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Professor Donald Elder: Who Was Thadeus Kosciuszko?

Jul 17, 2017 by

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Who Was Thadeus Kosciuszko?

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Professor Elder, as you know our current President just returned from Poland, and mentioned the name of Thaddeus Kosciuszko.  I recall the name from MY study of American history, but perhaps we should delve a bit deeper into this Polish individual who helped our forefathers gain independence. SO, who exactly was Thaddeus Kosciuszko?

Thaddeus Kosciuszko was born in February of 1746 near what is now Kosava in the Republic of Belarus. His father held a title of nobility, and served as an officer in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth Army. Interestingly, his parents had him baptized in both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Kosciuszko family sent him to school in the Ukrainian town of Lyubeshiv, but his father’s death forced him to abandon his studies in 1758.

For the next seven years, Kosciuszko helped his mother manage the family’s estate, but in 1765 another educational opportunity presented itself to him. In that year, the King of Poland started a program at the university in Warsaw to train officers for his army, and Kosciuszko received an appointment. Graduating in 1766, Kosciuszko then became a junior officer in the Polish Army. Instead of joining Polish forces in the field, Kosciuszko received orders to remain at the institute and become an instructor.

Two years later, a rebellion broke out in Poland, and Kosciuszko soon found himself conflicted about which side to support. On the one hand, as an army officer he felt loyalty to the king. But on the other hand, one of his brothers had joined the rebellion. Unable to decide which faction to fight for, he chose instead to leave the country. He asked the king for a scholarship to study in France, and in 1769 the monarch granted his request.

For the next five years, Kosciuszko studied art, architecture, and military science in Paris. When he returned to his homeland, he became a tutor to the daughter of a provincial governor. The two fell in love, but the governor made it clear that he did not approve of the romance. Believing that they would never receive his blessing, the two attempted to elope, but individuals working for the governor thwarted their plan. After receiving a beating, Kosciuszko decided to leave Poland.

Lacking any other option, he chose to return to Paris in 1775. Unbeknownst to him at the time, that decision would put him on a path to becoming a part of the American Revolution.

2. What do we know about his reasons for coming to American to help the colonists with the American Revolution?

When Kosciuszko arrived in Paris, he learned that 13 British colonies in North America had initiated a rebellion against their mother country. Although the French government adopted a policy of neutrality, many French citizens openly supported the rebellious colonies. As he circulated through Parisian society, Kosciuszko expressed similar sentiments. This may have resulted from a hostility to Absolutist Monarchy stemming from the treatment of his native Poland by Russia and Austria, or he could have developed a liberal outlook during his study in Paris.

Soon, Kosciuszko chose to support the rebellion directly, deciding in June of 1776 to sail to North America and offer his services to the insurgents.

3. As a historian, what do you see as his major contributions?

Upon his arrival in North America, Kosciuszko found that the situation there had changed dramatically. When he sailed in June of 1776, the 13 colonies had used military force to oppose the British, but they had not taken the irreversible step of declaring independence. As every American knows, they did so on July 4. After his boat landed, Kosciuszko thus had to decide whether to support a movement to create a new nation or not. Without hesitation, Kosciuszko wrote a letter to the Second Continental Congress seeking a commission. Congress granted his request, giving him the responsibility of constructing forts to defend Philadelphia.

At first he served as a volunteer, but in October Congress commissioned him a colonel in the American Army. Sent north to aid General Horatio Gates in his efforts to stop a British invasion that had originated in Canada, Kosciuszko immediately proved his worth by giving Gates sound advice on building fortifications to impede the enemy’s progress. In 1778, Kosciuszko helped the American Army improve the fortifications at West Point, the current site of the nation’s military academy.

Two years later, he received orders to join the American force attempting to defend the southern colonies. Initially he served as an engineer, but as the war progressed he was given command of a combat force. In that capacity, he fought a number of battles in South Carolina in 1781-1782. Because of his meritorious service, Congress promoted him to brigadier general, and gave him gifts of land and money.

4. It is of interest to me, but perhaps not to others, but how exactly did Kosciuszko learn about the American Revolution. There was obviously no telephone or Internet at that time. Any insights?

Although the American Revolution started simply as a rebellion by 13 colonies against Great Britain, news of this event quickly piqued the interest of Europe. This stemmed from the fact that many of that continent’s nations had fought either with or against Great Britain in a series of wars from 1689 to 1763. Europeans thus either wished the British well in their efforts to suppress the rebellion, or hoped that the colonies would cause their former enemy great harm. Because France had been Great Britain’s main foe, the French had the greatest interest in the course of the American Revolution—so much so that they went to war with Great Britain in 1778 to help the United States in its effort to secure independence. Because of this interest, Kosciuszko found an abundance of information in Paris about the American Revolution after he arrived there.

5. How is he regarded currently in Poland?

At the end of the American Revolution, Kosciuszko returned to Poland. For a few years, he helped operate his family’s estate, but in 1789 he agreed to accept a commission in the Polish Army. Three years later, a war with Russia broke out. During the conflict, Kosciuszko won a number of victories, but when Prussia entered the conflict the Poles suffered a series of defeats.

In 1795, with Kosciuszko wounded and in captivity, Poland found itself unable to continue to resist. They capitulated, and Russia and Prussia then divided the country between themselves. For the rest of his life, Kosciuszko devoted his efforts to re-establishing an independent Poland. Because of this, he became a hero to his people. He thus holds an esteemed position in Poland (which finally came back into existence at the end of the First World War) to this day.

6. What have I forgotten to ask about this famous contributor to our freedom?

Many reminders of Kosciuszko’s service to the American cause remain to this day. Perhaps the most interesting can be found in Philadelphia. After Poland ceased to exist, Kosciuszko had returned to the United States in 1797, taking up residence in Philadelphia. The building that he lived in became a National Historic Place in 1970, and in 1972 it became the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Monument. This has the distinction of being the smallest U.S. national monument in existence.

7. Are there any links out there on the Internet to help students of the American Revolution learn more about some of the people who helped the colonists during the Revolution?

Interestingly, no such site currently exists. At best, there are websites that contain information about individual foreigners who helped the American cause. Perhaps someone who reads this article will create a site of this nature!

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