Thaddeus Kosciuszko: the Purest Son of Liberty

By James S. Pula. New York. Hippocrene Books. 1999. Bibliography, 3 appendices, illustrations. 357 pages. Hardcover.

James R. Thompson

Though without an index, this is is one of the more interesting biographies of Kosciuszko to appear since World War II. It looks at Kosciuszko's activities in America and in Poland during the 18 years of his active military career. It shows his interactions with some of the most significant figures of the American Revolution. It gives texture to our picture of Kosciuszko as a loyal subordinate, an original military engineer, a great soul. Some of the plates in the book, such as that of Kosciuszko in old age in Switzerland chatting with children, give a meaning to Kosciuszko not readily perceived in earlier works. The notice of Kosciuszko's keen satisfaction in the rallying of Jewish citizens to the Polish standard during the rising of 1794 is an example: "Nothing can convince more the far away nations about the holiness of our cause and the justness of the present revolution . . . though separated from us by their religion and customs, they sacrifice their own lives of their own free will in order to support the uprising."

Try as he might, the author of Liberty Thomas Fleming could not display much Jewish enthusiasm for the American Revolution. Kosciuszko, during the Rising of 1794, welcomed a regiment of Jews who fought for Poland against Russia under the leadership of Colonel Berek Joselewicz, who himself died in the struggle for Poland. Pula shows us a Kosciuszko who is at once sympathetic and noble. But, alas, he gives us a vision of Kosciuszko which is an updated but very familiar profile of that of a wonderful impractical anachronism. Thus, Pula largely misses the essence of Kosciuszko.

Two figures in all Polish history have been given the title of naczelnik narodu. Both of these, Kosciuszko and Pilsudski, are buried in the crypts of the kings at Wawel Castle. The title, naczelnik narodu, was supposed to be reminiscent of the legendary Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus, who left off ploughing to become dictator in defense of the Roman Republic, and who, the enemy having been defeated, resigned his authority and returned to ploughing. During the dark days of Soviet occupation, anyone visiting the tombs would see Pilsudski's crypt laden with flowers. Kosciuszko's seldom warranted even a single rose.

Pilsudski was the hard cynical realist who valued his British and French allies pretty much for what they were worth. He was the military genius whose strategy had led to victory over the Russians: the only war the Soviets ever lost before they lost the Cold War. Pilsudski had more than the whiff of Bonaparte about him, adored by his soldiers and willing to execute coup d'etat when he deemed it necessary.

Kosciuszko, in contrast, seemed to be the cameo idealist, the man too loyal, too naive, too modest to be effective. Whereas Pilsudski had beaten the Russians, Kosciuszko had been beaten by them. His defeat at Maciejowice ushered in the third partition of Poland, bringing with it over 100 years of occupation, which occupation was ended by Pilsudski until renewed by Germany and Russia in 1939, after Pilsudski's death. For those living in Poland during the 50 year Soviet occupation, the "for your freedom and for ours" slogan rang hollow indeed. Poles knew full well that their allies had given them up to slavery at Yalta. The most powerful of these allies, the Americans, were the ones Kosciuszko had saved at Saratoga. And so Kosciuszko's crypt stood apart, as befitted a monument to a charmingly ineffective Don Quixote, who, in sum, had done Poland more harm than good.

Now that Poland has regained its freedom, we should go back and examine the record of Kosciuszko more closely. Is it possible that Kosciuszko's republican vision was correct after all? Might it even be the case that Kosciuszko had advanced a paradigm which had led to the freedom won on June 4, 1989?

To start at the beginning of Kosciuszko's public career, let us briefly comment on his contributions during the defense against the invasion of Burgoyne in 1777. In their attacks on Fort Carillon (a.k.a. Fort Ticonderoga) during the Seven Years' War, it had never occurred to the British to seize the high ground around the fort and fire down into it with artillery. Kosciuszko saw clearly that the high ground northwest of the fort at Sugar Loaf mountain ought to be defended lest the British learn from their mistakes of 20 years earlier. Even a screen of sharpshooters could have deprived the British of the Sugar Loaf heights. Kosciuszko's recommendations were not followed by the American commander St. Clair (who, as was the case with Gates, had been a British officer during the disastrous Braddock campaign of that earlier war). When, as a consequence, the fort fell, and St. Clair was court-martialed, Kosciuszko, having written strong letters of sympathy and support for his disgraced commander, turned his attention to retarding the southern advance of Burgoyne.

The British fumed at his effectiveness. Streams were dammed, turning the roads to marshes. Trees were felled so that their branches interlocked in a fashion most difficult to remove. Despite the near panic in the American army, Kosciuszko's use of shovel and axe so retarded the British that between present day Whitehall and Fort Edward progress was at the rate of one mile per day. And every day Burgoyne's supply lines became more precarious, while the American forces grew. Finally at Bemis Heights, Kosciuszko designed a cork in the bottle which forced Burgoyne to abandon the River Road for a flanking attack through the woods, where the British tactic of volley followed by bayonet charge was ineffective, and the American ranger tactics were extremely effective. Thus did the Americans gain their first major victory of the Revolution, bringing the French into the conflict on the American side. Saratoga was, in the minds of most historians, the turning point of the war.

The American commander at Saratoga, Horatio Gates, when gushed over by his Boswell, Dr. Benjamin Rush, answered, "Stop, Doctor, stop, let us be honest. In war, as in medicine, natural causes not under our control, do much. In the present case, the great tacticians of the campaign, were hills and forests, which a young Polish Engineer was skillful enough to select for my encampment."

Most military leaders have a learning curve. Certainly that was the case with George Washington himself. However, when one looks at Kosciuszko's record during the American Revolution and later, one is struck with the matter-of-fact way Kosciuszko operated. Everything was "by the book." His defenses of West Point were brilliant with their use of natural terrain and interlocking fields of fire. But to Kosciuszko, they seemed obvious. The construction of defense works was somehow second nature to him. Kosciuszko realized, long before Napoleon came on the scene, that artillery could be used as the great equalizer and killer of men. Twenty years before Barras created the Ecole Polytechnique in France, Kosciuszko had proposed the creation of an American technical military school where all officers would be trained in engineering and the sciences. His vision, the United States Military Academy at West Point, gave America the distinction of being the only country whose officer cadre is peopled by engineers (the Ecole Polytechnique produces scientists, managers and politicians; the French still get their officers from St. Cyr).

The obvious question to be addressed is, "If Kosciuszko did everything by the book, then where did he get that book?" Neither Pula nor earlier biographers of Kosciuszko really try to answer this question. To them, Kosciuszko is some sort of Enlightenment warrior-statesman, a new man who sprang full grown from the provinces of the French Enlightenment without the sentimental baggage of an earlier time.

In his political writings Kosciuszko is a complete republican, unlike his American colleagues, who finally departed from the notion of hereditary monarchy only with reluctance and trepidation. If one looks at a list of some of his maxims, implicit and explicit, Kosciuszko looks much more like an American of 1877 than one of 1777. Here is what one finds in his writings and statements on political subjects:

1. Nations can be based on shared interests and territory and need not be based on uniformity of religion or language.

2. The republic is the natural government for the West.

3. The vote in a republic should be extended to a significant fraction of the population.

4. All voters are members of the militia and subject to callup.

5. Serfdom and slavery are bad and must be phased out.

6. Imperialism is a bad idea for republics.

7. The function of the military of a republic is consequently one of defense. The militia is a people's army willing to engage in partisan warfare.

8. The advantages of the defender include fortification and placement of artillery. To make technology work for the army, officers should receive engineering training in an institute devoted to military science.

9. Republican armies can be slow to mobilize but once mobilized should numerically overwhelm their enemies.

10. Jacobinist tendencies should be resisted. We build on what went before. We do not reinvent the world.

The friendship of Jefferson and Kosciuszko is remarkable. Kosciuszko was one of Jefferson's best friends and one of the few people with whom Jefferson liked to talk political theory. Not well read in the Scottish or French Enlightenment literatures, Kosciuszko was a republican to the core of his being. He was the sort of person young Jefferson was in the process of becoming. As ideological in his republicanism as the later creator of the Red Army, Leon Trotsky, was in his Marxism, Kosciuszko regarded republican government as the natural convergence point for Western governments. In this regard, his republican faith surpassed even that of the young Jefferson.

The key to both Kosciuszko's military science and his political theory is his experience as a kresy szlachcic in a republic that was already over 200 years old at the time of the American Revolution. From the adoption of the Constitution of the United States to the present time is a shorter time interval than the beginning of the Polish Republic to America's adopting of its Constitution. When Kosciuszko spoke republican theory to Jefferson, his was the voice of two hundred years of experience.

As regards building fortifications or funneling a foe into a killing field, Kosciuszko's people had been doing that since the formation of the Polish-Lithuanian Union in 1403. One imagines that Kosciuszko listened respectfully to tales of his older American comrades concerning the brutality of Huron and Mohawk massacres, keeping to himself the realization that the Americans were fortunate that their Amerind foes had a significant technological disadvantage vis-a-vis their Anglo-American foes, whereas the Poles had had to deal with numerically much larger formations of Cossacks, Tatars, and Turks, whose technology was comparable to that of the Poles and whose brutality was not less than that of the Amerinds. If West Point was a key place for a fortification, so also had been Kudak, and Zbaraz, and Jasna Góra. Poles had been building and defending such fortifications for centuries.

Burgoyne's army at its height had under 10,000 troops. At Beresteczko in 1651, the Poles under that greatest of Polish generals, Stefan Czarniecki, had fielded an army of 100,000 against a joint Cossack--Tatar force of nearly twice that number, exploiting enemy errors in command-communications-control by funneling the Cossacks into a marsh which became a killing field. Similarly, at Vienna in 1683, Sobieski, perceiving failures in Turkish command-communications-control, launched the last great cavalry charge in European warfare against a force twenty times his size, with the buzz-saw like sound of the hussars' feathers driving away the last Islamic invasion of Europe. In summary, Kosciuszko came from a multiple generational citizen-soldier tradition which had dealt with enemy forces compared to which Burgoyne's was rather small beer.

Whereas the French Jacobins can lay claim to having created the prototype for many of the revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this claim does not work for Poland. Nobody can imagine a Marat or a Robespierre or a Bonaparte taking Kosciuszko's Kraków oath: "I, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, swear in the sight of God to the whole Polish nation that I will use the power entrusted to me for the personal oppression of none, but will only use it for the defense of the integrity of the boundaries, the regaining of the independence of the nation, and the solid establishment of universal freedom. So help me God and the Innocent Passion of His Son."

All the multiple Polish risings against occupiers, from Bar to Solidarity came from the Christian szlachcic ("intelligentsia") left, with the bishops, excepting Wyszynski and Wojtyla, generally in opposition to the risings, and with the Branickis, Potockis, Krasinskis and other magnate families usually standing with the occupiers. The influence of Kosciuszko in the republican movement in Ireland is evidenced, in part, with a similar pattern of risings and constituencies there.

People who believe in historical inevitability frequently try to help history along by their intervention. So it would be with Lenin and Trotsky. So, in the American Revolution, it was with Kosciuszko. He entered the American Revolution more or less assuming that he and his Polish comrades would die in the war. Of course, it was Kosciuszko's fate to survive both Burgoyne and Suvorov. Was he naive in supposing some sort of reciprocity from the Americans at a later time? We note that during Poland's 1794 Uprising, Kosciuszko sought no American intervention, believing it to be unrealistic at that time.

But President Woodrow Wilson in 1918 surely helped make good on Kosciuszko's dream. The American aviators who founded the Polish Air Force in the form of the Kosciuszko Squadron during the defense of Lwów (now Lviv) in 1919 had the very distinct notion of paying back a debt to Poland. (Indeed, the great-great grandfather of the Squadron's founder, M. C. Cooper, had carried the dying Pulaski from the field of Savannah, and had passed on the notion of payback to Poland to his descendants.) So did President Ronald Wilson Reagan in the mid-1980s as he logistically hammered the Russian Empire to death, bringing a free Poland again into the community of free nations. The test of any theory, military or political, is the historical record. In that regard, the incredibly decent Kosciuszko, who disdained to wage total war, who hanged neither traitor king, bishop nor magnate, warned his countrymen that the free republic might well require generations to be restored. It did, and it was. History has validated the vision of Kosciuszko.

When free men and women visit the Wawel crypts, they might do well to leave a white rose and say an Ave for Kosciuszko, who gave his life in support of a model which really worked. Kosciuszko was not only the noblest republican of them all. He was the wisest and, ultimately, the most realistic.

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