Champion of Liberty and Son of Freedom: Thaddeus Kosciuszko in the American Revolution
In the struggle for liberty which was the American Revolution, there emerged a group of individuals whose selfless sacrifices and courage perpetuated their legacy. Most of these men are remembered as great heroes, lauded and honored on holidays, but the truest patriots are those whose actions secured independence, but who are not present in the pantheon; those whose deeds have nearly been forgotten. Such is the case with Thaddeus Kosciuszko, the Polish engineer whom Thomas Jefferson called “as pure a son liberty as I have ever known.” A volunteer in the Continental Army, Kosciuszko not only risked all for a nation and people to whom he was alien, but imbibed the ideals of the Revolution so fully, that upon his return to his homeland he led a valiant rebellion against imperial oppression based upon them.
Arriving in Philadelphia in August of 1776, at the time the Declaration of Independence was being embossed and signed, Kosciuszko alighted at Benjamin Franklin’s doorstep and offered his services in the cause. Franklin, impressed with the zeal and earnest desire to assist of the young Pole, recommended him as an engineer to Congress. After first designing and overseeing protective fortifications for Philadelphia, the seat of the Continental Congress, Kosciuszko received his commission as a colonel in the army, and traveled north to New York, where he joined the forces of General Horatio Gates. It was with General Gates that Kosciusko achieved his greatest, if least known, role in the war.
In accordance with the British plan to sever the Colonies and conquer them in pieces, General John Burgoyne led a force of nearly 10,000 men down the Hudson River towards New York. In summer 1777, General Gates charged Kosciusko with constructing a defensive position against the coming onslaught, and Kosciusko decided upon the Bemis Heights as the strongest location for the Continental bastion. After being forced by Kosciusko’s brilliant fortifications to order his army into an ambush in September, Burgoyne, determined to deliver “one conclusive blow,” ordered a final advance. Under the leadership of Benedict Arnold and the sharpshooters of Daniel Morgan, the Continentals again repelled the British assault, and on October 17th, the British surrendered. This defeat at Saratoga, the greatest British surrender of the entire conflict, turned the tide of war in the American favor and persuaded the French to join the cause. The victory, as General Gates remarked to Benjamin Rush in 1778, was due to “a young Polish engineer” – Kosciusko.
After the tremendous success at Saratoga, for which he received little official credit, Kosciusko traveled under direct commission from Commander in Chief George Washington to oversee the construction of Fort Arnold at West Point, the imposing fortress designed to guard the Hudson River from further British incursion. So well did Kosciusko execute his orders, and so crucial was the position of the fort, that when given the opportunity to gain access to any Continental position after Benedict Arnold’s betrayal, the British administration chose to request the blueprints for West Point. The fort still stands today, the oldest continually used fortress in the United States, as further testament to Kosciusko’s engineering prowess.
As the focus of the war shifted south, Kosciusko’s crucial role in this new theater, including the battles of Cowpens and the siege of Fort Ninety-Six ensured the survival of Greene’s army and the cause. While fighting in the South, Kosciusko became acquainted with the plight of the African slave in the Americas. Believing that the fate of the African was shared by the serfs in his native Poland, Kosciusko attempted to better understand their situation. After witnessing a black bugle player save the life of Colonel William Washington at the battle of the Cowpens, Kosciusko realized the value of Africans as soldiers, and urged the army to enlist black troops.
The British had allowed runaway slaves to join the service as early as 1775, when the Dunmore Proclamation granted freedom to any runaway who enlisted, but the southern fear of armed blacks prevented their service in the Continental Army, despite General Greene’s conviction that blacks “would make good soldiers”. Such prejudice deeply impacted Kosciusko, on whom the irony of a nation where “all men are created equal,” while the black remained enslaved, was not lost. Kosciusko’s friendship with a free black, Agrippa Hull, whom he met at West Point, continued during these years and further exposed the injustices extant in the nation for which Kosciusko was fighting.
As the war neared conclusion, Kosciusko gained renown amongst Americans and those in his homeland as a selfless champion of freedom. After the signing of peace agreements in Paris brought an end to the War of Independence, Kosciusko marched with General Washington into New York on November 25, 1783 and was honored by Washington with membership in the newly formed Society of the Cincinnati, an organization of the elite officers of the war. Kosciusko stood among the ranks of officers who had fought so long and endured so much with General Washington as the Commander-in-Chief delivered his farewell address. In July of 1784, Brigadier General Thaddeus Kosciusko, regarded by Nathaniel Greene as “the most useful and agreeable of my companions in arms” departed the United States, in the creation of which he played an instrumental role, for the shores of Europe.
Upon his return to Poland, Kosciusko found a nation divided by rigid class boundaries and ruled by a puppet government. Invigorated by his experiences in America and distraught over the condition of his native land, Kosciusko joined a network of Polish nationalists aimed at the overthrow of Russian authority and the creation of an independent Poland. Following years of underground activity and periods of exile, Kosciusko assumed command of the resistance and declared Poland a nation free of slavery, serfdom, and foreign intervention. When Russian armies converged upon the new nation, Kosciusko rallied the peasants and defeated the superior Russian forces. Inspired by his successes, thousands of Poles flocked to Kosciusko as the champion of the common man, catapulting him into history as a national hero of the fight against oppression and securing his legacy as a tireless advocate for equality. The nation Kosciusko created, “formed on the same model as the American republic,” endures as proof of his ardor and efforts.
Kosciusko, having thus transformed Poland into a land free from bondage, turned once again to the African slaves of America. Writing shortly before his death, Kosciusko entreated “Mr. Jefferson that in the case I should die without will or testament he should buy out of my money so many negroes and free them…to make themselves as happy as possible.” Having thus secured the liberty of his native land and his adopted nation, Kosciusko died a hero on October 15, 1817.
In recognition of his heroic life, Kosciusko’s remains were enshrined in Wawel Castle, resting place of Polish royalty, and his name is synonymous with Polish nationalism. In the United States, his Philadelphia boardinghouse was made a national park and a statue of him stands within view of the White House. Yet despite such display, too many still remain ignorant of Thaddeus Kosciusko — the fearless champion of liberty who indeed “relinquished all for the service of the republic.”
Cygnet is currently a college student in Maryland. Though he plans on eventually studying public health, for the time being he is perfectly content exploring a variety of exciting and esoteric fields of study, from the history of the American War of Independence to cognitive neuroscience. In his free time, he enjoys visiting museums, archives, and travelling when possible in an attempt to gain an appreciation for other cultures and worlds. Though partial to the admittedly disparate– but nonetheless fascinating – scenes of espionage novels and Jane Austen works, he relishes reading on a range of subjects. He is grateful for the opportunity to serve as a guest writer for The Fellowship of the King, and thanks Rosaria Marie for her help in introducing him to the journal.