Kosciuszko's victory at Raclawice
A defining moment in Polish history
Tadeusz Kosiuszko`s defeat of a Russian army at Raclawice was a defining moment in Polish history. It stands in the memory of the nation as the moment when Poles, inspired by the success of the American War of Independence and under the leadership of this Polish General renown for his leadership in that war, sought to throw off their own foreign yoke.
Among the Europeans officers who had crossed the Atlantic in 1775 to volunteer their services to the Continental Congress, none achieved as much military glory on both continents as Kosciuszko. He was a military genius who rose to the rank of brigadier general of the Continental Army and was held in the highest of regards by his contemporaries, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. That his significant contributions to the success of the American cause are not better known and appreciated may be due in some measure to the difficulties Americans experience when trying to pronounce Kosciuszko (Kosh-choo-shko).
The depth of knowledge of military engineering that Kosciuszko brought to this country had been unknown hitherto on these shores. Time and again this knowledge and his ability to perceive how features of the terrain could be used to great military advantage made all the difference between victory and defeat. His name is linked to Philadelphia, Ticonderoga, Saratoga, West Point, and Charlestown.
Following the successful conclusion of the American struggle for Independence, Kosciuszko returned to Poland in 1784 where, in 1789, he reentered military service and was granted the rank of major general in the Polish Army. Soon he was involved in holding back Russian troops sent by Catherine II to subdue into submission the increasingly liberal and independent-minded vassal state that Poland had virtually become. Notwithstanding Kosciuszko's successes in the field during the Polish-Russian war of 1792-3, the King, Stanislaw August, aware of the awesome numerical superiority of the Russian forces and fearing senseless slaughter, agreed to terms set by Catherine II. In common with much of the Polish nation, Kosciuszko felt betrayed. He resigned his commission and left the country.
Deciding to punish the Poles, Catherine II and Frederick William of Prussia each annexed in 1792 a large portion of Poland's territory in what is referred to as the Second Partition. Russian armies were stationed in the remaining area of the nominally independent Poland. By 1794, liberal Poles had decided to resist the encroachment on the country's sovereignty with force of arms. A National Rising was planned that was to accomplish both a national and, inspired partly by events in France, a social revolution. Shaped both militarily and philosophically by his American experience, Kosciuszko agreed to become the Rising’s Commander-in-Chief and swore a solemn oath in Krakow's Rynek Glówny, or Main Market Square on March 24, 1794. Krakow was chosen as the starting point of the Rising for, unlike Warsaw, it was not surrounded by Russian armies. Setting Out for Warsaw, Kosciuszko won a great tactical victory at Raclawice.
For all the Jacobean overtones of the revolt, when Kosciuszko reached Warsaw, the King recognized and blessed the Supreme National Council, the insurrectionist Government. At the same time, and in spite of the example of France where the King bad been guillotined less than two years earlier, Kosciuszko did not seek to depose the King but rather to compromise with him. Rapidly the Rising spread to most of the country.
The National Rising envisaged that all men 18 to 28 were to be conscripted, regardless of their estate (nobility, peasants, burgers or Jews) to which they belonged and that this would allow Kosciuszko to field an army of 176,000. Those numbers were never achieved even though on May 7, Kosciuszko issued a manifesto freeing all the peasants from servitude. Fighting brilliantly on two fronts against vastly superior Prussian and Russian forces, Kosciuszko was in a strategically hopeless situation. Triply wounded on October 10 at the battle of Maciejowice, he was taken prisoner with several of his generals. Shortly, the Rising collapsed and the Third Partition deprived Poland of all its territory, the last vestiges of its independence and its King of its throne.
Poland's position in the late eighteenth century, sandwiched as it was between three imperialistic, unfriendly and powerful neighbors, was exceedingly difficult. To this day Poles argue as to which position, the King's or Kosciuszko's should have been adopted. The King's, suniniarized by his oft repeated statement that more can be achieved with the pen than the sword, was that keeping a modicum of sovereignty, even if much constrained by Russian might, bode better for the future of the nation than losing it altogether. Kosciuszko's position was that there was a national honor to uphold, a position reminiscent of the American motto "Give me liberty or give me death". Many Poles maintain that by upholding that honor, Ko~ciuszko's Rising kindled a flame of nationalism which the ensuing 120 years of foreign domination could not extinguish.
In the crypt of the Wawel Cathedral in Krakow lie the tombs of all of Poland's kings with one exception. Fate has denied that honor to King Stanislaw August Poniatowski who died under house arrest in Russia and whose ashes have been lost. On the other hand, the Polish nation has accorded that honor to Tadeusz Kosciuszko, one of the five commoners whose tomb rests there.
The above was first published on the April 1994 Polish Monthly Bulletin of the Polish Arts Club of Buffalo marking the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Raclawice.