and Prussia having robbed Poland of a third of her territory and fully half of her population under the terms of the First Partition of 1772. Then, as now, Kosciusko could see no prospect of serving his country—the goal toward which his training and talents and hopes had always been directed.
Born in 1746, the son of an impoverished small landowner, Kosciusko had grown up among the peasants of the provincial districts of Polish Lithuania. Tutored at home and later at a nearby college of the Piarist fathers, at Lubieszow, near Pinsk, he recalled later that when he was a boy, his favorite hero of antiquity had been the Greek patriot Timoleon, because “he was able to restore his nation’s freedom, taking nothing for himself.” Kosciusko was admitted to the royal military academy in Warsaw and eventually received a royal stipend to continue his studies abroad, leaving Poland for France in 1769 or 1770. Having learned the military arts in the school of engineering and artillery at Mézières and having pursued his interest in the fine arts and architecture at the Académie Royale in Paris, he had returned home in 1774, a well-trained and eager young man of twenty-eight.
But Kosciusko’s opportunity to serve his country had not yet come. The king’s treasury was empty, the army reduced by the partition, and a commission to be had only by purchase. To make matters worse, he had the misfortune to fall in love with a girl whose father had higher aspirations for her than marriage to a poor military engineer. There was an elopement, so the story goes, the lovers escaping in the night only to be overtaken by the irate father and his armed men; in the combat that followed, Kosciusko was gravely wounded and left for dead, and when he awoke all he found of his beloved was her handkerchief, stained with his blood. The truth of the story was certainly less romantic, and there probably was no abduction; but in any case the affair was broken off by the girl’s father. With no prospects either for his own happiness or for that of his country, the young officer left Poland in the autumn of 1775, heading, in all likelihood, for Paris, where he had friends and interests.
Whether America was Kosciusko’s goal from the start is not known. Perhaps he had already heard the news of the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill before leaving Poland. Certainly Paris that autumn was alive with talk about the American rebellion against British authority; and by March, 1776, Lord Stormont, the British ambassador to Versailles, was sending his superiors unsettling news: “I am sorry to say, My Lord, I have good Reason to believe that several foreign officers are gone to join the Rebel army.” Kosciusko was evidently among those officers.
One of the many legends that grew up around Kosciusko has it that when he arrived in America in the summer of 1776, he made straight for Washington’s camp to offer his services to the commander in chief. “What can you do?” asked Washington. “Try me,” said Kosciusko. His dash supposedly won him a place on Washington’s staff.
Again, the truth is rather less romantic. Washington was occupied in New York that summer, trying to hold back the advancing British. Kosciusko was in Philadelphia, where having presented himmself to the Board of War, he was put to work laying out the town’s defenses on the Delaware River. Commissioned by Congress on October 18, 1776, with the rank of colonel of engineersand pay sixtydollars a month, he spent the fall and winter at work on the river fortifications at Billingsport Island and at Red Bank, on the New Jersey side of the river. He was remembered by one who knew him during the early years of the war as a “rather young man—of unassuming manners—of grave temper.” Small of stature but muscular and agile, he is shown in his portraits to be romantically good-looking, almost Byronic, with dark eyes and a head of wavy brown hair.
In the spring Kosciusko was posted to the Northern Army, with orders to improve the defenses at Fort Ticonderoga, which guarded the main water route south from Canada, on the southern shores of Lake Champlain. “Lieut. Col. Kusiusco,” wrote his new commanding officer, General Horatio Gates, “is an able Engineer, and one of the best and neatest draftsmen I ever saw.” Unfortunately more was needed at Ticonderoga that year than engineering skill and a fine hand with a pen. Kosciusko’s plans for the defense of the garrison called for a battery of guns to be planted on the summit of nearby Sugar Loaf Hill, more commonly called Mount Defiance. Some eight hundred feet high, the hill overlooked not only Ticonderoga and the fortifications that had been erected on the opposite side of the lake atop Mount Independence, but also the boat bridge that connected the two forts. It was an important position, and although the hill was steep and pointed, Kosciusko believed a road could be cut and the top levelled to furnish a site for a battery. Gates agreed, but Gates was just then replaced as commander of the Northern Army by his rival, General Philip Schuyler of New York.
Schuyler was unwilling to make the experiment, since among the three armies that had occupied Ticonderoga—French, British, and American—no engineer had ever believed it practical to place a battery atop the hill. Instead Schuyler chose to concentrate his efforts on strengthening the already existing defenses at Ticonderoga and Mount Independence. Kosciusko, for his part, was unwilling to risk transgressing either friendship or discipline by forcing his opinions. A fellow officer complained that he was “timidly modest” about pressing his case. Kosciusko himself had a different explanation. “I declare sincerely that I am susceptible & love peace,” he wrote to Gates. “I would chuse rather to leave all, return home and plant Cabbages” than to be on anything less than “good terms with all the world.”
Probably the American force of twenty-five hundred men, which was already insufficient, would have been seriously overextended if a battery—and troops to defend it—had been planted atop Mount Defiance. But that the hill was crucial and could be fortified was proven by the British a month after Schuyler took command. Marching south from Canada with a well-disciplined and well-equipped army of seventy-seven hundred regulars and another twenty-five hundred Canadian, Hessian, and Indian auxiliaries, General John Burgoyne arrived at Ticonderoga on June 30, and five days later the Americans could see “Gentleman Johnnie’s” troops hauling cannon to the top of the mountain. Ticonderoga was suddenly rendered untenable, and that night the Americans abandoned the fort, leaving behind substantial supplies.
During the Americans’ difficult retreat, with the enemy pressing close behind and with both officers and men “badly armed … half-naked, sickly, and destitute of comforts,” as one officer later recalled, Kosciusko directed the work of obstructing the progress of the pursuing British. Trees were felled across trails and creeks, bridges destroyed, streams flooded, and trenches dug to make quagmires in what was already swampy country. As a result of Kosciusko’s efforts Burgoyne’s headlong pursuit was slowed to a crawl, and the American army had time to rest and regroup.
The fall of Ticonderoga posed a grievous threat to the American cause, leaving the way open for Burgoyne to advance on Albany and perhaps to effect a junction with British troops moving north up the Hudson from New York City. If this happened, the British would control the main north-south water route between loyalist Canada and New York. They could spread their troops and provisions along the entire line and thus sever communications between the New England trading states and the food-supplying middle and southern states. The northern armies would soon go hungry, and in that quarter at least the rebellion would come to a halt.
Fortunately for the Americans, Burgoyne’s supply lines from Montreal were now stretched almost to the limit, and there had still been no word that help was coming from New York. Fortunately, too, General Gates was once more in command of America’s Northern Army, Schuyler having been relieved as a result of the debacle at Ticonderoga. Gates immediately ordered his troops out of their defensive position south of Stillwater, where they had been huddling, as one witness reported, in a “miserable state of despondency and terror.” The army was put on the move north toward the enemy, and Kosciusko was sent ahead to select a site for battle.
He settled on a place called Bemis Heights, about midway between Stillwater and Saratoga. Directing a thousand working soldiers, he laid out redoubts and entrenchments upon a series of steep slopes and terraces. Woods and ravines cut up the country below the American encampment. As Gates himself noted after the American victory: “the great tacticians of the campaign, were hills and forests, which a young Polish Engineer was skilful enough to select for my encampment.” Burgoyne assaulted the American position on September 19, 1777, and again on October 7. Unable to breach the American defenses, lacking reinforcements, and surrounded by an army that had grown to three times the size of his own, Burgoyne called for an end to hostilities and surrendered his entire force to Gates on October 17.
The first great American victory of the war, Saratoga won for America the support of the French, and for a time it even seemed as though Gates might replace Washington as commander in chief. By rights Kosciusko ought to have shared in the honors as well as the triumphs of this much-needed victory. His superior officers were well aware of his contribution, and even Washington recommended him for promotion, despite Kosciusko’s close personal attachment to the man who was then Washington’s chief rival. Writing to the president of Congress concerning the promotion of some French officers, the commander in chief added: “I have been well informed, that the Engineer in the Northern Army (Cosieski, I think his name is) is a Gentleman of science and merit. From the character I have had of him he is deserving of notice too.”
But for reasons as much of politics as of modesty Kosciusko felt compelled to renounce any claim to promotion. He was too sensitive to his position as a foreigner and too much aware of the resentment that was being caused among American officers by the wholesale promotions of French adventurers for purely political reasons. To a friend in Gates’s camp he wrote: “My dear Colonel if you see that my promotion will make a great many Jealous, tell the General that I will not accept of one because I prefer peace more than the greatest Rank in the World.”
Kosciusko’s attitude must have puzzled his superiors. Certainly it was contrary to the spirit of the times, when so many other young officers were clamoring for distinction. But personal gain was never Kosciusko’s prime objective, and it was perfectly in keeping with his character that he should decline advancement under the circumstances. In the process, however, he cut himself off from any chance of promotion for the rest of the war, and though he might have resorted to badgering Congress and flattering his superiors, he was unwilling to do either. When Gates again wanted to put forward his name in 1780, the answer was still the same. “For my part,” Kosciusko wrote in his faltering English, “nether Confidence I have enough to thing I deserve it nor resolution to ask, [although I] am extremely obliged to you for your kind offers.” Only when the war was over would he seek his rightful due, and then his efforts were too little and too late.
Early in March, 1778, Kosciusko was sent to West Point, where, on the heights above the Hudson River, the American command was planning to build fortifications to guard the upper reaches of the river against penetration by the British fleet. The ease with which the British had captured the nearby forts at Bear Mountain the preceding autumn had proved the inadequacy of the existing river defenses. Indeed, had they then pressed their advantage, the enemy could easily have reached Albany and so might have tipped the balance at Saratoga. The lesson learned, the Americans planned to build much stronger defenses at West Point; and a more formidable position could hardly be imagined. Located on a high cliff above a double right-angle bend in the river and approached only with difficulty on the land side, the site was well out of reach of any guns that might be aimed at it by ships on the river below. At the same time the British square-riggers would have to negotiate the narrow bends right under the American batteries.
West Point was a barely inhabited wilderness when Kosciusko got there. A French engineer, Lieutenant Colonel Louis de la Radière, had made a start at planning the defenses. But little had been done, and shortly after Kosciusko’s arrival de la Radière was transferred elsewhere at the request of the senior officers at West Point. “Mr. Kosciousko is esteemed by those who have attended the works at West Point, to have more practice than Col. Delaradiere,” wrote General Alexander McDougall to Washington, “and his manner of treating the people more acceptable, than that of the latter.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
To anyone who knew Kosciusko, his sudden departure for Europe could have meant only one thing: he had once again heard his country’s call. He had been summoned to take command of the Polish legions, which were forming under Napoleon’s banner in hopes of regaining their country’s freedom. The prospect seems instantly to have revived his heart and mended his wounds. But as he soon came to suspect, the legions’ trust in Napoleon was misplaced. Though Bonaparte made use of the Polish legions in many of his campaigns, nothing was done for Poland. This new disappointment went a long way toward breaking Kosciusko’s spirit. He seemed suddenly to grow old. But he steadfastly refused to play any part in Napoleon’s schemes without written guarantees for Poland’s freedom—which, of course, never came.
The great patriot spent his last days in retirement in France and later in Switzerland, occupying himself with gardening and woodworking and corresponding now and then with Jefferson, whose replies were full of warm regard. At the request of the American envoy to France he also composed a treatise on “Manoeuvres for Horse Artillery,” which was adapted for use by the United States War Department during the War of 1812.
Kosciusko died at Soleure on October 15, 1817, at the age of seventy-one. His heart was buried beneath a monument in Soleure and was later transferred to the Polish Museum in Rapperszwil, Switzerland. His body was taken back to Poland and laid to rest in the cathedral at Cracow, where Poland’s kings were buried. Outside the town a great earthen mound was raised in his honor by the men, women, and children of Poland, who brought earth in their barrows and caps and pockets from the Polish battlefields where he had fought. All that was lacking to make his homecoming complete was a shovelful of the earth he had helped to win for America.