Thursday, August 18, 2011

Polish Son of Liberty: Thaddeus Kosciuszko

THADDEUS KOSCIUSZKO: A POLISH SON OF LIBERTY

Visitors to the battlements at Ticonderoga, the Saratoga Battlefield, and West Point soon become aware of the engineering genius of a young Polish officer who served with distinction in the Continental Army through, out the American Revolution. In addition, students of ethnic history can point to this same modest nobleman as an early benefactor of American blacks.

For Tadeusz Andrzej Bonawentura Kosciuszko, the principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence became a way of life. Thomas Jefferson, its author and Kosciuszko's close friend, called him "the purest son of liberty . . . that I have ever known, the kind of liberty which extends to all, not only to the rich." Throughout a long lifetime (1746-.1817) the idealistic Pole directed all his energies and substance to the cause of freedom in America and in his native Poland, and to humanitarian endeavors on two continents.

Born into a "land poor" family of the Polish gentry, Thaddeus Kosciuszko received a "gentleman's" education, with emphasis on the classics, mathematics, drawing, and French, followed by three years as student and instructor at the Royal School for cadets at Warsaw where he attained the rank of captain. A royal stipend then enabled the promising young officer to spend five years in France where he studied government and economics as well as engineering, military science, architecture, and art. (Called by his contemporaries "a beautiful limner," he executed likenesses of various leaders of the American Revolution, including a pastel portrait of Jefferson and a devastating caricature of the controversial General Charles Lee.)

On his return to Poland in 1774 he found no market for his talents and, following an unfortunate love affair. he borrowed money on his share of the family estate and went to Dresden. Reports of the American Revolution fired his imagination. Taking passage, he appeared in Philadelphia in August, 1776, and offered his credentials to the Continental Congress.
Thomas Jefferson

Military engineers were in short supply, and Congress gave him an appointment with the rank of colonel, in charge of fortifying the Delaware River at two points. In the spring of 1777 General Horatio Gates invited Kosciuszko to inspect the fortifications then underway at Fort Ticonderoga. Finding blockhouses "all erected in the most improper places," nevertheless, as a foreigner, he hesitated to impose his own plan. "I would choose rather to leave all, return home and plant Cabbages," he re ported.

He remained to assist in the construction of the log boom bridge that linked "Ti" with Mount Independence and supervised the fortification of that eminence as well as works on the Ticonderoga side. Kosciuszko's superiors disregarded his advice to mount guns on Sugar Loaf Hill. A few weeks later Burgoyne advanced on Ticonderoga, and on July 5 the Americans faced a British battery atop Sugar Loaf (renamed Mount Defiance) and were forced to evacuate the fort.

In the ensuing American retreat Kosciuszko ordered obstructions placed in the path of the British. demolished bridges, and rendered Wood Creek unnavigable. On him rested the responsibility of selecting and fortifying camps and posts. He constructed numerous fortifications at Van Schaick's Island and on Haver Island. north of Albany. But his great achievement was the selection and fortification of Bemis Heights, where Burgoyne was defeated in the decisive Battle of Saratoga in October, 1777.

The ability to get along well with people (in contrast to certain other foreign officers) as well as his reputation as a capable engineer won the soft-spoken, genial Pole an appointment in March, 1778 as "Chief Engineer of the Middle Department" in charge of the fortification …f West Point. In the twenty-eight months he remained at West Point he constructed a chain of redoubts and forts, the principal one being Fort Putnam, and transformed the highlands wilderness into a bastion which effectively deterred British invasion up the Hudson.

In a rocky valley the gentle aristocrat laid out a private retreat -- a garden [still to be seen at West Point) with a fountain and cascades -- carrying soil by hand to nurture the flowers he planted. Also at West Point there re mains a tradition that he shared his meager rations with British prisoners there. The Australian grandson of one of these prisoners some decades later repaid this kindness by taking care of a Polish traveler in Australia who would otherwise have died of yellow fever.

Kosciuszko left West Point in August, 1780 and served the remainder of the war under General Nathanael Greene in the South. Returning north in 1783, he was admitted to the Order of the Cincinnati and promoted to brigadier general. On November 25, 1 783 he took part in Washington's triumphal march into New York City and is believed to have been present at Fraunces Tavern when Washington bade farewell to his officers.


In 1784 he returned to Poland where he lived a simple life in his country home, leaving it to lead a Polish army in several attempts to free Poland from Russian control, thereby becoming a national hero. He returned to the United States in 1797-1798 and visited his Revolutionary War friends. Congress then granted him $15,000 due in back pay for his wartime service and gave him a land grant of 500 acres in Ohio. Kosciuszko had freed his own serfs or reduced their service. His years in the American South had aroused his compassion for American slaves. Before he returned to Europe in 1798 he drew up a will, appointing Jefferson executor and directing that the money from the sale of his Ohio land be used to purchase and free slaves and provide for their education. After his death this land became Ohio State University. The proceeds were to be used to found a school for blacks in Newark, New Jersey, but Thomas Jefferson just gave black people the middle finger.

from: THE CORRESPONDENT (1972), The New York State American Revolution Bicentennial

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