The Winter of His Discontent: Casimir Pulaski’s Resignation as Commander of Horse

Pulaski mortally wounded by grape shot while leading cavalry charge. (Library of Congress)
Casimir Pulaski by Sidney Waugh (1947). It is part of the William M. Reilly Memorial: Revolutionary War Heroes, located behind the Philadelphia Art Museum. Photo by author.
Casimir Pulaski by Sidney Waugh (1947). It is part of the William M. Reilly Memorial: Revolutionary War Heroes, located behind the Philadelphia Art Museum. Photo by author.

Casimir Pulaski, an exiled Polish nobleman, through the influence of well-placed individuals in the French Court and based on his experience as the de facto military leader of the rebel forces in Poland[1] was able to obtain interviews and letters of recommendation from both Silas Deane and Benjamin Franklin.[2] He arrived at Marblehead, Massachusetts, with two companions on July 23, 1777.[3]  Pulaski then set out for Pennsylvania where on August 21 he met with George Washington at his headquarters on the Little Neshaminy Creek, in Hartsville, PA (Moland House[4]). After this initial meeting, Pulaski traveled to Philadelphia to present his request and letters of recommendation in person to Congress. While waiting for Congress to act, Pulaski left Philadelphia and joined Washington’s staff as a volunteer aide-de-camp. On August 28 Washington sent a letter to Congress recommending Pulaski for “command of the horse.”[5] On September 4 Congress voted not to give Pulaski this command.[6] While disappointed, Pulaski continued to serve as an aide to Washington. The first action in the American War of Independence that Pulaski participated in was the Battle of the Brandywine on September 11.[7]

Following the battle, most likely due to his service protecting Washington’s retreat using the General’s Life Guard, Congress commissioned Casimir Pulaski a brigadier general with the title Commander of Horse, effective September 15, 1777.[8] The actual reason Pulaski was given the command is unclear, according to James Lowell, one of the members of Congress representing Massachusetts, in writing to Gen. Whilliam Whipple on September 17, “Count Pulaski, who headed the Polanders, is now commander of our cavalry, having signalized himself at the Battle of Brandywine.”[9]

The command that Pulaski was given, the Continental Army’s cavalry forces, consisted of four regiments of mounted troops (usually referred to as dragoons) that numbered a little over 500 men. It was often looked upon as the “orphan” of the Continental Army. Using the returns from December 1777, we get a picture of the Continental Dragoons that the Commander of Horse hoped to turn into an effective fighting force. Three of the four regiments had just of 100 active men, and the fourth only 82. Moreover, each regiment had from thirty to sixty men detached to other locations, leaving only around 300 men under Pulaski’s direct control.[10]

From the very beginning of Pulaski’s command obstacles were present that were going to prove to be insurmountable and lead to his early resignation. One of the most obvious handicaps that he faced was his inability to speak English. While he was fluent in Polish, Russian, German and French, his lack of English cut him off from communicating directly with both the officers and men of his command.[11] The other main obstacle to his being an effective Commander of Horse stemmed from the differences in his ideas and the American view on the purpose of mounted forces as small units mainly used for reconnaissance missions and as messengers and guards for general officers. Pulaski described in a correspondence to Washington his notion of the importance that the cavalry would have on the eventual outcome of the war:

  . . . While we are Superior in Cavalry, the enemy will not dare to extend their force, and notwithstanding we are on the defensive, we shall have many Opportunitys of attacking and destroying the enemy by degrees, whereas if they have it in their power to augment their Cavalry and we suffer ours to diminish and dwindle away, It may happen that the loss of a Battle will terminate in our total Defeat. Our army once dispersed and persued by their horse will never be able to rally, thus our retreat may only be cut off, our baggage lost, and principal officers taken, and many other events occur not less Fatal.[12]

Due to his European and Polish military training, where the cavalry had the central role in the army, throughout his brief tenure as General of the Cavalry, Pulaski was to continually run afoul of George Washington, a number of American officers and Congress. Of particular concern to Pulaski was what he perceived to be matters of honor. He wrote to Washington:

 The Cavalry in an Army generally forms a separate division and has greater privileges than the infantry, which the honor of the Service exacts, but here I find it is the Contrary, not that I aim at a Superiority over the rest of the army, but am desirous of having Justice done the Corps I command . . . [13]

 To which Washington replied,

Sir: I have received your Letter of the 27th Ulto., and in answer to your question respecting the right of command in Officers of equal rank in the Infantry and Cavalry, I am to inform you that there is no other preeminence in our Service that what arises except from Seniority. The Officer whose Commission is of a prior date commands all those of the same grade indiscriminately whether Horse or foot.[14]

During the first few months of his command, Pulaski drew up regulations and recommendations for the cavalry. He recommended the adoption of the King of Prussia’s army regulations, as they applied to the cavalry: ”… those may easily be printed in English and distributed in the different Corps for the instruction of the officers and men and that the same be strictly observed and executed.[15] Other recommendations that Pulaski included: that no part of the Corps be detached for service except under the orders of the Commander-in-Chief or that of divisional commander and only through the orders of the General of Horse; the appointment of a Master of Exercise to train the officers in the duties of a cavalry officer; and the establishment of headquarters for the cavalry where it could train and maintain a depot for resupply.[16]

For the remainder of the autumn of 1777, Washington and the Continentals were retreating from the British advance on Philadelphia; the last major set battle of the campaign season took place at Germantown on October 4, after which Pulaski and the cavalry were ordered to patrol the roads to Philadelphia, particularly those from Bucks County, to prevent local farmers from bringing supplies to the British. This patrolling led to a number of minor skirmishes. Finally in December, following a vote by his general officers to go into winter quarters (Pulaski dissented, calling for an active Winter Campaign) Washington ordered the Continental Army to winter at Valley Forge. In reality Pulaski and the cavalry spent little time at Valley Forge, for on New Year’s Eve 1777, he was ordered to Trenton, New Jersey.[17]

January and February 1778 were to prove for Pulaski, in the words of Wladyslaw Konopczynski, “a period of trouble and sorest trials,” and led to his resignation as Commander of Horse.[18] With the resources around Valley Forge being stretched to the limit, Washington felt that the cavalry could better be accommodated at Trenton, the site of his spectacular victory over the Hessians and his successful escape from the pursuing British force the previous year. However, the situation that Pulaski faced when he arrived at Trenton was much different from the one Washington anticipated. In a letter to the Commander-in-Chief, Pulaski noted: “… there was not a Load of Hay in Town. With the greatest difficulty we have enabled to put our heads under Cover.”[19]

Trenton is situated on the Delaware River approximately thirty miles from Philadelphia. It is located at the fall line of the Delaware and is the limit to navigation for ocean going vessels. Trenton’s commercial and strategic importance was its location with regard to overland travel between Philadelphia and New York City.[20]  Leonard Lundin further detailed the problems that Pulaski encountered in the move to Trenton:

Their little town was crowded to the bursting point with sailors quartered there when the Delaware fleet was decommissioned in the closing weeks of 1777, and with a considerable body of cavalry. It had originally been Washington’s intention to winter all his light horse in Trenton, but when General Pulaski arrived with them at the beginning of January he found the village unable to contain his entire force. The community had never fully repaired the damages suffered during the period of Hessian occupation; building materials and workmen were still scarce; and provisions and fodder available in the vicinity had been almost exhausted by the needs of the heavy traffic in the army supplies passing through the town in recent months. Pulaski found himself obliged to scatter his men and horses over a territory extending as far away as Chatham; but enough of them remained in Trenton to brawl with the sailors, offer the inhabitants exhibitions of poor discipline, and consume the provisions grudgingly furnished by tradesmen who displayed no optimism as to value of the certificates they were given in payment.[21]

                Due to the difficulties that he encountered in Trenton, Pulaski sent the various regiments to quarters in the neighboring communities of Flemington (Colonel Baylor’s 3rd and Colonel Moylan’s 4th) and Pennytown (today Pennington; Colonel Bland’s 1st and Colonel Sheldon’s 2nd). Pulaski remained at Trenton, where he personally trained a select detachment of men chosen from all the regiments.[22] It was during this period that a strain in the relationship between Pulaski and Washington can be detected. Pulaski sent a number of “memorials” to Washington in which he outlined his views for the training and uses of the cavalry in the war and lamented what he perceived was the inferior status of the cavalry to the other branches of the army. Pulaski noted:

We have not gained much by changing our Quarters; in Camp the Cavalry received Rum from time to time—here we have none. I hope my General, that when you give orders for furnishing the infantry with means for making themselves merry, you will not leave the Cavalry in the dumps.[23]

Washington’s replies stressed the need for Pulaski to follow his orders as issued:

But if the only objection to Trenton, be a little difficulty that may at first occur, in procuring the most desirable Quarters for the Officers and men, I would not have any time lost in seeking farther, the Barracks and the Town together will certainly furnish ample quarters for the Galley men and the Cavalry. The latter may with more propriety be billeted on the Inhabitants, in order to have their Horses immediately under their eye.[24]

Compounding the problems that Pulaski faced that winter in Trenton was the attitude of some of his subordinates, according to Jared Sparks:

Moreover, the officers of the several regiments, who had heretofore been in a measure independent, were not easily reconciled to the orders of a superior, particularly a foreigner, who did not understand their language, and whose ideas of discipline, arrangement, and maneuvers were different from those to which they had been accustomed. These circumstances caused some uneasiness that winter at Trenton although no formal complaint was made against the commander.[25]

While there might not have been any formal complaints, the disaffection of officers in Pulaski’s command reached Washington, who indicated to Pulaski that some of his officers were complaining of the severity of Pulaski’s training methods:

Your officers complain that the Cavalry undergo severer duty now, than they did while they were in Camp. As rest and refreshment are two of the principal objects of your removal from Camp, I hope you will, by proper arrangements give your men and Horses, an opportunity of reaping these benefits from their winter Quarters.[26]

By the end of February it became obvious that Pulaski was not going to be able to fulfill his ambition of creating a cavalry based on the European model. The “final straw” so to speak, was an order sent on February 26 by Gen. Anthony Wayne, who was foraging in South Jersey for cattle and horses. It in part it stated:

I am therefore to Desire you to send or bring with you as many those as can conveniently be spared and fit for duty to this place – where I am now with a Body of Infantry – and I shall expect the Cavalry this Evening … and I have also acquainted his Excellency Gen. Washington with my Ordering you to join me.[27]

Pulaski perceived “Ordering you to join me.” as an insult to his position as the independent commander of the cavalry. Initially Pulaski declined to come to Wayne’s aid, stating:

The number present fit for duty is eighteen, the remaining part are sick and without arms. I have sent of Yesterday a party of the best equipped men to Bristol to observe the Enemy’s motion on the Frankford road, the total number with me of the Effective is 12 Dragoons which remains with me those would be of no great service to you, I should accompany you myself in person if I thought I could be of service.[28]

However, Pulaski had second thoughts and set out to join General Wayne, to whom he sent the following message:

I am arrived at this place with a party of 50 horse . . . be so good to inform me your intention.  My intention is to attack the enemy by Night as strong as they may be we can loose nothing but gain profit by this venture.[29]

On February 28, when Pulaski reached Burlington, he wrote to Washington informing him of his intention to join with Wayne and also to resign his command or, as he stated, “… Nevertheless, I shall try, My General, to diminish Your embarrassment on my Account by resigning from my charge, with which Congress has honored me by your recommendation.”[30]

After serving only five months in the capacity of Commander of Horse, what led Pulaski to make this decision? In a letter to Congress, George Washington summarized his view of the situation:

Sir- This will be presented to you by Count Pulaski, who, from a conviction that his remaining at the head of the cavalry was a constant subject of uneasiness to the principal officers of that Corps, has been induced to resign his command. Waving a minute inquiry into the causes of dissatisfaction, which may be reduced perhaps to the disadvantages under which he labored, as a stranger not well acquainted with the language, genius, and manners of this country, it may be sufficient to observe, that the degree of harmony, which is inseparable from the well-being and consequent utility of a corps, has not subsisted in the cavalry since his appointment and that the most effectual as well as the easiest remedy is that which he has generously applied.[31]

Following Pulaski’s resignation as Commander of Horse, Congress authorized Pulaski to form an independent corps that became known as the Pulaski Legion. He spent the spring and summer 1778 recruiting his legion, mainly in the Delaware Valley. Accepted into the Continental Army in September 1778, it was sent to Egg Harbor, New Jersey to stop a British incursion up the Mullica River and was subject to a night attack that became known as the Massacre of the Pulaski Legion or the Affair at Egg Harbor. Following this debacle, the Legion was sent to the Minisink region on the upper Delaware River to protect the citizens from attacks by bands of Loyalists and Mohawks. Discouraged by what Pulaski perceived as another insult by being posted to this desolate outpost, Pulaski planned to resign and return to Europe. However, with the war shifting to the southern theater of operations, the Pulaski Legion was sent south and he rode to his destiny. On October 9, 1779 he was wounded near Savannah, Georgia and died of his wounds on October 15.[32]

What then became of the Continental cavalry following Pulaski’s resignation? Much to Pulaski’s chagrin, Col. Stephen Moylan was appointed to be the nominal Commander of Horse, but without being promoted to brigadier. Pulaski’s disdain for Moylan can be witnessed in his recommendation for a successor as Commander of Horse:

It is not for myself that I speak; I do not count on having the honor of being at the head of this Corps in the coming Campaign, but, as I shall always be a friend to the interest of the Americans, I am forced to tell my way of Thinking; moreover, if after me the command shall be given to Col. Moilen, all the Cavalry will be in the same Condition as his Regiment. Colonel Blan[d] is an active Officer. He will suit this command, and Monsieur Moilen can be contented with something else. I say what I believe to be necessary.[33]

As one reads in the correspondences of General Washington to Moylan and the other three cavalry regimental commanders, things did not improve, and as time went on they got worse. There was no more respect for Colonel Moylan from his subordinates than they had for Pulaski.

Various authors have commented and speculated on the reasons behind Pulaski’s failure as Commander of Horse. Konopczynski wondered if Pulaski’s temperament and pride got in the way:

In general, the Polish temperament, and particularly so fiery a temperament as Casmir’s, was not compatible with the cold-blooded dispositions of the Yankees to whom even president Washington seemed a man of daring. … Was his pride justified, or was Washington, who saw in him a captain rather than a general, right? It is difficult to pass judgment on the basis of Pulaski’s service in the American Army, in which he had never been given command of even a thousand men, and without such a command it is difficult to prove oneself.[34]

Jan S. Kopczewski assessment was much in the same vein, i.e. Pulaski’s personality and upbringing:

But conflict of ambitions that ensued ultimately prompted Pulaski to tender his resignation. Washington agreed, seeing that the independent-minded, mettlesome Polish partisan was out of his element in a post that required the coordination of every action with others. And although the American commander himself represented an entirely different cast of mind, he retained full confidence in Pulaski and continued to regard him with affection.[35]

In conclusion, Clarence Manning gave some insight to why Pulaski was probably the wrong man at the wrong time:

Back of all these plans was the fundamental hypothesis that he, Casimir Pulaski, would receive a commission high enough to allow him to operate more or less independently with his own force, as he had done in Poland. He had always been practically supreme commander of his own men. He hated subordination and paper work. He made reports when it suited his fancy and neglected them when there was fighting to be done. He had raised his soldiers by his own personal prestige, he had appointed his own officers, and he sought from the beginning to achieve almost the same position in the United States. His attitude was to cost him dearly on more than one occasion but he maintained it to the end.[36]

 

 

[1]Between 1768 and 1772 a group of Polish nobles, led by members of the Pulaski family, were in revolt against King Stanislaw Augustus II of Poland and his supporter the Russian tsarina Catherine the Great. The revolt was crushed and Casimir fled Poland, making his way to France where he lived in exile. For details of his life as Polish rebel see Clarence Manning, A Soldier of Liberty: Casimir Pulaski, (New York, NY: Philosophical Librarym 1945): Lezek Szymanski, Casimir Pulaski: A Hero of the American Revolution (New YorkL Hippocrene Books, 1994); and Francis Casimir Kanjecki, Casimir Pulaski: Cavalry Commander of the American Revolution (El Paso TX: Southwest Polonia Press, 2001) and The Pulaski Legion in the American Revolution (El Paso, TX: Southwest Polonia Press, 2004).

[2]“Chevalier de Rulhiere, a poet, historian and diplomat was a particular friend of Pulaski’s.  . . . Franklin discovered that the Pole had the support Versailles, and recommended him to Washington with unaccustomed warmth.” Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 23, William B. Wilcox, ed. (New Haven, CTL Yale University Press, 1983), 491.

[3]The two companions most likely were John Zelinski, a cousin, who attained the rank of captain in Pulaski’s Legion and was wounded in the Battle of Charlestown Neck, South Carolina, in May 1779 (he died in September) and the other Dr. Nicholas de Belleville, a French surgeon who eventually settled in Trenton, NJ. See John Hall, History of the Presbyterian Church in Trenton, New Jersey (New York: Anson D. F. Randolph, 1859), 428-430.

[4] Located in front of the Moland House is a marker indicating that this was the site of the first meeting of the Pulaski and Washington.

[5] John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., Writings of Washington (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office), IX:143-144. Fitzpatrick’s Writings can be found online at hathitrust.org.

[6] September 4, 1777: “Upon the question put, to appoint a commander of the horse, passed in the negative.” Journals of the Continental Congress: 1774-1784, vol. VIII (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1907), 711. (Hereafter JCC)

[7] Located at Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania is the Brandywine Battlefield State Park, in which is preserved Washington’s Headquarters and Lafayette’s Quarters. On the main highway (Route 322) just below Lafayette’s Quarters is an historic marker describing Pulaski’s role in the battle.

[8] “That a commander of horse appointed with rank of brigadier, the ballots being taken, the Count Pulaski was elected.” JCC, September 15, 1777, vol. VII, 745.

[9]Martin J. Griffin, Catholics and the American Revolution (Philadelphia: Self Published, 1911), 3:11. Griffin’s Catholics can be found online at archives.org.

[10]Charles H. Lessing, ed., The Sinews of Independence: Monthly Strength Reports of the Continental Army (Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 1976), 55-56.  In March 1777 General Washington established the Corps of Continental Light Dragoons comprised of four regiments, the 1st commanded by Col. Theodorick Bland; the 2nd under Col. Elisha Sheldon; 3rd under Col. George Baylor and 4th under Col. Stephen Moylan.

[11]After a time, Pulaski began to send letters to Washington and Congress in broken English, but his most important correspondences were in French.

[12]Griffin, Catholics, 3:27.  See John Mollo, Uniforms of the American Revolution (New York: McMillan, 1975), 23. The British never had more than two regiments of regular cavalry in America, the 16th or Queen’s Light Dragoons (who went back to England after the Battle of Monmouth in 1778) and the 17th Light Dragoons who stayed in America until the evacuation of New York City in 1783.

[13]Griffin, Catholics, 3:42.

[14]Fitzpatrick, Writings, 11:6-7.

[15]Griffin, Catholics, 3:31.

[16]Griffin, Catholics, 3:29-36.  Col. Michael Kowatz, an Hungarian officer who had served in the Prussian Army, was recommended for the position of Master of Exercise by Pulaski.  Washington agreed to this only as a temporary assignment; he further cautioned Pulaski against his “fondness for introducing foreigners in the Service.” Also see Fitzpatrick, Writings, X, 305. Kowatz eventually became the Commander of Horse of the Pulaski Legion and was killed in May 1779 at Charleston, SC.

[17] “You are to march the Body of the Cavalry in Winter Quarters at Trenton, where you are to take the most effected means for putting both men and Horses in condition to act with vigour in the ensuing Campaign.” Fitzpatrick, Writings, 10:234-235.

[18] Wladyslaw Konopczynski, Casimir Pulaski, trans. Irina Makarewicz (Chicago: Polish Roman Catholic Union, 1947), 35, 46. “His ambition called for charging the enemy in the midst of a hail of bullets. That was the poetry of war. The prose of war began at Trenton.”

[19]Casimir Pulaski to George Washington, January 9, 1778, Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-13-02-0159.

[20]For an excellent description of Trenton during colonial times, see Peter Kalm, Travels to North America, English version of 1770, Adolph B. Benson, ed. (New York: Dover Publication, 1964).

[21]Leonard Ludlin, Cockpit of the Revolution: The War for Independence in New Jersey (New York: Octagon Books, 1972), 386.

[22]Konopczynski, Casimir Pulaski, 46. Pulaski suggested establishing Corps of Bosnique armed with lances, “… which I undertake to train and perfect in their Exercise.” Also in Griffin, Catholics. 3:50.

[23]Pulaski to George Washington, January 20, 1778, Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-13-02-0259.  Washington’s reply on the matter of rum: “The scarcity of Rum is so great, that the Infantry can only have it dealt to them on certain occasion; your men must therefore content themselves until times of greater plenty . . . . “ In Fitzpatrick, Writings, 10:353.

[24] Fitzpatrick, Writings of Washington,  9:143-144.

[25] Jared Sparks, “Count Pulaski,” The Library of American Biography (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1845), 14:425. Also Washington to Pulaski, January 26, 1778, Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-13-02-0312.

[26] Fitzpatrick, Writings, 10:353.

[27] Anthony Wayne Papers, 1765-1859, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 95.

[28] ibid, 96.

[29] ibid, 97.

[30] Griffin, Catholics, 3:50. Pulaski’s letter indicating his intention to resign to Washington was written in French.

[31] Fitzpatrick, Writings, 11:80-82.

[32] The date of Pulaski’s death is somewhat unclear; some authors put it on October 11, 1779, while others stated he died on October 15. For years the disposition of his corpse was also a mystery. Originally it was believed he was buried at sea, but finally it was determined he was buried ashore and in 1850 was interred under a monument that was erected to him in Savannah, Georgia that seemed to have been forgotten. Then in March 2000, while the deteriorated monument was being repaired, the workers found a box marked “Pulaski” and on October 10, 2005 there was a formal re-interment of the remains. For a detailed account of the ceremony see, Edward Pinkowski, Pulaski’s Grand Burial in Savannah, October 7-10 2005, http://www.poles.org./Sav_200505.hmtl.

[33] Griffin, Catholics, 3:50.  Zelinski did not let the matter drop.  In December 1777, he “unhorsed” Moylan, as Pulaski wrote to Washington, “… Neither had Mr. Zulinski  any other design than to retaliate on Col. Moylan in the same manner that Col. M. had treated him, by striking him once or twice with a staff, without offering to draw his sword or use any other arms.”  Griffin, Catholics, 3:24-25.  Zelinski’s appointment as an officer in the army was held up as a result (not enough officers were present to hold a court martial) and it wasn’t until April 1778 that he was cleared of any wrongdoing. Zelinski was commissioned a captain in the Pulaski Legion.

[34] Konoczynski, Casimir Pulaski, 60.

[35] Jan S. Kopczewski, Kosciuszko and Pulaski (Warsaw: Interpress, 1976), 129.

[36] Manning, Soldier of Liberty, 225.

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