An historic event occurred this week, and that is the visit of the US President Donald J. Trump to the unique European nation of Poland. Our great President did his country proud, by paying homage to our more than two centuries’ old ally for its constantly demonstrated courage and resiliency.
We know this first hand, as among the great heroes of the Revolutionary War that enabled us to become a free people was a Polish citizen named Andrzej Tadeusz Bonawentura Kosciuszko, who became known in his adopted country of America as Thaddeus Kosciuszko.
His lifelong friend, Thomas Jefferson, said of Kosciuszko that he was:
“As pure a son of liberty as I have ever known.”
Thaddeus Kosciuszko was born in the Polish province of Polesie, a part of Poland that later became part of the nation of Belarus, in February, 1746, to parents who were mambers of the gentry, or minor nobility. Always an excellent student, the handsome and gifted young man excelled as a student of military engineering both in Warsaw and later in Paris. Following the partition of his nation following a civil war, when Kosciuszko returned to his homeland in 1774, he became a tutor in the household of a wealthy bourgeoisie, Jozef Sosnowski, in Warsaw, and soon fell head over heels in love with the gentleman’s daughter, Ludwika, which resulted in an attempted elopement. This unwise enterprise resulted in a severe beating for the young man, who proceeded, once he recovered physically, to scarper off back to France, where he quickly became even more enamored of the American Revolutionary cause. This episode also left him with a life-long antipathy of the upper classes, and their control of their lessers’ fates.
With the help of the well-known French supporter of the American cause, Pierre Beaumarchais, Kosciuszko left Europe for America in June, 1776, and upon arriving in America, joined the Continental Army where he quickly achieved the rank of Colonel.
Referred to as an “engineering genius,” Kosciuszko began his military service for the Americans in the Revolutionary War by designing and overseeing the construction of “state of the art fortifications” for the patriot cause first in Pennsylvania, then later in New York. Kosciuszko threw himself into his engineering duties, and when he had reviewed the fortifications at Fort Ticonderoga and found them wanting, he went over the head of the garrison commander at the time, Brigadier General Arthur St. Clair, and recommended the “construction of a battery on Sugar Loaf, a high point overlooking the fort.” St. Clair, being in charge, held sway; as a result British General John Burgoyne “did exactly what Kosciuszko had warned of and had his engineers place artillery on the hill.” The British, of course, won that fight, known as the Siege of Ticonderoga.
Desperate to provide assistance to the rebel forces despite his excellent advice being ignored, Kosciuszko took command of the retreat, saving the American forces by implementing an engineer’s solution: he”felled trees, damned streams and destroyed bridges and causeways. Encumbered by their huge supply train, the British began to bog down, giving the Americans the time needed to safely withdraw across the Hudson River.”
His engineering expertise thus proven, the Pole was then assigned by a very impressed General Gates to “survey the country between the opposing armies, (choosing) the most defensible position,” and to fortify it. Kosciuszko found just such a position near Saratoga, overlooking the Hudson, and proceeded to lay out a strong array of defenses, “nearly impregnable from any direction.” A pivotal fight in the early stages of the Revolutionary War, the Battle of Saratoga, brilliantly won by the American forces in large part due to the engineering skills of Colonel Kosciuszko, “dealt the British army a sound defeat.” As Dr. Benjamin Rush said later of this battle: “The great tacticians of the campaign were hills and forests, which a young Polish engineer was skillful enough to select for my encampment.”
In March, 1778, Kosciuszko “arrived at (the highly significant venue of) West Point, New York, and spent more than two years strengthening the fortifications and improving the stronghold’s defense.” Soon after the young Pole had finished fortifying West Point, (which Benedict Arnold was soon thereafter to attempt to surrender to the British), General George Washington “granted Kosciuszko’s request to transfer to combat duty with the Southern Army,” where he proceeded to serve with distinction and brilliance under both General Gates, his former commander, and General Nathaniel Greene.
Kosciuszko “was placed in command of building bateaux, siting the location for camps, scouting river crossings, fortifying positions and developing intelligence contacts.” It was said later that:
“Many of his contributions were instrumental in preventing the destruction of the Southern Army. This was especially so during the famous ‘Race to the (River) Dan,’ when British General Charles Cornwallis chased General Greene across 200 miles of rough back country in January and February of 1781. Thanks largely to a combination of Greene’s tactics and Kosciuszko’s bateaux, and accurate scouting of the rivers ahead of the main body, the Continentals safely crossed each river, including the Yadkin and the Dan.”
In so doing, “the Americans had all but destroyed Cornwallis’ army as an effective fighting force.” Kosciuszko continued fighting with the American Southern Army, where he not only continued to perform brilliant engineering feats, but he was also wounded in the service to the Patriot cause. He was among the Continental troops “that reoccupied Charleston following the British evacuation of the city,” and spent the rest of the war there, “conducting a fireworks display on April 23, 1783, to celebrate the signing of the Treaty of Paris earlier that month.”
Though he had not yet been paid for his seven year long service to the Patriot cause, the American Congress asked Kosciuszko to perform one more service for the young nation, and that was to “supervise the fireworks during the July 4 celebrations at Princeton, New Jersey.” Kosciuszko accepted, in large part because he couldn’t afford the trip back to Europe, and he, of course, performed his duties brilliantly. He was eventually paid by the American Congress just over $12,000 for his service, and was given “the right to 500 acres of land, (adjacent to what is now Columbus, Ohio), but only if he chose to settle in the United States.”
Thaddeus Kosciuszko had lost none of his fervor for freedom, however, and so returned to his native land in July, 1784, and proceeded to implement his revolutionary reforms somewhat imperfectly starting with his property in Poland. His estate soon became unprofitable as a result and he soon became encumbered with a great deal of debt. Using the American model he had so helped to implement which had resulted in a free nation, Kosciuszko joined the Amy, “was given a command,” and again imperfectly, began to implement political reforms for which his country was clearly not ready. Among these were the radical political reforms that “the peasants and Jews should receive full citizenship status.”
The constant conflict that ensued weakened Poland to the extent that when the Russians invaded in May, 1792, which resulted in the long-fought Polish-Russian War of 1792. Though fighting brilliantly and courageously, as was his wont, now-General Kosciuszko, who had not lost a “single battle in the campaign,” felt it necessary to leave his much weakened homeland, to which he to return only one more time, for the revolution that carried his name, (the Kosciuszko Insurgence, 1794). This did not go well, and Kosciuszko ended up being imprisoned by the Russians in St. Petersburg in October of 1794. Still suffering from wounds received in battle, he was freed following the death of Tsaritsa Catherine the Great in 1796, at which time he came back to America, where he stayed for a time before returning to France with the intention of joining the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte.
A lifelong abolitionist, during this later American sejour, Kosciuszko wrote and left a will for his friend Thomas Jefferson to execute, which provided that all proceeds go “for the manumission and education of African Americans in the United States.” As he often did, Jefferson disappointed his friend and colleague and ignored the will, never implementing Kosciuszko’s bequests.
Thaddeus Kosciuszko was never able to return to his partitioned and much weakened homeland, and died in Switzerland in October, 1817, at the age of 71. It has been said about this great Patriot, for America and Poland, that he was “the world’s most popular Pole ever.” Our President did well this week honoring this great man and his beloved country.
Susan Smith brings an international perspective to her writing by having lived primarily in western Europe, mainly in Paris, France, and the U.S., primarily in Washington, D.C. She authored a weekly column for Human Events on politics with historical aspects. She also served as the Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Children, Family, Drugs and Alcoholism, and Special Assistant to the first Ambassador of Afghanistan following the initial fall of the Taliban. Ms. Smith is a graduate of Wheeling Jesuit University and Georgetown University, as well as the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, France, where she obtained her French language certification. Ms. Smith now makes her home in McLean, Va.