One of Washington’s Foreign-born Generals: Casimir Pulaski

Jun 30, 2020 by

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Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Casimir Pulaski served bravely in the American Revolution. Where was he born?

I understand he had a massive amount of experience before coming to assist George Washington and the American Revolution. Can you give us an overview summary?

Casimir Pulaski was born into a noble family in Warsaw, Poland on March 6, 1745. His father held a number of important leadership positions in and around Warsaw. Afforded the opportunity to attend a local college operated by a Roman Catholic religious order, Pulaski left school before completing his degree. Instead, he chose to enter the political realm, becoming a page of the Duke of Courland. After six months, Pulaski’s father gave him a position of authority in the town of Zezulince. In 1767, feeling that Poland had become little more than a puppet state of Russia, Pulaski became involved in a movement to curtail the influence of the Russians in his country. Given the rank of colonel and put in command of a cavalry regiment, Pulaski fought his first battle in March of that year.

While his initial engagements went well, the Russians eventually forced him to surrender in June. Released on his promise to never again take up arms against his captors, Pulaski soon went back on his word and resumed the fight against the Russians. Over the next five years, Pulaski emerged as a brave, but occasionally foolhardy, cavalry commander.

Although his side won some victories, eventually the Russians forced the Poles to sue for peace. Rather than submit to Russian dominance, Pulaski chose to go into exile. After brief stays in Prussia and the Ottoman Empire, Pulaski eventually made his way to France. There, he tried to enlist in the French Army, but his efforts proved unsuccessful.

While in exile there in 1777, he met Benjamin Franklin. Learning of Pulaski’s military prowess, Franklin sent a letter to George Washington, suggesting that the American cause could use such an officer. Believing that with Franklin’s recommendation he could secure a commission in the Continental Army, Pulaski sailed to America, arriving in Massachusetts in July of 1777.

  1. Pulaski once said “I came here, where freedom is being defended to serve it, and to live or die for it”.

When did he utter these words, and what were the circumstances surrounding it?

After landing in Massachusetts, Pulaski offered his services to the United States in a letter to George Washington. In that correspondence, Pulaski wrote the cited quotation. As we have seen, Pulaski had taken up arms in his native Poland to try to rid his homeland of foreign influence, and his words suggest that he now saw the United States fighting for the same principles. And, as fate would have it, he proved willing to back up his words with his actions.

  1. Rumor, legend, or perhaps even truth. It is often said that at one point he saved Washington’s life. What do historians believe?

Although extremely well qualified, Pulaski at first did not receive a commission in the Continental Army from Washington. After unsuccessfully pleading his case directly to the Continental Congress, Pulaski returned to Washington’s army in September of 1777 and offered to serve as a volunteer until a commission became available. Shortly after Pulaski arrived in camp, a British force under the commander of General William Howe began an advance on Philadelphia. Moving his army to thwart the British advance, Washington engaged the enemy along the banks of Brandywine Creek. As he had done at the Battle of Long Island, Howe feinted an attack on the center of Washington’s line while deploying other detachments to make flanking assaults. Howe’s plan worked to perfection, and by the end of the day the British had forced the Americans to flee from the battlefield. In the confusion, it appeared that the British might have an opportunity to capture Washington himself. Sensing the danger, Pulaski led a contingent of Washington’s guard unit to reconnoiter. Reporting the dire situation to the general, Pulaski received permission from Washington to use the troops to fight a rear guard action.

Although accounts vary somewhat, many historians believe that Pulaski’s decisive action prevented the British from killing of capturing Washington. As evidence, they point to the fact that soon after the battle, Washington recommended that Congress give Pulaski an appointment as a brigadier general in the Continental Army.

Immediately proving his worthiness for an appointment at that rank, in the fall of 1777 Pulaski helped keep safe a foraging expedition into southern New Jersey under the command of General Anthony Wayne. For his efforts, Pulaski received a commendation from Wayne. Pulaski thus seemed poised to make a significant contribution to the American cause.

  1. Pulaski apparently had some difficulty with the English language and also with his high standards that he tried to impose. How did this impact his leadership?

A number of Washington’s generals came from foreign countries, and most of them, including Pulaski, spoke little to no English. This linguistic barrier proved difficult for Pulaski to overcome, and occasionally resulted in communication breakdowns on the battlefield. In addition, from all accounts Pulaski had an irascible temperament, and frequently castigated those around him for mistakes large and small.

Already unhappy with his strained relationship with his subordinates as 1777 drew to a close, Pulaski’s mood further soured when he learned that his superiors had rejected his proposal to equip a portion of his cavalrymen with lances. Thoroughly frustrated, Pulaski resigned his commission in March of 1778, and once again became a volunteer with Washington’s army.

  1. Pulaski worked with two other generals in the southern theater. What accomplishments emanated from these partnerships?

After remaining with Washington’s army for a short period of time, Pulaski decided to rejoin the fight.

To that end, he approached General Horatio Gates with a proposal to raise a cavalry outfit that he would then command. Impressed with Pulaski’s plan, Gates passed it on to Congress. That legislative body agreed, and restored Pulaski to the rank of brigadier general. Pulaski then raised a combined force of cavalry and infantry numbering around 250 men.

Known as Pulaski’s Legion, this unit had limited success in New Jersey in the fall of 1778. Soon thereafter, Pulaski received a new set of orders from Washington. Hoping to neutralize the Native American threat to the frontiers of New York and Pennsylvania, Washington planned a major operation for the spring of 1779 to subdue the Native Americans in those areas.

Reluctant to participate in that type of campaign, Pulaski requested that Washington reassign him. Obliging Pulaski, Washington ordered him to instead become part of the Continental Army of the South. Commanded by General Benjamin Lincoln, this force had Charleston, South Carolina as its base of operations.

When Pulaski arrived there, he learned of the presence of a British force south of the city. Suspecting that the British planned an assault on Charleston, Pulaski took his legion out to confront them.

In the ensuing battle, Pulaski’s force suffered heavy losses, and had to retreat back into the city. That fall, French forces under the command of the comte d’Estaing arrived in South Carolina. With 6,000 troops between them, d’Estaing and Lincoln planned an assault on Savannah, Georgia. Commanding the French and American cavalry, Pulaski reduced a British stronghold near the Ogeechee River, clearing the way for d’Estaing and Lincoln to advance to Savannah. Initially, d’Estaing planned to use siege tactics to force the surrender of the city, but by early October he decided that he could only capture Savannah through an assault. He chose October 9 as the date for the attack, and ordered Pulaski to deploy the cavalry as part of the operation.

  1. Almost like the real-life Charles D’Artagnan, the inspiration for the character of the same name in The Three Musketeers, Pulaski was killed leading a group of his men. What were the details of his death, and what happened to his body?

During the assault on Savannah, the first two attacks on the British defensive line ended in failure. As the French attackers began to retreat, Pulaski tried to turn the tide of battle by launching a cavalry charge. As he rode at the front of his men, an artillery projectile hit him, inflicting a grievous wound.

Hoping to save his life, American soldiers took him on board an American vessel for medical care. For years, individuals disagreed about what happened next. Some reports stated that Pulaski died on the ship, and the ship’s crew then buried Pulaski at sea. Other accounts, however, asserted that Pulaski had been taken back off the ship and moved to a nearby plantation while still alive.

In this telling, Pulaski then died, and the family that owned the plantation buried him there. Years later, an excavation on the plantation discovered remains that in many ways matched descriptions of Pulaski. In 2019, tests conducted by the Smithsonian Institution proved to most experts’ satisfaction that the bones discovered on the plantation were those of Casimir Pulaski. The bones then received a military burial next to a monument in his honor located in Savannah, the city that Casimir Pulaski tried to liberate in 1779.

  1. There are all kinds of monuments, highways and other statues honoring this great man. Can you tell us about a few?

Casimir Pulaski lives on today through a number of different memorials to him. As we have seen, Savannah, Georgia, erected a monument to him in the 1850s, while New Jersey named a bridge after him in 1932. In a similar fashion, New York named a bridge over Newtown Creek after him. A city in Tennessee and a county in George both bear his name. The state of Illinois has a holiday in March in his honor. Sufjan Stevens, a popular recording artist, paid homage to him in his song “Casimir Pulaski Day.” Most impressively, in 2009 he became only the seventh foreigner to receive honorary US citizenship.

  1. What have I forgotten to ask about this foreign leader who contributed much of his own money, and, in the end, his life for the American dream and freedom?

Since 2019, Casimir Pulaski has received worldwide attention. His newfound fames comes not for his military accomplishments, but rather as the result of the tests that the Smithsonian Institution did on what most experts believe were his remains. During its investigation, it discovered that that Pulaski had an anatomy that contained many female attributes. Medical experts have surmised that, because of a phenomenon known as congenital adrenal hyperplasia, Pulaski was neither male nor female. Rather, they would classify him as intersex. It is ironic that an American general long remembered for a heroic death might be known best to future generations for his gender fluidity.

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