The Father of the American Cavalry

Kazimierz Pulaski

  • Benjamin Franklin
  • George Washington
  • Merian C. Cooper
  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  • Kazimierz Chodziński

Kazimierz Pulaski (1745-1779) is the most important Pole who gave his life fighting in the American Revolution (1775-1783). He was a Polish nobleman and military commander who is known as “the father of the American cavalry”. Numerous places are named in Pulaski’s honor in America and he is commemorated in many works of art and literature. He is one of only eight people to be awarded honorary United States citizenship. In 2019, the Smithsonian Institution conducted analysis of his remains and found that there is a very high possibility that Pulaski was biologically intersex or even female.

Pulaski’s family was strongly affiliated with the Eastern lands of the former Commonwealth. They possessed estates in Ukraine and served magnates in that part of the country. Their story is a good example of Polish migration from central Poland to the Eastern lands. Kazimierz started his public career in local government in Podolia. The region was famous for its grassland plains (the Great Steppe), which are very similar to the North American prairies. Consequently, Kazimierz became an excellent cavalryman. Podolia was a region bordering territories inhabited by Tatar nomads. This area had a long history of conflicts between Poles, Ukrainians, and Tatars but also co-existence and cultural syncretism. In effect, Podolia bore witness to a historical experience similar to the phenomenon of the American frontier. Indeed, during his military career in Poland, Pulaski cooperated with Tatar forces and commanded Tatar soldiers. He gained nationwide fame during the War of the Bar Confederation (1768-1772), when he became a leading military commander. The conflict was the result of an uprising against Russian domination in the Commonwealth but it also resembled a civil war. The war started when members of the Polish nobility established in Bar, Podolia, a confederation (in effect a military association) in opposition to the government. After the fall of the uprising, Pulaski was driven into exile. In 1776 Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) met him in Paris and accepted his offer to join the American army. Franklin gave Pulaski excellent recommendations to George Washington, writing that “Count Pulaski of Poland, an officer famed in Europe for his bravery in defense of the liberty of his country”. George Washington (1732-1799) soon made Pulaski a general and appointed him as the first commander of the US cavalry. Offering his services to the American republic, Pulaski famously wrote to Washington: “I came here, where freedom is being defended, to serve it, and to live or die for it”. In 1779, Pulaski was mortally wounded during the battle of Savannah, Georgia whilst leading the American side’s combined cavalry forces. The battle helped turn the tide of war in the Americans’ favor in the south. He was carried from the battlefield by several comrades, including Colonel John Cooper. Colonel Cooper asked of his descendants that they try and repay the debt of honor owed to Pulaski. In response to this mandate, Cooper’s great-great-grandson, Merian C. Cooper (1893-1973) joined the Polish Air Force in 1919.

A month before his death, Pulaski wrote to the US Congress that “I could not submit to stoop before the sovereigns of Europe. So I came to hazard all for the freedom of America”. Pulaski immediately gained the status of a hero and martyr in Poland and the US. President John Adams called his life a “universal service for mankind”. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 –1882), a prominent American poet, praised Pulaski in his Hymn of the Moravian Nuns of Bethlehem:

At the consecration of Pulaski’s banner

Take thy banner! and if e'er
 Thou shouldst press the soldier's bier,
 And the muffled drum should beat
 To the tread of mournful feet,
 Then this crimson flag shall be
 Martial cloak and shroud for thee.

In 1929 the US Congress established General Pulaski Memorial Day (October 11th). Every president has issued a proclamation for the observance of this day annually since 1930. In 1962 President John F. Kennedy described Pulaski as follows: “He was not an American. He had been on these shores for less than 2 years. He represented a different culture, a different language, a different way of life. But he had the same love of liberty as the people of this country, and, therefore, he was an American as much as he was a Pole”. General Pulaski Memorial Day coincides with the Pulaski Day Parade, which has been held annually since 1936 on Fifth Avenue in New York City. It is one of the oldest ethnic parades in NYC.

80th Pulaski Day Parade in New York that took place in 2017
80th Pulaski Day Parade in New York that took place in 2017, Source: Wikipedia, Author: W2k2

Monuments in his honor were erected in many places in Poland and the US, including New York and Washington. The General Casimir Pulaski statue in Washington, D.C. was sculpted by Kazimierz Chodziński (1861-1921). He was a Polish sculptor who designed over a hundred different statues in Poland following the partitions. Chodziński also created statues for some other European cities, such as Vienna. Between 1903 and 1910 he worked in the USA, where he sculpted the Tadeusz Kościuszko statue in Chicago among various others. Chodziński was born in Łancut in the historical region of Red Ruthenia (present-day south-eastern Poland). In 1910 he settled in Lviv, where he is now buried. Pulaski also gives his name to Pulaski Road, an 18-mile-long street that cuts through Chicago from north to south.