2 Poles Who Aided the American Revolution

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Warm up the pierogies, Polish American heritage month is here again! Last year, we ticked off a list of 8 things you need to know about Polish Americans. This year, we're going to change things up a bit and profile two men who helped make the very idea of a Polish American (or any other kind of American for that matter) possible through their efforts in the war for American independence.

1. Kazimierz Michał Wacław Wiktor Pułaski

Pułaski was born in 1745 to a family of wealthy nobles in the village of Winiary. He studied at a college in Warsaw and became a page of one of the vassals of the Polish king. Not long after Pułaski began the job, though, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth became a protectorate of the Russian Empire and the court was expelled by Russian forces occupying Poland.

In 1768, Pułaski, along with his father, became one of the co-founders of the Bar Confederation, an association of nobles that aimed to defend the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from both the Russian Empire and Polish reformers attempting to limit the power of the Commonwealth's nobility. Pułaski became a commander of confederate soldiers and engaged Russian forces in combat for the next four years.

In 1771, Pułaski helped organize an attempt to kidnap King Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski, who supported the Russian occupation.

The kidnapping plot failed and Pułaski was sentenced to death in absentia for attempted regicide. He fled the Commonwealth and found no state that would accept him. He finally settled in France illegally, where he encountered Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin recommended to General George Washington that PuÅ‚aski, "renowned"¦for the courage and bravery he displayed in defense of his country's freedom," be recruited for the American cavalry. PuÅ‚aski accepted the American offer and arrived in Philadelphia in 1777, taking part in the Battle of Brandywine just a few months later. Washington acknowledged PuÅ‚aski's skills and bravery with a promotion to the rank of brigadier general of the American cavalry and gave him command of four light cavalry regiments.

The 111th Congress has, as of 10/09, passed resolutions in each house proclaiming Pułaski an honorary citizen of the United States. The House bill and the Senate bill will have to be reconciled before President Obama can sign a bill. If the rest of the process goes smoothly, Pułaski will be only the seventh person to receive honorary citizenship. Winston Churchill was the first in 1963, followed by Swedish diplomat and Holocaust hero Raoul Wallenberg, Pennsylvania co-founder and governor William Callowhill Penn and his wife Hannah, Mother Teresa, and Marquis de Lafayette.

Pułaski's poor grasp of English and domineering personality caused difficulties in his new position, which he soon resigned. But Washington allowed Pulaski to organize an independent corps, dubbed the Pułaski Cavalry Legion. Pułaski led the legion for the rest of his involvement in the war, dipping into his personal finances to furnish equipment for his troops when money from Congress was scarce. The legion fought at the Little Egg Harbor massacre in New Jersey, the Siege of Charleston, South Carolina, and the Battle of Savannah, Georgia. During this last battle, in 1779, Pułaski led a cavalry charge while probing for weaknesses in the British line and was wounded by grapeshot fired from a cannon. He was carried from the battlefield by his troops and placed aboard a merchant ship. He was buried at sea.

One month later, Washington paid tribute to PuÅ‚aski by issuing a challenge-and-password set to the Continental Army for identifying friends and enemies when crossing military lines: "Query: Pulaski, response: Poland."

In 1929, Congress passed a resolution to recognize October 11 "General Pulaski Memorial Day," in order to recognize the "father of the American cavalry" and celebrate the heritage of Polish Americans. Several states and cities—Kentucky, Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, Grand Rapids, Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadlephia and New York City among them—also have memorial days or parades that commemorate Pulaski's birth or death.

2. Andrzej Tadeusz Bonawentura Kościuszko

Kościuszko was the youngest son of a Polish noble living in the village of Mereczowszczyzna (in what is now Belarus, but was then part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth). In 1765, he enrolled at the newly created Szkoła Rycerska (Knight Academy) in the Corps of Cadets, studying military subjects and the liberal arts. After graduating, Kościuszko and a colleague received royal scholarships and went to Paris, where Kościuszko studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts. He decided that he did not want to be a painter, but could not transfer to a French military academy because he was a foreigner. He earned his own French military education, though, by going to free lectures and visiting the libraries of Paris' military academies.

polishamericansWhen Kościuszko returned home in 1774, there was no position for him in the army, which had been drastically reduced in the First Partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He took a job tutoring the family of a governor instead and fell in love with the governor's daughter. The two planned to elope in the American colonies, but were tracked down and stopped by employees of the girl's father. Kościuszko received a beating from them which would inform his views on social pretense and class inequality.

The following year, he again left the Commonwealth, for Paris, where he learned about the war in the American colonies. KoÅ›ciuszko went to America and volunteered for the army. In 1776, Congress commissioned him as a Colonel of Engineers was then named head engineer of the Continental Army. He was sent to Pennsylvania to work on the fortification of Philadelphia. There, he constructed Fort Billingsport and fortified the banks of the Delaware River. He also got a chance to read the Declaration of Independence—he was so moved by it, he sought out a meeting with Thomas Jefferson. The two eventually became close friends.

From there, Kościuszko went on to oversee the construction of forts and military camps along the Canadian border, was given command of the military engineering works at West Point by George Washington and then oversaw more fort construction in the Southeast.

In 1783, Kościuszko was promoted to the rank of brigadier general and received American citizenship, a parcel of land, and memberships in the Society of the Cincinnati and the American Philosophical Society. The next year, he returned to Poland and settled in his home village. He would later defend his homeland in the Polish-Russian War of 1792 and receive Poland's highest military honor, the Virtuti Militari medal, for his actions at the Battle of Zieleńce.

Kościuszko's body is interred in a crypt at Wawel Cathedral in Kraków, the final resting place of many Polish kings and national heroes. His heart, removed from the body during embalming, is kept at a chapel at the Royal Castle in Warsaw.

When King Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski surrendered to the Russians in August of that year, Kościuszko fled to Leipzig, where Polish commanders and politicians were preparing an uprising against Poland's Russian occupiers. Kościuszko made a trip to Paris during this time to accept honorary citizenship in France, and to gain French support for the uprising in Poland.

The Second Partition of Poland in 1793, and the subsequent reduction of the army and mass arrests of Polish politicians and military commanders by Russian agents, forced Kościuszko to begin the uprising earlier than planned. After early victories, Kościuszko's forces were outnumbered at the Battle of Maciejowice, and Kościuszko was wounded and imprisoned in Saint Petersburg. The uprising ended with the Siege of Warsaw, Tomasz Wawrzecki's (the new commander of the uprising) surrender.

In 1796, Tsar Paul I of Russia pardoned and freed Kościuszko, who settled in France and remained politically active among the Polish émigrés. He died of typhoid fever in Solothurn, Switzerland, in October, 1817.

KoÅ›ciuszko's global freedom fighting made him a national hero in Poland, Lithuania, and the US, so he has received his fair share of tributes around the world, both great and small: from Kosciuszko Street in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, to Mount Kosciuszko in Australia; from Thomas Jefferson calling him "as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known," to an occasional salute from a certain blogger as he passes KoÅ›ciuszko's statue on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia.

October 15, 2009 - 8:41am
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