Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial | KOSCIUSZKO BIOGRAPHY

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THADDEUS KOSCIUSZKO’S EARLY YEARS

Thaddeus Kosciuszko was born in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in early February 1746 to a family of moderate wealth and landholdings. He attended school in Lubeshiv, but after his father died in 1758 he was unable to continue due to financial constraints. However, in 1765, with the sponsorship of the wealthy Czartoryski family, he was able to enroll at the newly formed military academy in Warsaw, the Corps of Cadets (now Warsaw University). After graduating a year later, he remained as an instructor and obtained the rank of captain.

When rebels attempted to oust the Russian influenced King Stanislaw II Augustus Poniatowski, Kosciuszko fled to Paris because he had relationships on both sides in the war and did not want to choose between them—his brothers fought for the rebels while the King and the Czartoryski family were his source of employment and financial sponsorship. He continued his education in Paris, but could not enter a military academy due to being a foreigner. Thus, he enrolled in art school, but continued his military and engineering education through self-study, private tutoring, and attending lectures at military academies in an unofficial capacity.

While the Polish fought among themselves, Austria, Russia, and Prussia invaded in early 1772 and took over approximately 30 percent of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, an event known as the First Partition of Poland. In 1774, with the Polish territory now diminished, and with it the Polish army, Kosciuszko returned to find that officer positions were scarce, plus he had no money to purchase an officer’s commission, a common practice in many European militaries at the time. With no money to speak of, he took a job tutoring the children of the local governor. After falling in love with one of the daughters, but not accepted by her father, he returned to Paris in 1775 to avoid further trouble with the man.

AMERICAN REVOLUTION

During this time Kosciuszko learned about the problems brewing in the American colonies. With a disdain for the ruling class and the oppressed, he decided to travel to America and fight for the Patriot cause. With the help of the French, who were sympathetic to the colonists and helped fund the travel of foreign mercenaries, Kosciuszko departed in June 1776 and arrived in Philadelphia in August. He enlisted in the Continental Army as an engineer and received the rank of colonel. After an initial success at strengthening the defenses on the Delaware River near Philadelphia, Kosciuszko was promoted to Colonel of Engineers and joined General Horatio Gates in 1777, who was soon to be in charge of the northern army.

Kosciuszko rose to fame at the Battle of Saratoga in New York. After the Americans lost Fort Ticonderoga (located at the southern end of Lake Champlain in New York) in July 1777 without a fight, the British pursued the Americans south towards Albany. Kosciuszko was tasked with slowing the British advance and finding a point where the Americans could turn and make a stand. He felled trees, destroyed bridges and dams, and dammed waterways to flood the land along the route, causing the British to take twenty days to cover territory they normally covered in two.

When it came time to mount a defense, Kosciuszko chose Saratoga, which was on the Hudson River about 30 miles north of Albany. His fortifications were impenetrable, and the British were defeated on October 17, 1777. Many historians consider this victory to be the turning point in the war. Kosciuszko would go on to design the fortifications at West Point—it was his design plan that was stolen by Benedict Arnold and sold to the British—and participate in many southern battles with General Nathanael Greene, including the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina (Guilford Courthouse National Military Park), the second battle at Camden, and the battle at Ninety-Six in South Carolina (Ninety-Six National Historic Site).

SECOND PARTITION OF POLAND

After the war, Kosciuszko returned to Poland but could still not get a commission in the army. He therefore left for Belarussia (now Belarus) and became a farmer and landlord on a small estate, gradually sinking into debt after releasing the serfs who worked his land. During this time there were major nationalistic reforms in Poland, including the rebuilding of an army. The reforms prompted him to return to his homeland in 1789, and he was given the commission of major general.

Not happy with the reforms that threatened its influence in the region, Russia invaded for a second time in 1792. Kosciuszko won a number of battles and felt that the defense of Poland was going well, but King Stanislaw unexpectedly surrendered, abandoning the reforms and selling out to the Russians (he had a history of a more-than-friendly relationship with the Russian ruler, Catherine the Great). This resulted in the Second Partition of Poland, which reduced the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to only a third of the size that it was before the first partition.

Kosciuszko, unhappy with the surrender, resigned from the army and was forced to flee after the Russians threatened to arrest him. He moved from place to place, eventually settling in Leipzig (Saxony Germany). Many other Polish exiles had gathered there as well, and together they began to plot a new rebellion. During this time, Kosciuszko traveled back to France to drum up support, but the French were unable to help due to being embroiled in their own revolution at the time.

KOSCIUSZKO UPRISING

In March 1794, Kosciuszko returned to Poland to begin what would become known as the Kosciuszko Uprising. With what remained of the Polish army, combined with thousands of scythe-armed peasants who followed him due to his promises to end serfdom, he set off towards Warsaw to attack the Russians and Prussians. His army had a few early successes, but the rebels were ultimately no match for their more experienced and organized opponents. During the Battle of Maciejowice in October, Kosciuszko was severely wounded and captured, and he spent the next two years in prison. The rebellion was crushed soon afterward and Poland ceased to exist. It would not become a county again until the end of World War I.

KOSCIUSZKO’S TRIUMPHANT RETURN TO AMERICA

When Catherine the Great died in November 1796, the new Czar, Paul I, offered Kosciuszko freedom if he pledged never to return. Upon release he made his way to Sweden and then on to London, and though he had fought against the British in the American Revolution, he was welcomed into the country. At this time he was in very poor health and had trouble even moving around. He decided to travel back to the United States, the county he considered his second home. He arrived in Philadelphia—then the capital of the country—in August 1797 to a hero’s welcome. In November, after insisting on finding a cheap place to stay, he became a boarder at the home of Ann Relf, which is now known as the Thaddeus Kosciuszko House.

Due to his battle wounds, which included a nearly paralyzed leg, Kosciuszko spent most of the time in his second-floor room. The house was the center of activity as politicians, society people, and foreign dignitaries often came to visit. His most favorite guest was Thomas Jefferson, who at the time was Vice President of the United States. He also spent time drawing portraits of his many female admirers.

During his stay in Philadelphia, he successfully petitioned Congress for the salary he never received during the war (he had been given 500 acres in Ohio). Despite his newfound financial status and the welcomed life of leisure, he chose to return to Europe, and after receiving a fake passport from Thomas Jefferson, he secretly left the United States on May 5, 1798.

Before he left, Kosciuszko wrote a will stating that upon his death that his estate and investments be liquidated and the proceeds used to purchase as many slaves as possible and then give them freedom and an education. Jefferson agreed to be the executor of the will. However, when he died in 1817 there were many competing claims from other wills he had written while in Europe, so all Jefferson could do was refer the matter to the courts. It took until 1852 for the issue to be resolved—the money ended up going to his relatives.

KOSCIUSZKO’S RETURN TO EUROPE

In November 1799, shortly after Napoleon had taken over the French government by coup, Kosciuszko met with him about restoring Poland. However, he soon realized that Napoleon had no such intentions. Thus, with no country to fight for or return to, he took up residence in Berville, France, and retired from public life.

In 1806, Napoleon sought Kosciuszko’s help once more to garner Polish and Lithuanian support for an upcoming campaign against Russia and Prussia. Kosciuszko agreed to help provided that if successful, Napoleon restore Poland to its pre-1772 boundaries, eliminate serfdom, and install a constitutional monarchy, all of which were refused. Upon victory in July 1807, Napoleon regained Polish lands from Prussia and created the tiny Grand Duchy of Warsaw, which he left under the control of the King of Saxony.

Napoleon’s victory was short lived, for in 1814 he was defeated by the Duke of Wellington and the Prussians at Waterloo in Belgium and forced into exile. At this time Kosciuszko was approached by Alexander I, the current czar of Russia, who sought his help to smooth over Russian policies with his countrymen. Kosciuszko once again agreed, but under the same demands that he made of Napoleon, demands that were once again rejected. England, which was in favor of a restored Poland, had to compromise with the other victors over Napoleon—Prussia, Austria, and Russia—and the final agreement was to create a new Poland so small—even smaller than Napoleon’s Grand Duchy of Warsaw—that Kosciuszko found it to be an insult. What’s more, it was to be a puppet state of Russia with Alexander as its monarch.

With the restoration of Poland a dead issue, Kosciuszko left France and settled in Switzerland where he lived out the remainder of his life. In the early days of October 1817, he fell off his horse and was seriously injured. He developed a fever and then had a stroke. He died a few days later on October 15, 1817. His body was taken to Krakow, and he was buried in the Wavel Cathedral.

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Last updated on May 14, 2020
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