Universal Revolutionary

Tadeusz Kościuszko

  • George Washington| Agrippa Hall | Thomas Jefferson
  • Booker T. Washington | Little Turtle
  • David Humphreys | Joel Barlow
  • Jane Porter | Antoni Popiel

Tadeusz Kościuszko (1746-1817), a Polish-Lithuanian military engineer, statesman, and military leader is perhaps the most famous ‘interlocutor’ between the Eastern lands of the Commonwealth and America. He fought on the US side in the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) and then in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth’s 1792 war with Russia. Finally, as ‘supreme commander’ he led the 1794 Kościuszko Uprising. He lived in the US between 1776 and 1784 and for a second time between 1797 and 1798. As a result, today Kościuszko is a national hero of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and the United States. In fact, as early as 1779 Kosciuszko described himself as “more than half a Yankee” in a letter to General Horatio Gates, his former commanding officer. After returning to the US in August 1797, Kościuszko declared publicly that “I consider America my second country”.

Kościuszko was born in Polesia, in present-day Belarus, into a very ethnically and religiously mixed social environment. His ancestors were Orthodox Christian Ruthenians who gradually assimilated into Polish culture. Some of them converted to Protestantism and then to Roman Catholicism, whilst others became Greek Catholics. There were even Muslim Tatars among his ancestors. Kościuszko’s mother was a Greek Catholic and most probably he was first baptized in that rite. Consequently, Kościuszko became a strong proponent of civic Polish nationalism. According to Andrzej Walicki, a prominent Polish historian and professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, Kościuszko “clearly separated freedom from faith. He believed in equality for adherents of all faiths, regardless if they were Christians, Muslims or Jews. During the American Revolution, Kościuszko put these ideas into practice“. He played a crucial role in the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 when the British forces had been dealt a sound defeat. The battle turned the tide of the war in the Americans’ favour. Fortifications constructed by Kościuszko at Saratoga received great praise from General Gates, who stated that “The great tacticians of the campaign were hills and forests, which a young Polish engineer was skillful enough to select for my encampment”.

Kościuszko also designed the fortifications for West Point and General George Washington (1732-1799) personally selected him for this task. Washington considered West Point to be the most important strategic position in America. As a result, he transferred his headquarters to the fort in 1779. Today West Point is home to the United States Military Academy (USMA), a famous four year federal service academy. After coming back to Poland, Kościuszko fought with distinction during the “War in Defense of the Constitution” against Russian aggression.

The American Revolutionary War subsequently became an important source of inspiration for the Polish fight for independence. The Act of Uprising issued by Kosciuszko at the beginning of his fight against Russia in 1794 bore many resemblances to the US Declaration of Independence from 1776. For instance, the document started with an explanation addressed to the world as to why the revolution was necessary. In 1800 Józef Pawlikowski, a secretary of Kościuszko, in his manifesto Can the Poles gain independence? wrote that “the American experiences […] strengthened faith in the superiority of a soldier fighting with a sense of his own interest in the outcome of the war. But the leaders of the American Revolutionary War also went through hard times of losing faith in the power of an idea and its ability to mobilize the masses. This faith could be restored by local militia, which could not replace the army, but sometimes saved the situation in the most critical moments when other formations failed completely”.

Kosciuszko distinguished himself through his strong democratic and egalitarian credentials. For example, he was an outspoken opponent of slavery. He strongly believed that “we are all equals, riches and education constitute the only difference”. During the American Revolution Kościuszko’s aide-de-camp was Agrippa Hull (1759–1848), an African-American who was known to everyone as Grippy. He was a freeman and soldier of the Continental Army who presented himself as an African prince. Kosciuszko rewarded Grippy for his distinguished service with one of his most prized possessions, a flintlock pistol made by one of Poland’s most eminent gun makers for the royal cadets. Hull also had a lot of adventures with Kościuszko. For instance, on one occasion when Kościuszko went to scout out the situation on the east side of the Hudson River, he left Hull to watch over his quarters, close to where a statue of the Polish revolutionary now stares out over the river. Kosciuszko told his aide that he would be gone for two or three days. Hull took advantage of his commander’s absence and threw a party in the cabin, inviting all the black men at the camp. The guests drank a lot of alcohol and enjoyed the show put on by Grippy, who paraded around the cabin in the Polish officer’s dress uniform. Kosciuszko unexpectedly returned the same night, where he found in his cabin the people toasting Hull and calling him “Kościuszko”. When Hull saw his commander, he was terrified and fell at Kosciuszko’s feet. The officer took Hull by the hand and said “rise, Prince. It is beneath the dignity of an African prince to prostrate himself at the feet of anyone”. He made Hull wear his plumed hat and introduce himself to soldiers in the camp as a prince from Africa who had come to join the fight for American independence. The Pole was so convincing that many of the soldiers believed that Grippy was in fact a prince. The soldiers built an impromptu throne for Hull and soon a second party started in the camp. Grippy was forced to drink a lot of toasts, so the next day he woke up with a terrible hangover.

Kościuszko dedicated all his US assets to the education and freedom of the country’s slaves in his will: “I [..] authorize my friend Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) to employ the whole thereof in purchasing negroes from among his own as any others and giving them liberty in my name in giving them an education in trades and otherwise, and in having them instructed for their new condition in the duties of morality which may make them good neighbors, good fathers or mothers, husbands or wives and in their duties as citizens, teaching them to be defenders of their liberty and country and of the good order of society and in whatsoever may make them happy and useful, and I make the said Thomas Jefferson my executor of this”. Unfortunately, Thomas Jefferson, who called Kosciuszko “the purest son of liberty I have ever known”, never properly implemented Kościuszko’s testament as he was a slave owner himself. Nevertheless, Kosciuszko became a hero of the African-American elites. In autumn 1910, Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), an African-American educator, community leader, adviser to several US presidents and former slave, travelled to Poland and visited Kościuszko’s tomb in Krakow. He wrote in his memoirs, “Here I was in this strange land, farther from my home than I had ever expected to be in my life and yet, I was paying my respects to a man whom the members of my own race owed one of the first permanent schools for them in the United States. When I visited the tomb of Kosciuszko I placed a rose on it in the name of my race”.

Booker T. Washington, Source: Library of Congress

Kościuszko also tried in vain to convince US elites of the need to recognise the rights of Native Americans. During his second visit to America (1797-1798), Kosciuszko met with Mhšihkinaahkwa (Little Turtle, c. 1747-1812), who was a chief of the Miami tribe that lived in the Great Lakes region. In the 1790s, Mihšihkinaahkwa led a confederation of tribes to several major victories against US forces, including the US Army’s most decisive loss against Native American forces in its entire history. Nevertheless, he was finally defeated in 1794. On one occasion, Little Turtle presented Kosciuszko with a ceremonial peace pipe-tomahawk. Kościuszko was so pleased with the gift that when he saw his guest looking at his wool Tatar cloak, he gave it to him in return. Little Turtle was very interested in the fate of Poland, which had just lost its independence. The chief understood what it meant to lose one’s motherland and grew agitated as he listened to Kościuszko’s stories of how Poland had been dismantled by Catherine the Great. After nervously walking across the room, Little Turtle said to Kosciuszko “Let that woman yet beware”, not knowing that the czarina had died. Then, as if thinking of a new strategy, he said with a sense of bitter humor to Kosciuszko, “You might have succeeded better in a love affair with her, especially, if she was handsome”. The Pole was so delighted by Little Turtle’s visit that when the chief got up to leave, Kosciuszko gave him his favorite pair of pistols, saying that “These pistols I have carried and used on many a hard-fought battlefield in defense of the oppressed, the weak, the wronged of my own race. I now present them to you with the injunction that with them you shoot dead the first man who ever comes to subjugate you or to despoil you of your country”.

Kosciuszko soon after his death become what can reasonably be called a recurring theme in American literature. From the 1780s to the 1980s some thirty-five American poets, fiction writers and dramatists wrote works about him and his life. David Humphreys (1752-1818), aide-de-camp to George Washington and a secretary of Benjamin Franklin, was Kosciuszko’s companion during the American Revolution. He was also a renowned poet. Humphreys mentioned Kościuszko in his poem The Muse, which describes his journey to France. In his poem Humphreys provides a brief catalogue of his fellow passengers, including Kosciuszko:

Him... known once in war full well,
Our Polish friend, whose name still sounds so hard, 
To make it rhyme would puzzle any bard, 
That youth, who[m] bays and laurels early crown'd, 
For virtue, science, arts, and arms renown'd!

Kosciuszko also plays a prominent role in his Poem on the Love of Country, which was written “in celebration of the Twenty-third Anniversary of the Independence of the United States of America”:

With Poland's suff’rings rankling in his mind, 
Our levied forces Kosciusko join'd. 
Expert to change the front, retreat, advance, 
And judge of ground with military glance.

Joel Barlow (1754-1812), another prominent American poet, mentioned Kościuszko in his poem The Vision of Columbus, presenting him as one of the most important heroes of the American Revolution. One of the first examples of a historical novel, Thaddeus of Warsaw, was written in Kościuszko’s honor by the Scottish author Jane Porter (1776-1850). Her novel proved very popular in the United States and went through over eighty editions in the 19th century.

Jan Matejko, Battle of Racławice. Source: Wikipedia

Kościuszko is commemorated in many places in the US. Today, his bust stands in the US Congress. Statues were also erected in Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C. and in the United States Military Academy at West Point. The Tadeusz Kościuszko monument in Washington, D.C. is surrounded by figures that illustrate the battles of Saratoga and Racławice. The Battle of Racławice was one of the first engagements of the Polish-Lithuanian Kościuszko Uprising (1794) against Russia. The battle resulted in a decisive victory for Kościuszko’s forces. The statue in Washington was designed by Antoni Popiel (1865-1910), a prominent Polish sculptor who worked in Lviv. Monuments that he designed can be found at the university, the Grand Theatre, and the Lviv Railway Station.

The US also supports the memory of Kościuszko in Belarus, his motherland. In 2003-2004 The US embassy in Minsk reconstructed a manor house of his birth in Mieračoŭščyna. A second bust in the country displaying Kościuszko was unveiled in 2005 in the courtyard of the American embassy in Minsk.