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The Pulaski Legion in the American Revolution

Reviewer: James R. Thompson

By Francis Casimir Kajencki. El Paso, Texas: Southwest Polonia Press. 2004. xx + 407 pages. Index, illustrations. ISBN 0-9627190-7-2. Hardcover. $120.00.

This carefully researched volume by a seasoned historian of Polish American military history will be a valuable sourcebook for Pulaski scholars. Much of Colonel Kajencki’s work is devoted to responding to charges made by detractors of General Pulaski. Over the years these false charges have been implicitly dismissed by a grateful country which has been pleased to name counties, municipalities, and bridges after the hero of Bar (Poland), Brandywine, Haddonfield, Charleston and Savannah. However, given the tendency of some to engage in character assassination of Polish heroes, Colonel Kajencki has done good service preemptively to give thorough data, painstakingly gleaned, concerning each of the issues of controversy.

One of the major points emphasized by Kajencki is the fact that George Washington, experience in the French and Indian War notwithstanding, started off the American Revolution as a rather mediocre general, hesitant, opinionated, and frequently ill informed. By the time of the death of Pulaski, Washington had distinguished himself only at the Battles of Princeton and Trenton. He was beginning to appreciate the attrition made possible by partisan warfare, as Kosciuszko had shown in the fighting retreat from Ticonderoga to Saratoga. But, until the end of the War, Washington really never appreciated the value of cavalry in the triad of “horse, foot, and artillery.” Even the minimalist “Pulaski Legion” was beyond his comprehension, in spite of the similar structure utilized on the British side by Banastre Tarleton. Only ninety years earlier, on September 12, 1683, at the Battle of Vienna, a Polish cavalry corps had smashed a Turkish army larger than the total forces utilized on all sides in the American Revolution, marking the end of Islamic expansion to the west. As the military commander of the Polish Confederacy of Bar, Count Pulaski had credentials aplenty, and could point to Poland’s glory days of Beresteczko, Alsen, and Parkany. The unfortunate reality seems to be that Washington had little understanding of contemporary military history, save for that of the British, French, and Prussians. The arrogant dismissal by the Anglo-Saxons of the military abilities of the Poles is, alas, not a recent or isolated phenomenon.

It is interesting to note that Kosciuszko (and, incidentally, Kajencki’s book on Kosciuszko’s military activities in America is the best I have seen), who spoke English, never presumed to explain to the Americans “the way we Poles would do this job.” He quietly used his expertise (generally vastly superior to that of his American colleagues) in fortifications and partisan warfare. By the end of the War, a much wiser George Washington recognized the value of the contributions of Kosciuszko and his fellow Poles. It was the high born non-Anglophone Count Pulaski who found it simply impossible to watch quietly while Washington disregarded the cavalry as an essential part of the Army. If the Americans were not interested in forming cavalry units at the divisional level, at least one full regiment of cavalry for scouting and spoiler purposes was required. On paper, Pulaski got his legion of 300, but the reality was that its personnel were constantly being stripped away for small unit tasks.

If Washington failed to grasp the importance of cavalry as a shock force, Napoleon did not. It could be argued, however, that in the later War Between the States only Confederate leaders in the West, such as Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jo Shelby, succeeded in adapting the use of cavalry to the weaponry of the age (in this case, the Light Horse concept of mounted infantry which used the horse to move quickly, with six shooters rather than sabers the weapons of choice for close in combat, and fighting dismounted once dominance of killing zones had been achieved). Still later, the brilliant partisan General Christian De Wet used the Light Horse concept to bring the British near to defeat in South Africa to the point where only a ruthless policy of starving and imprisoning the civilian population gave Lord Kitchener the ultimate victory against the gallant Boers. It was from Kitchener and not the Nazis that we first have the term “concentration camp”.

Polish history is full of romantic “coincidences” which strike some as “providential”. For example, Marshal Piłsudski’s victory over the Soviet Union’s Tukhachevsky began on the Feast of the Assumption, August 15, 1920. Just three months earlier was born Jan Karol Wojtyła, who became Pope John Paul II and whose devotion to the Virgin Mary is well known. On October 9, 1779, probing for a weak point in the British lines at Savannah, Georgia, Casimir Pulaski was mortally wounded by grapeshot. He was carried from the field of battle by several comrades, including Colonel John C. Cooper. Following the American Revolution, Colonel Cooper gave an intergenerational mandate to his descendants that they try and repay the debt of honor owed to Pulaski and his fellow Polish volunteers who fought “for your freedom and for ours” in the War of American Independence. In response to this mandate, Cooper’s great-great-grandson, Merian C. Cooper, organized in August of 1919 the Kosciuszko Squadron, the beginning of the Polish Air Force, with eight American aviators. In the Polish-Soviet War of 1920, Cooper’s men used their tiny air force successfully to break up attacks by the Konarmiya of General Semyon Budyonnyi (whose chief political commissar was Joseph Stalin). It was this use of air power which prevented the linkup of the armies of Tukachevsky and Budyonnyi and thus made possible the “Miracle on the Vistula” battle which started on August 15, 1920. The Konarmiya was the last example in warfare of a cavalry unit of corps/army size.

One of the facts of which Kajencki reminds us is that slaves who presented themselves to the British for promised freedom were seized and sold by the British onto plantations in the West Indies: an example of Perfidious Albion which escaped the attention of Mel Gibson when filming The Patriot.

Colonel Kajencki’s is a hands-on historian who did much of his research physically visiting the sites discussed in the current book. He goes so far as to present complete muster lists of military formations commanded by Pulaski in America. No scholar of Polish American military history will want to be without a copy of The Pulaski Legion. ∆

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