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  • Matt Nee


The Fourth of July is, or at least ought to be, a time to remember the illustrious figures who founded our nation more than two centuries ago. Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams - these are the familiar, epic names that roll easily off the tongue.

There were others, of course; men like Henry Knox, Nathaniel Greene, Joseph Warren - their names aren’t as quickly recalled perhaps, but their contributions to our independence were no less vital. One such name - that certainly doesn’t roll so easily off the tongue - is that of Thaddeus Kosciuszko.

He probably isn’t one of the revolutionary figures that you learned about in high school history, but Kosciuszko takes his rightful place among the luminaries of the American Revolution. And the story of his incredible life seems as if it were lifted from the pages of an Alexandre Dumas novel.

Kosciuszko (pronounced Kosh-tchoosh-ko) was born in Poland in 1746 to a family of modest noble origin. As a young man he was educated at the military academy in Warsaw, where he later served as an instructor. From there, he moved to Paris for further studies in mathematics, civil architecture, and military engineering.

His return to Poland provided the “love interest” portion of his story. According to historian Jay Winik, who wrote about Kosciuszko in his book, The Great Upheaval, while he was back home, Thaddeus fell in love with the daughter of a “prominent general, tried unsuccessfully to elope with her, and faced the wrath of her father, so he fled Poland.”

His rather rapid departure from Poland happened to coincide with the beginning of America’s war of independence. Kosciuszko was drawn to the cause, and in 1776 the “tall, regal, spectacularly handsome” young man “hastened to America, to throw himself with abandon into the struggle for independence.” He arrived shortly after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Kosciuszko was so moved by the Declaration that he determined to meet its principal author – Thomas Jefferson. A few months later, the two men met in Virginia and, after a day spent discussing philosophy and other common interests, they developed a lifelong friendship.

His enthusiasm for the cause of independence didn’t stop with meeting Jefferson. The twenty-one-year-old Kosciuszko volunteered his services to the Continental Army, where his military experience was in high demand. Our fledgling nation had not yet developed a seasoned officer corps; Kosciuszko and a number of other young European men like him helped to fill that breach.

And fill it he did. Kosciuszko’s first task was to secure Philadelphia against the encroaching British forces. After that, in the spring of 1777, he was sent north to serve under General Horatio Gates. As the army’s chief engineer, Kosciuszko fortified American military camps along the Canadian border.

Then came the Battle of Saratoga, which many historians view as the turning point of the war in our favor. General Gates had Kosciuszko survey the land around Saratoga to choose the most defensible position. Kosciuszko’s skill in military engineering and his meticulous attention to detail frustrated the British attacks during the battle. When Gates accepted the surrender of General Burgoyne’s forces, it was the Americans’ first major victory of the Revolution. Gates later told his friend Dr. Benjamin Rush, “The great tacticians of the campaign were hills and forests, which a young Polish engineer was skillful enough to select for my encampment.”

After Saratoga, General Washington gave Kosciuszko command of military engineering at the stronghold in West Point, New York. The young officer spent two years fortifying that strategic site on the Hudson River, and he was one of the earliest to call for a national military academy to be built there.

Kosciuszko served in the army until the end of the war. He made substantial contributions to several more American victories, and he barely escaped death in one of the last major battles of the Revolution. “By war’s end,” Jay Winik tells us, “he was given American citizenship, promoted to the rank of brigadier general in the Continental Army,” and “received a grant of land by George Washington himself.” When Washington “tearfully said good-bye to his closest officers” in New York City at the end of the war, “Kosciuszko was among the honored few gathered there.”

His involvement in the American Revolution alone would have provided him lasting fame, with adventure enough for several lifetimes. But Kosciuszko did not retire into quiet obscurity. Five years after returning home, he found himself in the fight of his life when Russian troops under Catherine the Great invaded Poland.

Kosciuszko, by then 46, was pressed into service once again. He valiantly led his countrymen in their own fight for freedom, but the Poles were ultimately defeated by the more powerful Russians. Kosciuszko, however, remained “the hope of freedom-loving Poles and revolutionaries everywhere.”

When he was later captured by the Russians, they “displayed him like a zoo creature in a cage.” The Russians eventually sent him “to languish in confinement in the Peter-Paul fortress.” Fortunately for Kosciuszko, when Catherine died, he was given permission to emigrate to America.

His return to the United States was cause for great celebration. When he arrived in Philadelphia in 1797, “he was greeted with wild enthusiasm - the Philadelphia Gazette referred to him as ‘the illustrious defender of the rights of mankind.’”

After several years in America, Kosciuszko returned to Europe, living out his days in France and Switzerland. His remarkable life came to an end just a few months short of his 72nd birthday.

During his time, Kosciuszko was known to all the leading lights of America. According to Winik, “In one congressional debate after his death, he would be lionized as ‘a friend of man’ and ‘an advocate of freedom.’” Thomas Jefferson called him “the purest son of liberty.”

Although Kosciuszko is not as widely remembered now, “in the 1790s in the United States, his was literally a cherished household name.” Today in America, “traces of him are everywhere - bridges are named for him and so are town squares, his statue rises triumphantly in cities like Washington and Boston.” He even has a brand of mustard named after him.

And, the town of Poland, Ohio - near Youngstown - is named in honor of Kosciuszko and Kazimierz Pulaski, another Polish officer who fought in the Revolution.

Kosciuszko’s reputation, according to Winik, “became the essence of folklore legend, and he became the subject of living myth.” As a young man fighting with the patriots during the American Revolution, “it would have been hard to find a more romantic figure than Kosciuszko.”

It’s regrettable that the passage of time has dimmed our memory of this extraordinary man. On this Fourth of July, amid the fireworks and parades and picnics, maybe take a moment to celebrate the dashing young Polish officer who came to America, joined the fight and risked his life to secure our independence and give birth to this magnificent land of the free.

Happy Fourth of July,

by Kevin Diehl

Nee Law Firm, LLC

26032 Detroit Ave, Suite 5

Westlake, Ohio 44145

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