Thaddeus Kosciuszko Military Engineer of the American Revolution

By Francis Casimir Kajencki. El Paso, Texas. Southwest Polonia Press (3308 Nairn Street, El Paso, TX 79925). 1998. xv + 334 pages. Illustrations, maps, index. Hardcover.

James R. Thompson

This book is unusual in that the title fairly describes its content. The author does not attempt a thorough biography of Kosciuszko. Rather, the attention is directed to Kosciuszko's fortification of West Point, his engineering work during the southern campaign, and his fortifications during the invasion of Burgoyne.

For those familiar with the traditions of the United States Military Academy, Kosciuszko's twenty-eight months' work constructing fortifications to prevent passage of the British forces along the Hudson River is well known. Every plebe at West Point must needs commit to memory the chronicle of this work. A major goal of the British was to cut New England from the rest of the Colonies. Moreover, it was British strategy to facilitate combined operations of their Canadian-based forces with those operating out of New York. Kosciuszko's utilization of natural terrain to facilitate an efficient and relatively inexpensive choke point at West Point circumvented both these British plans. As a measure of its effectiveness, we recall that the British tried, unsuccessfully, to take Kosciuszko's impregnable fortifications by risking their most important intelligence asset, the traitor Benedict Arnold.

The best part of the book is in its first chapters, those dealing with Burgoyne's march to take Albany. Kosciuszko was an early exponent of the 'take the high ground' maxim, for artillery in the late eighteenth century had already become a potent weapon. Although he argued strenuously for fortifying Mount Defiance, as a clear threat to Fort Ticonderoga, Kosciuszko was overruled, resulting in the capture of the Fort by the British. This victory of Burgoyne caused the British general to throw caution to the winds and plunge into the wilderness separating him from Albany. This presented Kosciuszko the opportunity for what might well have been his most important contribution to the American war effort.

Fixed fortifications to deprive an enemy of an assumed line of march is dangerous in the extreme. If the fortifications admit of being flanked, then they are to no avail. We need look no further than the Maginot Line as an example of such a failure. How much greater the danger when the defenses must be constructed swiftly, lightly and without lengthy planning. Essentially, Kosciuszko built a series of wood and earth defenses, which funneled the British army into a killing ground where it was surrounded and destroyed. The battle was won by relatively inexperienced troops against some of Europe's best soldiers . The Battle of Saratoga thus won by the Americans in September of 1777 brought the French into the war on the side of the new Republic. Without Kosciuszko's use of spade and ax, it is difficult to imagine that Burgoyne would not have succeeded in his plan to split the infant Republic. Kosciuszko's demonstration of the importance of good military engineering was so impressed upon the Americans that they made engineering a centerpiece of military education at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Unlike Lafayette and von Steuben who came from the high aristocracy of powerful military powers, Kosciuszko came from the petty nobility of a country whose glory had peaked 100 years earlier and which was in the process of being dismembered by its neighbors. He had no connections, no ambitions, nothing but his intelligence, his principles and his honor. Colonel Kajencki has provided a valuable source work describing the nuts and bolts of Kosciuszko's monumental military contributions to the United States.

Kajencki worries that Kosciuszko is given too little honor by the Americans. Perhaps. But the record of Kosciuszko is an integral part of the training of the officer corps of the most powerful military power in the world. And in the South, particularly, where honor is valued above riches, he is remembered and will be remembered through the ages. One recalls that the two southern officers, M.C. Cooper and Cedric Fauntleroy, who founded the Kosciuszko Squadron in 1919 together with their American comrades did so in gratitude to this modest gentleman who had come from a far country to use his blood and intellect in the defense of freedom. The Kosciuszko Squadron was key in stopping the Cossack General Budyonny's Konarmya at Lwów in 1920, preventing its juncture with northern army of Tukhachevsky, enabling Pisudski's victory east of the Vistula. A significant downpayment of American gratitude. And in 1989, when Reagan's military pressure brought an end to Russian occupation of Poland, all Americans could in some measure claim to have redeemed their debt of honor to Kosciuszko. Finally, 'For your freedom and for ours,' had come true for Poles as well as for Americans.

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