Thadeuz Kosciusko and the American Legacy in Europe

Portrait of Tadeusz Kosciuszko by Karl Schweikart (1772–1855). (Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie)

Monarchy everywhere fundamentally detested the American colonists. They expected subjects to respect the crown and abide established class rule. They resented our insubordination and they resented our “peasant” assertions of rights. While history records altruistic anecdotes about France aiding the American cause, the primary motive for any support of the American colonists in the war by the French government of King Louis XVI was the opportunity to exhaust Britain financially and militarily. The American peasant-colonists were never considered a threat to throw off the control of their mighty British rulers. France endeavored to encourage and prolong the conflict in America in order to distract and wear down Britain. A strongly-held opinion in the French government was that, “a forcibly held America would be a continual drain on the British.”[1] The French had zero confidence that the rebel Americans could manage a plausible threat to the British and achieve independence. With the onset of the American Revolution, the dilemma created in Paris was to weigh defense of the institution of monarchy versus the opportunity to weaken Britain.

As discontent built up in America, Monarchies throughout Europe were also dealing with shifting dynamics and popular crises. In 1772 the First Partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth carved up central Europe, and various regions were traded back and forth among rival continental powers Russia, Austria and Prussia like board game pieces. Poland had long been a battle ground caught between these empires. For centuries, those foreign powers maneuvered to at best conquer, or at least set up pliable, regional kings they could control. At this time in Poland they were subject to Catherine II, “Catherine the Great,” of Russia. Since the days of Ivan, the Terrible,[2] the Russian and Polish peasant alike was obligated to grow crops as tribute to his lord. If after the growing season there was enough left over, the peasant could eat. It was considered subsistence living and what the farm produced determined people’s quality of life, all too frequently the laborer was dirt poor. On issues ranging from conscription of peasants into the military to taxes and tributes to be returned to Russia, Catherine and the subservient local nobility called the shots.

Into this world was born Thadeuz Kosciusko. His family was among the smallest of landowners in Poland. Their small plot was worked by peasants titled to his family. His position as minor nobility gave him educational opportunities within the military. He studied at the Royal Military Academy in Warsaw, earning an officer’s commission; then he was given the opportunity to study in Paris. The French Ecole Militaire was set up expressly as an officers training school for the “lesser” nobility like him; opened in 1760, its alumni included a young Napoleon Bonaparte. There Kosciusko trained as an engineer and studied “modern” warfare methods such as architecture, fortifications, strategic planning and mathematics, as well as the use of artillery.

After all of his training Kosciusko had trouble finding meaningful work. He is said to have been recruited by the British, but he turned them away. From him position in Paris he was beginning to see the opportunities offered to common men in America; opportunities based on merit, not based on class or privilege. Once attracted to the American democratic cause, he could not bring himself to support another oppressive monarchy like the ones controlling Poland. He longed to be a part of the American experiment, learn from it and hopefully bring the same type of democratic reforms to Poland.

Anxious to use his military skills, Kosciusko set sail for America in the summer of 1776. He carried with him a letter of recommendation from a Polish Prince named Czartorisky[3] who years earlier had befriended the American Gen. Charles Lee. This introduction established Kosciusko’s qualifications as a military engineer. He joined the American Army as a volunteer. Before the end of the year, he received an officer’s commission as a colonel of the engineering corps, assigned to the Northern Department of the American Army.

British plans to crush the rebellion were to engage the Americans in upstate New York, to divide the American forces and separate the New England States from the southern States.

Working for an army that was outgunned and over-matched, without much in the way of modern equipment or money, Kosciusko saw the terrain as the American’s best defense. And in fact, the British intended to use the natural water routes of Lake Champlain and the Hudson River to advance on the American positions.

Sent to serve under General Israel Putnam, Kosciusko was soon recognized for the novelty and ingenuity of his defensive schemes. Among his contributions to the war effort were the design and the supervision of the construction of fortifications at both Billingsport, New Jersey and further on the Delaware River at Red Bank, New Jersey (which became Fort Mercer), defending the approaches to Philadelphia. Innovations included impediments in the river itself called “chevaux de fries,” large pikes or heavy pointed poles fixed on an axis across the flow of the river. The intent was to impale British ships or force them to slow down to avoid them, at which point the Americans could bombard the British ships like sitting ducks.

Kosciusko designed artillery posts and fortifications at Ticonderoga; and the positioning of fortifications he conceived and built at Bemis Heights, where imposing cliffs overlooked a narrow point along the Hudson River, were recognized as invaluable to the victory at Saratoga. Colonel Kosciusko designed and had built forts and batteries which controlled the Hudson River from every angle at West Point. There he ingeniously camouflaged the defenses with extensive functioning gardens.

In 1780 Kosciusko was reassigned to the American Southern Army. By then, the British had captured Charleston, South Carolina. In early 1781 Kosciusko studied the terrain, then designed and had built defenses to aid American Gen. Nathaniel Greene in out-maneuvering the pursuit of British Lt. General Cornwallis through the rainy, muddy, winter in the North Carolina countryside. He is credited with designing innovative flat-bottomed boats the Americans used to transport troops and equipment across the Yadkin River. But equally importantly, “Kosciusko’s study of the rivers also allowed Greene to accurately predict the two-day interval between a heavy rainfall and rising river water … Greene’s timing was impeccable – Cornwallis was unable to ford the quickly rising Yadkin behind [Greene],”[4] giving Greene and his men a two-day lead on Cornwallis in heading for the Dan River and the safety of Virginia.

Of these myriad innovations it was said, “all of this for the Americans was an entirely new phenomenon.” [5]

The term “colony” today sounds quaint and charming enough. It evokes feelings of rural days gone by, Thanksgiving, fresh air, bounty; wood-frame, white-painted houses with black shutters and rolling green weedless lawns. But it meant something quite different to those who lived as colonists. At the time of our American Revolution the term meant subjugation and feudal submission to an alien power, a foreign master, an indifferent king. Kosciusko was raised on the eastern-most border of Poland, next to what is today Belarus. He lived through the back-and-forth skirmishes between disinterested alien powers. This part of Europe overall was a dreadful place for the common man or woman. To be clear,

… the peasant lacked every kind of freedom. He owed the bulk of his time to the nobleman; he could be bought, sold and loaned out; and he could not trade without permission. The master had the power of life or death over a peasant with no more penalty than a small fine … while any resistance by (them) incurred harsh penalties.[6]

It was the way life was organized. The British, the French, the Spanish and Dutch, all European imperialists, attempted to maintain feudalism in the New World in the name of “colonialism.” And that charming little economic model was the blueprint for business by European empires for centuries. Slavery, serfdom, indentured servitude; taxation (without representation) and other such controls provided the economic power to empire building well into the twentieth century. Kosciusko fought for the American cause to prove that it could be done; that people were capable of self-government. And he hoped to translate that success to reforms back home.

In 1784 he returned to Poland only to discover that his brother’s portion of the family estate had been bought out. On the one hand Kosciusko was hoping to introduce some of the new farming methods he learned in the New World. On the other, the odds were stacked against small land holders. It was almost impossible for them to make farming profitable.

Although serfdom was rare by the end of the eighteenth century, many feudal or manorial obligations remained to plague the peasants – fees, dues, payments-in-kind to the landlords who retained ultimate jurisdiction over the peasants’ holdings.[7]

And,

... their problem was an inability to produce on their relatively meager landholdings crops large enough so that a surplus remained to be sold on the market after their families had been fed and their church [10% tithe!] and feudal dues and taxes had been paid.[8]

And finally, in the difficult years leading up to the American Revolution, another source of antagonism between European lords and the lower classes was

… a tendency on the part of the landowning aristocrats to reaffirm their rights over the peasants to make sure that they were exacting all that was due them in the way of fees and other obligations. A particular grievance in this connection was the encroachment of the landlords on various kinds of ‘common land’, where the peasants had traditionally grazed livestock, gathered dead wood, and cut trees.[9]

The landlords taking back these little privileges and profiting themselves from these “common lands” added to the peasants’ irritation and overall inability to make ends meet. This is how eighty percent of the population of Europe lived, under the control and collusion of the top twenty percent.

So it may be easy to understand that there was growing excitement over the opportunities inherent in the American Revolution. That momentum swept into Poland, and the desire to make Poland a modern state under the Polish King named Stanislaw gained strength. Debate in the Polish Parliament, itself a novelty, pitted advocates for constitutional monarchy against those seeking a republic versus conservative royalists. Reformers often referenced the example of the American Revolution[10] as their ideal, emphasizing the rejection of the old regimes and the establishment of popular democratic independence for the nation. But the Polish king’s policies were constantly being undermined by foreign powers. In 1789 Kosciusko and four other generals were tasked with raising an Army of 100,000 to defend the country as it undertook steps to reform their political system. Prussia and Russia disapproved of the modernizing reforms being adopted. Their policies sought to keep Poland in a state of political paralysis, while seeking to isolate King Stanislaw, encouraging both religious dissention and the conservative status quo.

In 1791 Poland proclaimed a new constitution. In 1792, tiring of the debates, Catherine the Great once again sent forces into Poland to exert her will. The new Polish Army was unable to stop it. The King caved in and ordered a capitulation to the foreign powers.

At this point Kosciusko resigned his post and went into exile. Poland was again broken up with regions parceled out like game board pieces between Prussia and Russia. The Polish military was deeply bitter about the capitulation, as most field commanders considered it premature.

As a hero of the American Revolution, Kosciusko was among the most popular individuals in all of Poland. In exile he began preparing an uprising against Russian rule. His reputation gave credibility to the insurgence. By spring 1793 he had been joined by other politicians and revolutionaries and the movement named Kosciusko their leader.

By August 1793, with plans for an uprising moving forward, Kosciusko fretted that an uprising would have little chance against the big three powers. He quietly crossed back into Poland to make personal evaluations of the scene, as he had done at the Yadkin River in North Carolina. In meeting a few sympathetic high-ranking Polish officers there, he found that Russia had forced Poland to disband the majority of her armed forces – only to have those men drafted into the Russian army. Then it was learned that Russians were arresting revolutionaries in Warsaw. The situation was deteriorating rapidly. Kosciusko felt forced to execute his plan earlier than anyone expected. In March of 1794, from a market square filled with peasants in the town of Krakow, Kosciusko proclaimed the liberation of Poland. Within a week he had a volunteer army of 4,000 at his command; another 2,000 could be counted as reserves.

In April of 1794 he clashed with and defeated a Russian army of 6,000 men. Like the victory at Saratoga had done, his surprising success energized the populace and inspired more uprisings around Poland. In mid-April the people of Warsaw routed a Russian garrison in bloody street battles. By May, Kosciusko could already form a government[11] of sorts.

But it was not to be. In September, Kosciusko pulled two regiments from Warsaw to try to prevent Russian and Prussian forces from meeting up. He was wounded, captured in the battle and sent to prison in Russia. By November the rebel forces surrendered to the armies of Austria, Prussia and Russia.

Weak and injured, Kosciusko was released from prison after a two-year detention. But when in 1798 Napoleon assembled a Polish Legion among his armies then sweeping across Europe, Kosciusko joined the Legion with the hopes of urging Napoleon to use it secure a Free Poland. Napoleon found the idea impractical.

Following Napoleon’s defeat, Monarchs and their ministers used the Congress of Vienna (1815) to put Europe back together in their image. Kosciusko tried to insert himself in the negotiations, advocating for a Free Poland. His appeals were ignored. Writing to Thomas Jefferson in these twilight years, Kosciusko stated forlornly, “that the object of European politics is ‘nothing else … but plunder.’”[12]

Thadeuz Kosciusko died in Solothurn, Switzerland in October of 1817 at the age of seventy-one. He was staying with the family of a longtime friend from his days in Paris, the Swiss Ambassador to France, Peter Josef Zeltner. In his will he requested that all of his American service pay from the U.S. Congress be used to buy the freedom of slaves. And on his death bed he ordered the freedom of the serfs on his family farm in Poland, an order which Czar Alexander of Russia refused to allow.

So while “The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man [after the American Bill of Rights] … became the source for ideologies and ideological movements in the nineteenth century …,”[13] it couldn’t crack the existing order of the major European powers. Those powers, divine rights monarchies all, were hostile to the democratic ideals espoused by the French and American revolutions. They were insulted by the idea of giving education, freedoms or liberties to men who had not before been so empowered. They sought to maintain their absolute power, keep these ideas from taking hold in the minds of their subjects and to kill these ideas off. They enacted onerous policies: “To prevent the infiltration of French ideas, the most rigid censorship was instituted in the Austria of Francis II and the Russia of Catherine (the Great) and Paul.”[14] And because of that censorship, those two countries, plus Prussia and many others, “remained immune to change, their privileged aristocracies even more committed than before to preserving the status quo.”[15]

With the failure of the Kosciusko Uprising, Poland as a country ceased to exist for some 120 years. The failure brought economic catastrophe, as centuries-old trading partners and markets were separated from each other, resulting in the collapse of trade. Reforms aimed at easing burdens on peasants were revoked. All of its institutions were gradually banned. The monarchies heavily taxed their newly acquired lands, further impoverishing the local populations.

The home where Kosciusko died is now The Kosciusko Museum, located above a shop at No. 12 Gurzelngasse in Solothurn, Switzerland. (Author)

With a tradition of neutrality, Switzerland became a second home to many voluntary and involuntary refugees from central Europe in general and Poland in particular. The Polish Museum in Rapperswil, Switzerland, commemorates these migrations and the lives of many prominent Polish people including musicians, composers, authors and the military. It houses treasures of Polish heritage and features a separate room named for Kosciusko. It is located high up in a charming medieval castle called Schloss Rapperswil, overlooking the Zurichsee and the picturesque town of Rapperswil (Sargans), Switzerland. Drive south from Zurich along the west coast of the Zurichsee about one hour. Shortly after the Zurichsee bends east, a narrow bridge crosses the lake just after Freienbach. Rapperswil is located across the bridge to the northeast, right on the water.[16]

To learn more about Kosciusko’s life and times visit the Kosciusko Museum in Solothurn, Switzerland. Solothurn is located about one hour west of Zurich. It is a charming old town woven together by meandering streets within enormous medieval stone gates.[17]

 

[1] Jonathan R. Dull, The French Navy and the American Revolution (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975), 46.

[2] Ian Grey, Ivan, The Terrible (Exeter, U.K.: A. Wheaton & Co., 1963).

[3] Antoni Gronowicz, Gallant General (New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1947), 42.

[4] “This day in History, February 3, 1781, Greene Crosses the Yadkin with Kosciusko’s Boats,” history.com.

[5] Gronowicz, Gallant General, 45.

[6] Gary B. Nash and Graham Russell Gao Hodges, Friends of Liberty (Philadelphia, PA, Basic Books, the Perseus Books Group, 2008), 24.

[7] Charles Breunig, The Age of Revolution and Reaction, 1789 – 1850 (New York; W. W. Norton & Company, 1970), 5.

[8] Ibid., 1.

[9] Ibid., 5.

[10] Hans Sigrist, The Kosciusko Museum in Solothurn (Solothurn, Switzerland: Kosciusko-Gesellschaft, 1986), 6.

[11] Ibid., 6.

[12] Nash and Hodges, Friends of Liberty, 193.

[13] Breunig, The Age of Revolution and Reaction, 61.

[14] Ibid., 59.

[15] Ibid., 60.

[16] www.muzeum-polskie.org.

[17] www.kosciuzkomuseum.ch.

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4 Comments

  • While serving with Greene in the Southern Army, Kosciuszko also did useful intelligence work. Upon the death of John Lauren, he took over Lauren’s intelligence network of agents in the Charleston area.
    An interesting account of his life and times. I am, however, not fully convinced that the French Government expected the Patriots to lose the fight for independence. Especially once the conflict went international and the American fighting became secondary to other areas.

  • He designed and built a series of three gun batteries at Mount Independence in Orwell, VT, across from Ticonderoga in June 1777, in preparation for the expected British arrival. The stone walls are well preserved and visible on a visit to the Mount Independence State Historic Site.

  • I have researched and gave a few presentations on Thaddeus Kosciuszko; I was glad to see the JAR published an article on him (I realize that spell check drops the z in his name and you have to fight to include it but the correct spelling is Kosciuszko). I would like to make a few comments:
    1. Kosciuszko did not attend either the Ecole Militaire (Paris) or the Ecole de Genie the military engineering school in Mezieres because foreigners were not permitted to enroll, rather he hired professors from these schools for private tutoring. He did enroll at the Academie Royale de Peinture and Sculpture where he studied painting and architecture.
    2. You state that he received a commission before the end of the year (1776) and was assigned to the Northern Theater; then later came to Philadelphia to work with Gen. Putnam. In reality he arrived in Phila. in Aug. 1776 and before he was commissioned a Col. of Engineers (Oct. 1776) he was employed by the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety lead by B. Franklin to work on the Delaware Defenses. After his commission he continued to work on this project. He met Gen. Horatio Gates when he came to Phila. and when he was given command of the Northern Theater (Feb. 1777), requested that Kosciuszko join him which then lead eventually to victory at Saratoga.
    Finally would recommend to anyone wanting more details on Thaddeus Kosciuszko: See Francis C. Kajnecki, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, 1998; Alex Storozynski, The Peasant Prince, 2009; Jan S. Kopczewski, Kosciuszko and Pulaski, Warsaw, 1976; and Gary B. Nash, Friends of Liberty, 2008.

  • Interesting overview of Kosciuszko’s life. I knew squat about his later years. Thanks for filling in a bit of that void.

    A couple thoughts: I, too, question the assertion that the French never expected the Americans to be victorious. Since I really haven’t studied the French attitude, I would be interested in seeing primary source materials supporting that view.

    With regard to something I have studied–the Northern theater–I must say that Kosciuszko came rather late to that front. By the time he arrived at Ti–mid-May, ’77–Jeduthan Baldwin had already seen to repairs on old works and begun new ones at Ti as well as extensive works on the Vermont side of the water on Mount Independence. Once there, however, Kosciuszko certainly did help strengthen the positions even though severely hampered by a shortage of the necessary 3-M’s–materials, money, and manpower.

    Personally, I don’t think Kosciuszko’s works at Saratoga had much impact on the battles. The British never came close to them–never even saw them. By the vastly numerically superior American forces just sitting there astride the road and river and occupying the bluffs, Gates’ army forced the worn-out and out-numbered British to make the moves they did. As it turned out, the Americans really didn’t need fortifications. Maybe they felt more secure sitting behind some works but, they still defeated the British in the fields and woods hundreds of yards away from them.

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