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The Military Genius of Tadeusz Kosciuszko
His American and Polish Campaigns

Born in 1746, in 1765 Kosciuszko enters the charter class of the Knight's School, the Polish Military Academy founded by King Stanislaw August Poniatowski. He graduates in 1766 as a chorazy (an Ensign or First Lieutenant) and stays on as an instructor. In 1769 he leaves for France and further military studies. Returning to Poland only for a short time in 1774-5, he sails from France for the Americas in the summer of 1776.

In America, a new social experiment is being attempted: the revolution of the British Colonies against the most potent nation on earth. It is a revolt which is being fought more on principle than passion. In Kosciuszko's decision to join the fight for colonial independence, national pride was not an issue, rather the principle of freedom was. (The willingness to join the fight for colonial independence was not unlike that of more recent memory when in our own time people of all nationalities fought in the Spanish Civil War.)


In Philadelphia, Kosciuszko seeks a commission from the Continental Congress. He is armed with a letter of recommendation from Prince Czartoryski to Washington's second-in-command, General Charles Lee. Although the Continental Congress is the only authority in the Colonies, it is in a financial quandary and its leadership is most precarious. Decisions are not easily made. Fortuitously for Kosciuszko, however, the Congress fears that the British fleet might attack the port of Philadelphia and so it begins to seek an engineer who could help construct fortifications for the port's defense. Thus Tadeusz Kosciuszko receives a commission as a Lt. Colonel and is assigned to the task.

Kosciuszko relishes the opportunity to employ in real terms the lessons of his military training. But the fortification of the port of Philadelphia is by no means all that compels the Congress to require the services of a military engineer.

A look at the Colonies at the time shows a land bounded by the Atlantic Ocean and criss-crossed by many rivers, navigable ones at that, and many connecting lakes. These waterways can be used by the British to deliver supplies and arms directly from England unencumbered. British troops can travel up and down the Hudson River-Lake Champlain complex from New York City to Montreal and vice-versa. Control of this route is especially critical, since it can split the land forces of the upstart Colonies in two. How desperate the Continental Congress must be to rely upon a young, untested foreign officer who does not yet know the terrain involved.

Kosciuszko quickly plans the defenses of Philadelphia. He builds Fort Mercer as the main fortification and erects palisades in the water to canalize the English ship movement to areas near either shore where they can be bombarded from the banks. He knows the value of being able to deliver withering fire from covering barricades irrespective of the terrain involved. The feared attack does not occur. Kosciuszko's work is greatly admired.

Fort Ticonderoga

Kosciuszko's reputation being established, he is next sent to prepare the defenses of Fort Ticonderoga, situated right at the neck of Lake Champlain-Hudson River access route. Should the British control this route then their forces in Montreal and in New York City can support each other. Fort Ticonderoga is a vital blocking point to their movements up and down this waterway. The local topography is such that Sugar Loaf Hill overlooks the Fort. Kosciuszko immediately tells the commanding general to man the hill with artillery. He is countermanded by the fort commander who considered placement of heavy guns there as unattainable because of the terrain.

The British under Burgoyne reach the Fort; a few days later a British battery appears on the Hill, vindicating Kosciuszko's judgment. The American position becomes untenable.

The Battle of Saratoga

The Colonial garrison is forced to retreat south towards Albany. The new American general, General Gates, asks Kosciuszko to make a new defensive line at a place of his choosing. Kosciuszko selects Bemis Heights on the Hudson River, a most formidable position on the high ground, slightly south of Saratoga. Time an again Burgoyne attacks unsuccessfully. Heartened, General Gates selects Gen. Benedict Arnold to attack the British barricades redoubt. The Americans take a redoubt which overlooks the British position. Burgoyne now must retreat or surrender. He surrenders on October 17, 1777. This action marks the first victory for the Upstart rebels over the British. It convinces France to enter the war on the side of the Colonies.

Kosciuszko's and the Continental Army's success makes him ponder, for here a citizen army defeated a highly trained professional army. Could this be done elsewhere, particularly in his beloved Poland too?

Fortification of West Point

Kosciuszko's next major assignment is the fortification of West Point. another developing blocking position. His defenses are brilliant. Located on imposing sheer cliffs, they give a commanding view of the water and interlocking artillery fire. David C. Arney, Head of the Department of Mathematical Sciences at the United States Military Academy at West Point, looking down from the location of the Kosciuszko monument at West Point, has written of Kosciuszko's work on the fortification of West Point in the following terms:

Kosciuszko overlooks the river at its critical point, where ships have to negotiate a sharp turn to pass up river. Kosciuszko's background of strong geometric mathematics skills and military training at the Warsaw Military Academy gave him the tools to become an expert at designing and building fortifications. That's exactly what Washington had him do for the headquarters at West Point. The fortification was so strong it could never be breached without complete knowledge of its structure. Giving that structure to the enemy British forces was what Benedict Arnold did to earn the label of "traitor".
As part of the fortification, Kosciuszko has an enormous chain constructed to span the width of the Hudson. It is designed to remain submerged and un-observable to unwary ships. At the right moment, it can be raised above the water, stranding the ship and making it a sitting duck for the American batteries. British ships never try to sail past West Point but Kosciuszko's already enormous credentials are further enhanced. While at West Point, Kosciuszko is given a gift, a black slave, Agrippa Hull, to be his personal body servant. He promptly releases the man, but Agrippa stays on to serve him. Kosciuszko serves in the Continental Army for a further three years, moving throughout the enormous southern campaign. No longer a staff officer, he actually commands troops and is involved in hand to hand fighting. On one occasion, four bullets tear his clothing, but none came in contact with his flesh. He also sees many slaves, which reinforced his thinking about the dignity of the common man. Following Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown and the eventual and complete American success, Kosciuszko is promoted on July 15, 1784, much after the war, to Brigadier General. He is also awarded the order of Cincinnatus by General George Washington.

How do Colonial leaders regard Kosciuszko? When General Gates, the original hero of Saratoga is receiving accolades from a visiting doctor, he says:

    "Stop, Doctor, let us be honest. In war, as in medicine, natural causes not under our control do much. In my case, the great tacticians of the campaign were hills and forests, which a young Polish engineer was skillful enough to select for my encampments."

Likewise, George Washington writes:

    "while I am on this subject, I would like to take the liberty to mention that I have been informed that the engineer in the Northern Army (Kosieski, I think his name is) is a gentleman of science and merit. From the character I have had of him he is deserving of notice."

From his good friend Thomas Jefferson he receives the following accolade

    "He is as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known and of that liberty which is to go to all and not to the few or rich alone."

An apt summary of the impact of Kosciuszko's sojourn in America is given in the following passage by Miecislaus Haiman in his book Kosciuszko in the American Revolution (The Kosciuszko Foundation, New York, 1975, 198 pp.):

    "The American Revolution ultimately shaped Kosciuszko's character. It deepened and widened his thoughts. It taught him the practical meaning of these ideas which were inborn in him and which he tried to fathom in theory in his youth. He was returning to Poland with an important military experience, but, above all, with a new political and social vision. His American experiences became the foundation of his future role in Poland which so strongly involved all her subsequent history."

Return to Poland

After eight years in America, Kosciuszko returns to Poland in July 1784. Here he had observed a society where, except for black people, everyone in the population was free. As a young man in France he had been exposed to discussions of liberty for everyone and had read the writings of French philosophers. In the Poland he returns to, power rests in the hands of about 10% of the population, the szlachta and the magnaci, that is the noble estate, while the bulk of the population are peasant serfs. These are obliged to work so many days a week. in the fields of the owner of the estate to which they are attached and from whom they receive a plot of land for their own use. Kosciuszko, who himself returns to his family estate at Seichowicze, cuts the obligations of the serfs on that estate by half.

He seeks a commission in the Polish Army but it is only in 1789, five years after his return, that the King, Stanislaw August Poniatowski commissions him as a Major General. He is given an assignment under Prince Jozef Poniatowski, the King's nephew.

The Battle of Dubienka

On May 3, 1791, the Polish Sejm, or parliament, enacts a new constitution. Its liberal characteristics prompt some magnates, formally convened at Targowice, to request Catherine the Great of Russia to intervene so as to bring about the suspension of the new constitution. As the Russians advance into Poland from the east, Kosciuszko is assigned to the defense of the part of Poland that lies between the Rivers Wisla and Bug. His valiant efforts lead to his being awarded the Virtuti Militari cross. As Prince Poniatowski consolidates his forces towards Warsaw, Kosciuszko fights a rear-guard action. At Dubienka he faces a superior Russian force of 20,000 to his 5,000. He establishes an extremely comfortable defensive position between the River Bug and the Austrian border, anchoring his line at either end in the built up area of a village, each an obstacle which channels the attacking military force to a place where it cannot act as a unit and can be dealt with piecemeal: in front of him he had a bog, a swamp. He wins the professional admiration of the Russian, General Kochowski, who faces him. On July 18, 1792, the Russians ford the Bug and mount repeated frontal attacks which are repulsed. Then they infringe Austrian sovereignty and attack from the rear forcing the Poles to disengage and retreat. Quickly, the Russian general orders the burial of their 4,000 dead in the hope of concealing their number. The Polish losses are only 90 dead. Kosciuszko continues to fight a rear-guard action as he retreats towards Warsaw.

On July 25, word reaches him that the King, fearing senseless slaughter in the face of the numerically superior Russian forces, has agreed to accede to the demands of the Targowice Confederation and to capitulate to the Russians. On July 30, Kosciuszko, like many of his counterparts, decides to tender his resignation. Though he is promoted to the rank of major general and is called to an audience with the King, he declines the request of the King to continue to serve, leaves Poland and journeys to Leipzig.

The Kosciuszko Uprising

On 23 November, 1793, the Second Partition of Poland is promulgated. Poland now loses an additional 42% of its territory through annexation by Russia and Prussia. This leaves only 29% of the pre 1773 state nominally in Polish hands. Even this area is under the de facto occupation by Russian troops. The Poles seethe and plan an uprising. Messages are sent to Italy, to where Kosciuszko has traveled, telling him everything is ready for the uprising and asking him to take leadership. He tells the delegation he will accept but on one condition. Za szlachte tylko nie bede sie bic. ("For the landed gentry alone I will not fight."). Why was Kosciuszko chosen? The landed gentry was divided and it would have been difficult to find another leader, even Prince Jozef Poniatowski, who would be trusted. Kosciuszko was the ideal person, he had the experience, and his ideals inspire.

Let me digress. Upon his return to Poland from the States, Kosciuszko felt that what Poland needed was to organize a citizen's army drawn from all the estates and modeled after that of the United States. He worked out a plan and submitted it to the King. It envisaged a Standing Regular Army, a Standing Active Reserve, and a Local Militia, very much like the current National Guard. It also envisaged a General Mobilization whereby every one between the ages of 18 and 55 would be called to arms. All these people would be fully trained. Though the King did not adopt the plan, fearing that the Militia could easily be transformed into the private armies of the various magnates, the plan does give insight into Kosciuszko's thinking. So does the oath he takes in Krakow on the Rynek Glowny on March 24:

    "I, Tadeusz Kosciuszko swear in the sight of God and the entire Nation that I will not use the authority and power vested in me for private subjugation but only in the defense of the integrity of the Nation's borders, the recovery of its sovereignty and the granting of universal freedom, so help me God and His Son's innocent Sacrifice."

For all his authority and power as leader of the insurrection, he finds himself in a difficult economic, political and social situation: the Polish armed forces amount to no more than 12-13,000 soldiers, while the Russians have 21,000 troops stationed in what is left of Poland. The peasants, to whom he offers relief from their obligations to the landed gentry, flock to his banners. What kind of weapons can they be equipped with to allow them to fight with a standard military force?. The genius of Kosciuszko is evident in the solution: the kosa, or scythe. Though its blade is normally mounted at a 90 degree angle to its handle, it is a very simple operation to mount it so that it takes the form of a pike or long sharp bayonet. All one has to do is to heat one end of it, straighten it up and put it back on the handle. Moreover, those who carried it know how to use it for they have handled it from the time they were old enough to go into the fields. This is Kosciuszko's secret weapon.

The Battle of Raclawice

Kosciuszko's objective is to reach Warsaw. In ten days he has assembled a force of approximately 4,000 regular troops, 2,000 Kosinierzy, or scythe-bearers and 12 cannons. On April 4, his way is blocked a short distance at Krakow, at Raclawice, by a superior Russian force under General Tormasow who initiates the attack. But the tactics improvised by Kosciuszko are unlike any the Russians have experienced. The regular military procedure at the time was to assemble the forces in very tight musket formations, shoulder to shoulder and several rows deep, facing the enemy. In this manner the formation would put out a high volume fire and continue to do so without pause as those who had fired their musket fell behind to reload and the next row stepped forward to fire. Kosciuszko, however, has learned in America unconventional warfare, where one fires from behind a tree, from a ravine or from behind a rock, in other words, where one takes advantage of natural features of the landscape. Now he stealthily moves the Kosinierzy up a gully to within 200 to 300 yards of the Russian cannons. Then, leading the charge, he has them cover the remaining distance at the double on a narrow front. They thus get to the standing Russian formation without suffering many casualties and they capture the cannons. In military terms it was only a tactical victory, but for the Polish people it was also a great moral, social and political one.

One of the Kosinierzy, Wojciech Bartos, personally captured a cannon. To mark his valor, Kosciuszko elevates him to the rank of chorazy and gives him a new name, that of Wojciech Glowacki. He also decrees that the land he tilled would be his in perpetuity and that he would be free of obligations to his former landowner. As an additional mark of his appreciation for the valor of the Kosinierzy, he dons the sukmana, or peasant russet frock coat. On April 17, there is an uprising in Warsaw and on the 24 in Wilno.

The Battle of Maciejowice

The ebb and flow of the uprising continues through September when on the 15th, Kosciuszko receives notice of a new threat in the form of a fresh Russian force some 12-13,000 strong moving across the Wolyn between the Bug and Wisla Rivers. Concerned that the 14,000 strong force under General Fersen will link up with it, he plans to attack Fersen before the latter is able to accomplish the link up. He decides to assume command personally and to this end rides out from Warsaw to Maciejowice, covering the 120 km distance in 11 hours, changing horses repeatedly. Looking the situation over, he develops a battle plan which calls for him to be joined by a force under General Poninski some 40 km away. He sends an order to Poniński to join him, but the messenger carrying the order is captured by the Russians. Kosciuszko realizes what has happened and a second messenger is dispatched who makes it through, but a delay of about six hours has occurred. Aware of this Fersen. attacks. It is the 10th of October. Though Kosciuszko had the high ground, he had only 7,000 troops to Fersen's 12,000. At the back of his position runs a swampy river, but the Russians move across it, attack Kosciuszko's right wing and crush it. Part of the Polish cavalry quits the field while Kosciuszko entreats with them to regroup. They run into a Kossak patrol and in a brief skirmish, Kosciuszko falls off his horse, is wounded and then severely cut on the head. With that event the Kosciuszko insurrection generally comes to an end. Taken prisoner, Kosciuszko is supposed to have said as he regains consciousness, "jam Kosciuszko wody" meaning "I am Kosciuszko, give me water." The Russians propagandize that instead he has said Finis Poloniae, the Latin for "Poland is finished," Poles counter with Jeszcze Polska nie zginela or "Poland has not yet been lost," words destined to become the first verse of Poland's National Anthem.

The above is an edited text of the presentations made by members Anthony Smaczniak and Wallace Piotrowski at the April, 1994 meeting of the Polish Arts Club of Buffalo. It was first published in the May 1994 issue of the Club's Polish Monthly Bulletin


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