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For Your Freedom and Ours

Casimir Pulaski, 1745-1779

Romuald K. Byczkiewicz

By Antoni Lenkiewicz and Ted Kwiatkowski. Wrocław: Biuro Tłumaczeń, 2004. ISBN 83-88826-29-8. 131 pages, illustrations and maps. Index. Paper.

Casimir Pulaski is known as the “Father of the American Cavalry” for his military actions at Brandywine and Germantown. He was also a cavalry commander during the Bar Confederacy (1768-1772). The volume under review attempts to bridge both phases of his life. Unfortunately, the result is another hagiography. While not producing novel scholarship, the authors aim to reach a wider non-Polish audience by emphasizing Pulaski’s heroic achievements and claiming an intimate knowledge of Pulaski and his motivations. Published to commemorate the 225th anniversary of Pulaski’s death at the Battle of Savannah, the volume is based on Antoni Lenkiewicz’s 1994 Polish biography Kazimierz Pułaski, translated and revised by Kwiatkowski, who also added additional materials. After reading and comparing the Polish original and its English rendition, it appears to me that Kwiatkowski mainly deleted some of Lenkiewicz’s comments. Nevertheless, Lenkiewicz’s personal tone does not altogether disappear. Lenkiewicz was a Solidarity activist in Wrocław, and was arrested and imprisoned for a year after the Communist government outlawed Solidarity in 1981. In 1985 he was rearrested and again sent to prison. These events inform Lenkiewicz’s political views as he links Pulaski’s struggles during the Bar Confederacy against the Russians with his own struggles against Soviet Russia. While the work is ostensibly about Pulaski, Lenkiewicz’s polemical asides about eighteenth-century Russia are more relevant to the USSR, given the continuity of foreign policy objectives in tsarist and communist times. His views are all-too obviously nationalistic and Catholic rather than scholarly, and Pulaski becomes a vehicle for Lenkiewicz’s politics. The result is a work that suffers from the author’s overidentification with the subject.

Lenkiewicz treats Casimir Pulaski as a Polish patriot unsullied by materialistic concerns. In Lenkiewicz’s presentation, “for Faith and Fatherland” was the motivation of the entire Pulaski family, whereas other members of the Polish aristocracy who were critical of the Pulaski clan were villains, wastrels, cowards, or drunkards who spread malicious lies. In particular, Joachim Potocki and his family are so portrayed for having undermined the Pulaski family. King Stanisław Poniatowski is portrayed as a pawn of Catherine the Great and therefore a traitor, as are those who were on the King’s side during the Bar Confederacy. Any critical comments about Pulaski are presented as originating in Catherine the Great‘s propaganda apparatus, and those Poles who criticized Pulaski are invariably presented as Russian dupes or pawns.

The authors provide a colorful narrative of Pulaski’s achievements as a guerilla leader fighting the Russians in hit-and-run battles. They also describe well his defense of the monastery at Jasna Góra. The quick and short battles are fast-paced and the narrow escapes are pressented in a suspense-filled manner. These sections of the work read like a romantic novel or a film script on Pulaski’s life. One can imagine Errol Flynn in the title role.

Since Pulaski is described as noble and generous even with regard to his enemies, it appears inconceivable to the authors that he might have been involved in the failed attempt to kidnap King Stanisław Poniatowski in November 1771. They view the kidnapping as a Russian plot hatched to discredit Pulaski and undercut the Bar Confederacy. Given the inept manner in which the kidnapping attempt was carried out, it could only have been a Russian plot as “[t]he adherents of Russian rule in Poland and Poland’s enemies raked their brains to find a ruse to ruin Pulaski and bring him down.” Indeed, there seems to exist little evidence linking Casimir Pulaski to the plot. Given the factionalism rife among the Bar Confederates, a kidnapping plot could have been planned without Pulaski’s participation. There is plausibility with regard to Russian involvement, since the Russians clearly benefited from the failed plot which gave them the excuse to initiate talks between Russia, Prussia, and Austria leading to the first partition of Poland in 1772. One can also imagine that Pulaski may have tacitly supported the enterprise. Given his family’s hostility to the Poniatowskis and the fact that by 1771, having lost his father in a Turkish prison and a brother in battle, with another brother imprisoned in Russia, Pulaski may have supported the plot as a desperate gamble to force Russian troops out of the Polish Commonwealth, using the Russian-installed King as a bargaining chip. Yet there is insufficient evidence to conclusively prove any of these involvements, and the authors are not helpful in clarifying the matter.

The failed attempt at kidnapping the King resulted in Pulaski being labeled a “regicide” by the pro-Russian section of Polish society. The following year the Bar Confederacy collapsed, and the direct result was the first partition of Poland. Pulaski was high on the list of persons the Russians wished to take prisoner; they did confiscate the properties belonging to his family, as they did with the lands of other Bar Confederacy families. After a failed attempt to continue the fight against Russia in the Ottoman Empire, Pulaski tried to find other opportunities in Europe. While the Bar Confederacy lasted, there was some publicity in Europe concerning Pulaski’s boldness and brilliance. But being labeled a “regicide,” he had difficulties finding a safe harbor. French friends in Paris helped him; there he met Benjamin Franklin, who was seeking an alliance with France in order to support the English settlers’ struggle against Britain. Pulaski decided to go to America, and Franklin wrote a letter of introduction to George Washington on his behalf.

On his arrival at Boston in 1777, Pulaski made his way to George Washington’s encampment north of Philadelphia and joined the revolutionary effort. Pulaski’s reasons for doing so are not clear-cut. While Lenkiewicz and Kwiatkowski rely on a romantic explanation of Pulaski’s love of liberty, a 1994 work by Leszek Szymański provides a more nuanced view. On the basis of Pulaski’s correspondence, Szymański concluded that his motivation remained unclear. Pulaski’s passion for liberty or independence most likely played a part. Pulaski was forcibly separated from his homeland and, as a man of considerable martial skills, he chose the revolt by the English colonists in America over a marginal and perhaps desperate existence in Europe. Yet he hoped to return to resume the fight for an independent Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. His death following the Battle of Savannah prevented that. Lenkiewicz and Kwiatkowski’s description of Pulaski’s life in America runs about twenty pages. This is disappointing, as the declared intention of the work was to link and explain the two parts of Pulaski’s life.

A brief afterword refers to Edward Pinkowski’s work to locate Casimir Pulaski‘s burial site. According to several accounts he was buried at sea, yet some have maintained that he was buried in an unmarked grave and his remains were reinterred in 1859 beneath the Pulaski monument in Savannah’s Monterey Square. Pinkowski has long maintained the latter position, and in 1997 he tried to identify the remains buried beneath the monument through DNA testing. An effort was launched to locate the remains of the descendants of Pulaski’s niece and obtain a sample to compare. Unfortunately, the postscript is painfully unclear about the entire affair, yet the authors prematurely declare Pinkowski‘s success. While Pinkowski has a very strong circumstantial argument, a definitive proof via DNA analysis has not yet emerged. A 21 June 2005 Associated Press story by Russ Bynum in The Savannah Contra-Costa Times and The Washington Post indicates that the tests proved inconclusive.

The authors’ declared intention was to write a work for a non-Polish audience. A glossary of terms and a brief bibliography are provided to aid this effort. However, this is undercut by the volume’s flaws. In addition to those discussed above, there is no adequate explanation of the political and diplomatic situation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in relation to the other powers in Europe. There is no explanation of the uniqueness of the Commonwealth’s decentralized political system, in comparison to the centralized absolutist states that surrounded it. Nor is there a discussion of the szlachta (nobility) and the power they held vis-a-vis the Crown. This was the context into which Casimir Pulaski was born. Individual persons and names are also introduced or dropped with little or no explanation of their significance. There is only one map of the Commonwealth in 1770, but nothing detailing Pulaski’s campaigns or those of others. There are more maps of the campaigns in America that Pulaski was involved in; yet, as indicated above, Pulaski’s life in America is given only a cursory treatment. In short, there is more here to confuse the reader that is unfamiliar with Pulaski’s life than there is to inform him or her. This may be due to the fact that Lenkiewicz wrote for a Polish audience familiar with the key figures and issues, while Kwiatkowski and the editor, Regina Gorzkowska-Rossi, failed to fill in the gaps.

Finally, this reviewer was annoyed by the frequent references to Pulaski by his first name only. This practice does not conform to the rules of standard English or scholarly discourse. The use of the first name instead of the surname may have been intended to convey a level of intimacy with the subject; instead, it conveys a phony familiarity that also weakens the authors’ credibility.

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Last updated 1/20/06