english version

Jolanta Alina Daszyńska
University of Lodz

deutsche Fassung

Tadeusz Kościuszko (Thaddeus Kosciuszko) and Kazimierz Pułaski (Casimir Pulaski) have a hero status both in the United States and in Poland. Both fought in the war for independence of the British colonies in America, although the word “fight” does not fully convey the importance of their contribution to the cause of American independence. Their fight was synonymous with bringing a spirit of innovation, boldness of thought, sacrifice and heroism into the art of war – which proved to be a challenge both for themselves and for the Americans.


Kosciuszko was the first to arrive in the rebellious colonies. What qualities did he demonstrate to be entrusted with the key responsibility for fortifying Philadelphia, America’s then most important urban centre? Beautiful, rich and densely populated, the city was home to Congress, the most important authority of American patriots, and the place where the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed.

Thaddeus Kosciuszko had no documented credentials (the letter of recommendation from Prince Adam Czartoryski had been lost) and no experience in engineering or combat, he was young (30 years old) and did not speak English. And yet he became Philadelphia’s supreme defender. Let me briefly explain why. As a graduate from the Corps of Cadets in Warsaw, Kosciuszko was sent on a scholarship to Paris for advanced study of military engineering. However, as a foreigner, he was not allowed to enrol at a military academy, so he chose instead the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. It was where he was officially studying (and from where he graduated), all the while secretly acquiring military expertise. Arriving in the United States in August 1776, a month after the Declaration of Independence, he was fortunate to meet Benjamin Franklin, who put the young Pole to a test.  For the sake of the record: Franklin was not only a brilliant self-taught man who invented the lightning rod, but also a colonial politician, an emissary in London, and a man credited with quite a few other 

achievements. David Rittenhouse, a prominent astronomer and inventor of mathematical instruments, also took part in the examination. Kosciuszko passed the test and was recommended for work at the Committee of Safety of Pennsylvania. Based on Franklin’s opinion, he was approved by Congress on the thirtieth of August and assigned to the U.S. War Department the next day.

A foreigner with no experience and no English was entrusted with the key job of defending Philadelphia because there was no one else to do it. His predecessor, a French engineer, had simply run away. The Americans must have, therefore, regarded the newcomer as godsent and they had nothing to lose by giving him a try.

osciuszko’s choice proved to be spot on. After a quick terrain assessment, he ordered the construction of two forts on the Delaware River: Mercer on the New Jersey side and Mifflin on the Pennsylvania side. The former was of greater strategic importance due to its more favourable location on a 12-meter-high hill that provided shelter against the British shelling. Fort Mifflin stood on the other side of the river. Kosciuszko had all the trees cut down to correct the line of fire. Deep entrenchments were dug in front of the walls and the waterfront was fortified.

Kosciuszko also designed a series of underwater obstructions to sit in the Delaware River. Piles were driven into the river bottom to set a route for the English ships. The firing positions directed towards the enemy were masked. The greatest innovation were spiked defensive obstacles known as chevaux de frise. Seventy of them were driven into the riverbed, or rather sunk, as these 20-meter-long piles, each topped with an iron spearhead, were attached to boxes that were weighted with 30 tons of stones. The obstruction was 60 feet wide and 8 miles long (18 meters and 12 km, respectively).

Kosciuszko’s fame as a talented fortifier spread far and wide. In recognition, Congress named him a Colonel of Engineers in the Continental Army on the eighteenth of October, with a considerable pay of 60 dollars a month, which Kosciuszko honourably refused to collect throughout the war. In addition, the Committee of Safety of Pennsylvania rewarded him with a sum of 50 pounds. The military realised that Kosciuszko – widely thought to be French – was the best engineer out there. Washington took him for a French, too; no wonder, considering that Kosciuszko spoke French and had sailed to America from France.

Regrettably, the forts fell into enemy hands, although not through Kosciuszko’s fault. It was General Washington who, after the defeat at Brandywine, ordered his troops to retreat from Philadelphia and join the forces of General Horatio Gates. In September 1777, the city came under British rule. Members of Congress had evacuated earlier.

Having joined the Northern Army, Kosciuszko was almost immediately promoted by Gates to the rank of Chief Engineer. Fortunately, there were no communication issues as the American general had a command of French and, besides, Kosciuszko’s grasp of English was improving: he understood the language increasingly well and even started to speak it. Kos, as he was nicknamed, was tasked with the defence of Fort Ticonderoga, considered one of the most robust strongholds in America. This huge stone citadel, lying on the isthmus of Lake Champlain and the Hudson River, was of great strategic importance: whoever held the fort, held control of the waterway between Montreal, Canada, and New York. Not all of Kosciuszko’s proposals took hold, most notably his idea to deploy cannons on the hill above the fort’s location. Despite insistence and assurances by Benedict Arnold, a man regarded as a military genius, the fort commander remained adamant. This decision painfully backfired when the British deployed their artillery positions on the hill, eventually taking control of the fort and the river in July 1777. Anticipating this turn of events, Kosciuszko had planned the evacuation of the fort by amassing a large number of boats which he quickly transformed into a makeshift bridge. He also skilfully obstructed the enemy’s pursuit, using felled trees to block the road and ordering pebbles to be rolled from the tops of the hills onto the advancing British forces. As a matter of fact, he made their progress so difficult that it took the British 20 days to cover 22 miles or 35 km.

The fate of the War of Independence turned after the American victory at Saratoga (19 September and 7 October 1777). Kosciuszko’s name is not mentioned in the context of the Battle of Saratoga despite the role he played, such as preparing the terrain around Saratoga and selecting sites for fortification and battle stations. More than a thousand men worked under his direction, building redoubts, deploying batteries and arranging facilities for rest and sleep. Kosciuszko’s role in preparing the site of the battle was forgotten, with General Gates receiving accolade for the victory. However, his contemporaries recognised his merits, as evidenced by Washington’s account to Congress:

[…] I would like to take the liberty to mention that I have been informed that the engineer in the Northern Army (Kosieski, 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 [for military promotion – note J.A.D.].

Kosciuszko’s talent was then put to use in the project of fortifying West Point Hill, 80 kilometres from New York. General Washington called it “the key to America”. In March 1778, Kosciuszko became Chief Engineer of the Middle Department with the mission of fortifying West Point. It took him 28 months to complete the task, as almost everything had to be built from scratch (while fortification works had been underway between 1776 and 1777, the French engineers in charge of them did not succeed in moving from the quarrelling stage to the actual construction). Kosciuszko was building a fort that was ahead of the times in terms of technological advancement and set a benchmark for future fortifications.

It was a distributed system rather than a bastion. It was most aptly described by American historian Betsey Blakeslee:

Designed by Kosciuszko, West Point was not a simple fort, but a complex of fortifications. It can best be described as three concentric rings surrounding a central point. This central point was a large chain cutting through the Hudson River between Constitution Island and a piece of land protruding from the western shore called West Point. The first ring surrounded the chain and the banks of the river, supported on both sides by artillery batteries. The second ring encompassed fortifications erected on the hills on the island and on West Point, thus increasing the depth of defence. The third ring connected several forts and redoubts located on the further-reaching hills guarding access to the site from the east and west. The entire fortification complex was located within virtually inaccessible hills.

Pomnik Tadeusza Kościuszki w Chicago

A massive 186-ton and 500-yard long chain spanned the width of the Hudson River to keep the British at bay. It was stretched across the river in spring and rolled away with the arrival of frost; the whole exercise took four days and required an effort of forty people. The device was kept afloat by means of huge tree trunks.

Two-and-a-half years later, in the summer of 1780, the fort had been completed. It turned out to be impregnable and the British dubbed it “the American Gibraltar”. The fort gave the Americans control of navigation on the river and let grain and corn ripen peacefully in the valley, the importance of which cannot be stressed enough during wartime.

Having completed the assigned task (or rather accomplishing something that was beyond the grasp of contemporary engineers), Kosciuszko went to the south in October 1780 together with the Continental Army to join the forces commanded by General Nathanael Greene, who had replaced General Horatio Gates after his defeat at Camden. He was named Chief Engineer of the Army of the South. While he had a lot of work to do there, none of his assignments were as monumentally challenging as his previous tasks. He oversaw river and swamp crossings, identified suitable sites for encampments, used flat-bottomed boats to facilitate river crossings, built bridges from boats, and reinforced the army’s positions by pointing out best locations for artillery. He gained fame for his rescue of American troops as they were retreating from the British in what became known as “the Race to the Dan”. Kosciuszko successfully secured the 320-kilometer long retreat by erecting zigzag-shaped approach trenches.

Kosciuszko’s achievements were recognised by Washington and the Pole was one of those who received the honour of leading troops to Charleston (where the War of American Independence ended) on 14 December 1780.

And he was conferred the rank of Brigadier General by Congress on 13 October 1783. At a farewell banquet given to military commanders, Washington honoured Kosciuszko with the signet ring of the Society of the Cincinnati, which he is said to have removed from his own finger. Kosciuszko was awarded the order of Cincinnatus, receiving two pistols and a sword, as well as allotments of land.


Now let us move to a brief account of Casimir Pulaski’s role in the American War of Independence – one which, alas, cost him life.

Haunted by his notoriety as a regicide, Pulaski was looking for a place where he would not be wanted. Engulfed in the struggle for independence, America seemed the perfect choice. Pulaski was recruited in Paris by Franklin, who headed the American Committee of Safety together with Silas Deane and Arthur Lee. Franklin’s job was not easy, as Pulaski, like Kosciuszko, did not speak English. Moreover, forces under his command back in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had been so large that there were concerns that his rank would give him precedence over Washington in commanding the army (this is the reason why the American envoys developed a system of ranks that did not reflect the one used in Europe). So why did Franklin send Pulaski to America? Well, it was thanks to the personal intercession of Claude Carloman Rulhière, an influential diplomat and historian with an interest in Poland – and Pulawski’s friend into the bargain. He probably contributed to the wording of the letter of recommendation written by Franklin to Washington, in which Pulaski was praised for his courage and recommended as highly useful because of his reputation as one of the greatest officers in Europe.

It was most likely on 6 June 1777 that Pulaski boarded a ship bound for the United States. He set foot on the American soil on 23 July, almost a year after Kosciuszko, and proceeded straight away to the nearby garrison in Boston. 

The fortifications are robust, their artillery is fine, only the soldiers are less educated than they should be.

On 26 July, Pulaski wrote a letter to Washington requesting permission to join the Continental Army. Too impatient to wait for an answer, he set out on 4 August to meet the general. The trip took two weeks because of the detours he had to take to avoid areas occupied by the British troops. Washington received him warmly, as Pulaski had also been recommended by another prominent Frenchman, La Fayette (this on top of earlier recommendations from Paris: from Franklin and from Deane), who referred to him as “Count Pulaski of Poland”. The meeting resulted in Washington’s letter to Congress (dated 21 August) to accept the young Polish commander into the ranks of the army. Pulaski was 32 years old at the time. The issue of rank was tacitly sidestepped and it was only vaguely stated that his employment should be

in terms equally favorable to the Character and Military Abilities of this Gentleman.

Washington avoided any mention of cavalry. Firstly, because he did not regard it as effective, and secondly, because it meant higher costs: in addition to the soldiers, the horses also had to be fed and equipped. The American cavalry was small, consisting of four regiments, a total of 727 soldiers and officers. Awaiting Congress’ decision, Pulaski joined the Continental Army as a volunteer and almost immediately took part in the Battle of Brandywine (11 September 1777). While there is no mention of this fact in the writings of Congress (Pulaski being considered a Frenchman), it can be found in the press of the time. The Boston Gazette of 2 October 1777 wrote that:

A great Number of French Officers were in the Action. The Marquis de la Fayette, that most accomplish’d Youth, behaved with a Bravery equal to his noble Birth and amiable Character. The Polish Count Pulawski with a Party of light Horse rode up to reconnoitre the Enemy within Pistol-shot of their Front.

Interestingly, Washington did not notice Pulaski’s presence at Brandywine and was mistakenly convinced of the Americans’ defeat there, which is why he ordered a retreat towards Germantown. This laid open the field for the British advance on Philadelphia, scaring the bejabbers out of the members of the Continental Congress, who fled first to Lancaster and when the situation became precarious there too – to York in Pennsylvania.

But let us return to the retreat of US troops from Brandywine. Pulaski realised that the British intended to cut off the Americans’ escape route. He rushed to break the news to Washington but was barred access to the tent by the general’s aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton, who did not understand a word of what an increasingly loud and determined Pulaski was saying. Alerted by the brawl outside the tent, Washington went out to see what was going on. Fortunately, he recognised the Pole and appreciated that the situation was serious. He immediately instructed his personal guards and a handful of soldiers to assist Pulaski. Heading a group of 30 horsemen with a gun in his hand, Pulaski managed to defend the positions of the American troops.

This bravado earned him appreciation from Washington, who praised him as a brave soldier. News spread among the soldiers that Pulaski had saved the general’s life. A few days later, Pulaski was accepted into the Continental Army, earlier serving in an auxiliary formation. In recognition of his skills, he was assigned the rank of Brigadier General. As cavalry was not a separate unit in the Continental Army, Pulaski’s appointment was something of a challenge and the fact of receiving such a high rank meant that none of the American commanders was his equal. Pulaski was to work directly with General Henry Knox. The bottom line is that Pulaski became overnight the highest-ranking cavalry commander, with four regiments of light dragoons under his command. Those troops were put to test on their march to Lancaster. Their task was to deceive British intelligence, as well as the  local population sympathetic to the British. American soldiers had donned red jackets, a symbol of the British troops. This cunning ploy let them approach almost unnoticed the enemy’s positions and take stock of the condition of British forces.

Having learned of Pulaski’s appointment, French officers did not hide their disapproval and some, like Baron Johann de Kalb, even wrote letters of complaint to Congress. They believed that such an appointment was rightfully due to the Frenchmen serving in the Continental Army and not to some unknown individual. This was particularly the case of Augustin Mottin de la Balme, a French cavalry commander who, upon learning of Congress’ decision, took offence and resigned from service in the Continental Army in October 1777. The French mercenaries who had served in the American army since the beginning of the War of Independence also regarded Pulaski’s appointment as an affront to them. And Pulaski, with his impulsive character, did nothing to win over his adversaries. To make things even worse, he was convinced of his exceptional knowledge and skills, made no secret of his superiority, and demanded that his staff be composed exclusively of Poles. This did not earn him many friends.

The Battle of Germantown on 4 October 1777 was another engagement for the cavalry commanded by Pulaski. With a group of 200 dragoons under his command, Pulaski once again was tasked to secure a retreat of the defeated Americans. The organisation of the retreat is generally viewed favourably, with Washington and General Nathanael Greene being blamed for the defeat. But there is also a view that the Pulaski was at fault because he was asleep at the time when he should have been commanding his troops. This is the account given by Judge William Johnson, who claimed that Washington had found Pulaski asleep. No other accusations were made and Washington and Greene took the blame. It is, therefore, not clear whether this was just slander or whether Pulaski was indeed unable to lead his troops for some reason. Nevertheless, Washington expressed his disappointment with cavalry. What he meant was the lack of efficiency in battle, as well as the way horses were procured for the army. They were requisitioned without any compensation and requisitioners abused their powers by appropriating finer specimens or selling them at attractive prices. Washington promised to punish everyone engaging in such practices. To do so, he ordered that army horses be branded: any soldier caught on an unbranded horse was to be punished for theft.

The approaching winter was a break in the war effort. Most of the U.S. Army’s forces were moved to their winter quarters at Valley Forge. Pulaski decided, however, that cavalry units remain at Trenton (in New Jersey) and spend the winter training – and enduring cold, hunger and privation. The reason was that Pulaski had introduced weapons into military operations that worked well in Polish conditions but were unknown on the American continent: lances. The soldiers indeed required training but winter was not the best choice, all the more so considering that the army was suffering from hunger and deprivation. Washington’s idea to let the soldiers rest and recover during the harsh winter months made more sense.

The winter break in hostilities gave Pulaski time to think, and the conclusions he reached were so serious that he shared them with Washington.  Firstly, he thought that the American cavalry were too few. Secondly, he wanted to use cavalry in battle, not just in an escort capacity. He demanded the appointment of a quartermaster general who would be charged with supplying quarters, forage for horses and food for soldiers. He called for the introduction of drills and the appointment of a person in charge of military drilling.

Pulaski had no way of knowing that Congress did not have enough money to increase the number of cavalry. The United States was struggling with huge financial deficits, shortages of supplies, food, weapons and ammunition, forage – in a word, almost everything needed to wage a war. 

Neither Pulaski nor the other commanders were aware of that; only Washington knew the truth. This was why so many requests, including those from Pulaski, were left unanswered.

Pomnik Kazimierza Pułaskiego w Waszyngtonie

In early February 1778, Pulaski joined the forces commanded by General Anthony Wayne. It was at that time that he began to experience a mental crisis, having a sense of lack of appreciation and disappointment. Thinking of leaving America, he submitted his resignation as cavalry commander.

However, in March, in a letter to Congress, he presented a plan to subordinate cavalry directly to Washington. The idea won approval in April, paving way for the formation of the Pulaski Legion that was to be composed of volunteers of various nationalities. The regiment was admired for its prowess and its beautiful banner donated by Pulaski. By mid-September, the Legion was ready for battle. It consisted of 330 soldiers, 62 more than decreed by Congress. Its reputation was, however, tarnished by allegations of irregularities and even financial embezzlement directed at Pulaski. Denials and clarifications were of no avail; what’s more, illegal grain requisitioning was added to the list of charges. Pulaski was summoned before Congress and admonished.

What he achieved, however, was that the Legion was finally commissioned to go into battle. And then bad luck struck again: a Hessian officer assigned to Pulaski betrayed the legionnaires to the British near Egg Harbor in New Jersey. Pulaski also did not endear himself to the army by opposing the order to crack down on Indians who had massacred American units. As a result, the founder of the American cavalry asked Washington several times for permission to return to Europe. His requests remained unanswered. Then suddenly, in late November 1778, he received permission and words of farewell. It worked! Pulaski stayed, and on 2 February 1779 was sent to support General Benjamin Lincoln in South Carolina. The final stage of his life played out there. He was wounded at the Battle of Savannah in October 1779; the wound was serious but not life-threatening. Unfortunately, gangrene set in, causing death. Despite various hypotheses, it is not known what happened to Pulaski’s body. To this day, Pulaski is remembered as the one who founded the American cavalry and shed blood for the freedom of the United States.

The memory of Kosciuszko and Pulaski is still alive today in the United States.

about author

Prof. dr hab Jolanta Alina Daszynska is a professor at the Department of Modern History of the Institute of History at the University of Łódź. A researcher of the history of colonial America and the early formative years of the United States, her interests focus on the formation of the United States, the federal constitution, states’ rights and Polish contributions to the War of Independence. As President of the Łódź Branch of the Polish Historical Society, she was involved in exploring the forgotten history of Łódź from World War I, especially the Łódź Operation of 1914. Historical reconstruction is another area of her research. Professor Daszyńska is a member of the Board of Directors of the Polish Historical Society and a three times President of its Łódź Branch (currently serving as Vice-President), as well as Chair of the Council of the Museum of Independence Traditions in Łódź.


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