Thaddeus Kosciusko: The Polish Engineer You Never Heard of who Saved America

So, we know all about the heroes of the American Revolution, right? George Washington, John Adams, Paul Revere – OK, well, not him, he was a good silversmith, an average errand rider, and a godawful general. But odds are you probably haven’t heard of Andrzej Tadeusz Bonawentura Kosciuszko. Nor can you spell it or pronounce it; join the club, but we’re working on it.

Thaddeus Kosciusko was born in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (long story, don’t ask) in 1746, the youngest son of a member of the nobility, aka, “not going to inherit anything, might as well join the army.” Accordingly, he popped off to Warsaw in 1765 to go be a cadet, commissioning in 1766, and made captain by 1768. Which was an awkward year to make captain, because the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth decided to celebrate his promotion with a civil war to overthrow the king. Kosciusko decided that discretion was the better part of valor and headed off to France in 1769.

His purpose was to continue his military education, but as foreigners were not allowed to attend the French military academies, he opted to study art and architecture instead. Sort of a weird diversion there. But he still attended military lectures and read works of military theory, while also hanging out with members of the French Enlightenment, as one does.

In 1772, Russia, Prussia, and Austria do that national tradition of theirs: annexing bits of Poland and Lithuania. Kosciusko went home, to find that the family was basically bankrupt. To raise some cash, he began tutoring the family of the provincial government and predictably fell in love with the governor’s daughter. They attempted elopement in 1775, got caught, and Kosciusko got some severe treatment at the hands of her father’s bodyguards. This may have had something to do with his disdain for class hierarchy that he would develop in life.

With all this hanging over his head, Kosciusko decided that some fresh air would be good – specifically any air that wasn’t being breathed by the provincial governor. So in 1776, he decided to go off and check out this whole American Revolution thing. Sympathetic to the American cause, he offered his services to the Continental Congress, who assigned him to the Army the next day. Hey, when you’re trying to build an army out of nothing, talent management moves very quickly.

By October of 1776, Kosciusko is a colonel of engineers – that whole art and architecture thing – and does some work in Pennsylvania and Maryland. But it’s in 1777 that Kosciusko really gets his chance, when he’s assigned as the engineer for the Northern Army in upstate New York. He arrives at Fort Ticonderoga in the spring of 1777 and conducts an inspection of the fortifications as well as those on Mount Independence, a fortified point across the strait of Lake Champlain on the Vermont side. Although an artist, Kosciusko is no dummy and asks why no one is fortifying nearby Mount Defiance, which basically controls both Ticonderoga and Independence. General Arthur St. Clair, the commanding general of the garrisons, stated that there was no way to get guns up there.  Spoiler alert: of course there was.

Enter General John Burgoyne, aka “Gentleman Johnny,” with his British army coming down Lake Champlain in July, who sends his own troops up Mount Defiance because, in his words, “where a goat can go a man can go, and where a man can go he can drag a gun.” Which is ironic, because that’s how the cannon from Ticonderoga had moved from there to Boston in 1775. With artillery on Mount Defiance, Ticonderoga and Independence become untenable and St. Clair evacuates them, leaving Lake Champlain wide open for the British to cruise on into New York. By the way, we’ll meet St. Clair after the war when he heads up one of the worst defeats in U.S. military history, but that’s another story.

Kosciusko , in all this, is doing what an engineer does best: making life difficult for the enemy. In Burgoyne’s way, he fells trees, blows up bridges, dams streams, and does anything he can to slow the British movement. It works. These obstacle belts buy enough time for Kosciusko to select a good defensive position for the Northern Army at Bemis Heights, near the town of Saratoga. His fortifications play a major role in defeating Burgoyne’s army at the Battle of Saratoga – one of the keys to bringing international recognition to the revolution, and causing France to enter the war. Not bad for an art major…who also found time to compose a polonaise for harpsichord during that year. Because why the hell not.

From the northern campaign, Kosciusko now heads to West Point, which was then a fortified position on the Hudson rather than a factory for over-inflated egos, I mean, stellar officers. In 1780, Kosciusko requested to go back into a combat role, which Washington granted, sending him to the Southern Army. Now, the war in the south was going less than well, so Kosciusko spent most of his time scouting river crossings, gathering intelligence, and building the boats that the Continental Army would use to cross rivers while being chased by a superior British force. He helped pick the site where the Battle of Guilford Courthouse took place, which resulted in a tactical win for the British but a strategic win for the Americans. If that seems confusing, just think Bunker Hill: too many British casualties. This turned the tide of the war in the south.

Kosciusko would continue campaigning through 1781 and 1782 as the war in the south continued on a slow burn, with negotiations dragging on in Paris. During this time, he unsuccessfully laid siege to the British fort at the weirdly-named town of Ninety-Six, South Carolina. It was during this siege that he receives his only wound – a bayonet stab in the butt during a British attack on a trench he was building. One can only imagine the jokes surrounding this incident.

Kosciusko returns to Poland in 1784, with the war concluded, and an essentially useless certificate for pay from the U.S. government which is basically insolvent at this point. Finding the family still bankrupt, he helps to buy back some of the land and then institutes basic reforms of serfdom – essentially curtailing it on his estate. Which leads to it going under because of debt. By 1789, he gets a commission from the king as a major general. Here he lobbies for military reforms as well as social reforms, to allow peasants and Jews full citizenship as that would motivate their defense of Poland in the event of war. I know, crazy idea, right? But while there is some limited reform of the government, but Kosciusko doesn’t see that it goes far enough.

Still, it is radical enough that some in Poland decide that it’s too radical and ask Russia for help in overthrowing the government. Russia is, of course, all too happy to hop back into Poland and on May 18, 1792, a 100,000-man Russian army invades Poland. In a series of delaying actions, Kosciusko – now commanding a division – manages to inflict several defeats on larger Russian forces, winning the highest military award that Poland has at the time. His skillful defensive operations and the way he can read terrain allow him to out-general his Russian opponents – defeating an army of 25,000 with just over 5,000 of his own men at Dubienka. For this, he receives a promotion to lieutenant general. Still, the Polish are forced to retreat, and on July 24, 1792, the king capitulates and orders his armies to cease hostilities.

Annoyed at having to face defeat when his forces had never actually been defeated, Kosciusko leaves Poland and heads to Leipzig, where a group of Polish emigres have been plotting a revolution – as one does. Attempting to gain French assistance, Kosciusko arrives in Paris in 1793 – a Paris that has its own revolution brewing. However, he sees that no help will arrive from this quarter and returns to Leipzig. At the same time, Prussia and Russia once again partition Poland, their great national pastime, leaving Poland an embarrassing 77,000 square miles. They humiliate Poland, forcing her to reduce her military and incorporate large parts of it into the Russian army.

Substantially ticked off, Kosciusko slips by Tsarist patrols and enters Krakow in March of 1794. On March 24, he casually kicks off an uprising from the Main Square and begins building an army of volunteers, including untrained peasants as well as former members of the regular army. Throughout the spring and summer, he wages war against Russian forces, winning small victories but nothing large enough to turn the tide. Prussia of course hops in on this thing, and now Kosciusko is faced with a two-front war. On October 10, he is wounded and captured. This pretty much takes the heart out of the uprising, and Russia and Prussia annex what’s left of Poland – ending the Polish state for the next 123 years.

Fortunately for Kosciusko, Catherine the Great kicks the bucket in November of 1796, and Tsar Paul I frees Kosciusko and pardons him. Kosciusko calls it quits on this whole European thing and heads back to the U.S. in 1797. Here, the Federalist U.S. government gives him a lukewarm welcome because of his association with the French Revolution. However, he strikes up a firm friendship with Thomas Jefferson. But just one year later, Kosciusko is back in France, having received word that the Poles are siding with Napoleon to try to kick Prussia and Russia out and regain sovereignty. Kosciusko leaves his estate with Jefferson, with the express desire that his money go to the freeing of American slaves – including Jefferson’s – and their education. Predictably, Jefferson won’t do this. The bequest gets held up in courts – including the U.S. Supreme Court – until 1856. Go figure.

Meanwhile, Kosciusko arrives in France to find that the French government and Napoleon really don’t care about Polish sovereignty at all. After the fall of Bonaparte in 1815, Kosciusko travels to Russia to negotiate with the Tsar for an independent Polish state, with borders restored to their 1792 status, as well as social reforms. The Tsar instead creates the Kingdom of Poland, a tiny vassal state that Kosciusko descries as “a joke.” Thoroughly frustrated, Kosciusko moves to Switzerland. In 1817, he attempts to emancipate the peasants on his remaining lands back home, but the Tsar refuses to allow it. In obstinate pique, Kosciusko dies on October 15, 1817.

As his retribution to the Tsar, the Federalists, and Napoleon, Kosciusko will be one of the most well-beloved and memorialized Poles in history, with monuments to him in his native Poland – he has his own mound in Krakow, composed of earth from the battlefields where he fought – bridges named for him in Albany and New York City, his home in Philadelphia becoming the smallest U.S. National Park, and a museum at his residence in Switzerland. There are statues of him in Washington, D.C., Krakow, Lodz, Boston, West Point, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Belarus, and Solothurn, Switzerland. He also is the namesake for the tallest mountain in Australia.

He’s one of many foreign volunteers without whom the U.S. probably wouldn’t exist. He’s also unique in that he was a social reformer who was an abolitionist before it was cool. The dude lived a metal life and I have no idea why there hasn’t been a movie made about him.

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About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare. Support this blog’s Patreon here.

Cover Photo:   
Portrait of Tadeusz Kościuszko, member of the Wasow Cadet Corps’ first class and its most famous alumnus. Painting by Kazimierz Wojniakowski.

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