February 4 marks the 275th anniversary of the birth of Tadeusz Kościuszko – an outstanding military commander, patriot, and modern man, a hero to Poles and Americans alike. Tadeusz Kościuszko attached great importance to the notions such as freedom, tolerance, justice, and republicanism. Thomas Jefferson called him “the purest son of liberty.” Kościuszko is universally admired and respected, regardless of political affiliations. For this reason, especially today, we should remember him as a symbol of unity across divisions.
Kościuszko, born in 1746 in Polesie region, came from a middle-class noble family. This entitled him to significant privileges, compared with most of the society of that time. In 1765, he joined the Corps of Cadets at the School of Chivalry in Warsaw, Poland, from which he graduated as a captain. In 1769, Kościuszko was awarded a royal scholarship and moved to Paris. He returned to the homeland five years later. However, he did not join the army – it had been drastically reduced to only 10,000 troops as a consequence of the First Partition of Poland. For this reason, after a while, he travelled to Dresden and then again to Paris, where he learned about the war in America. In 1776, Tadeusz Kościuszko left for North America – his arrival occurred during the American War of Independence.
The Continental army, at that time, was rather weak and suffered from personnel shortages. The young Kościuszko was entrusted with the fortification of Philadelphia as early as in September 1776. His subsequent military actions were largely the reason why General Burgoyne (British) surrendered his army at Saratoga. Thanks to his successes resulting from a great sense and skills related to military engineering, he became a Continental Army engineer in 1780 and a brigadier general in 1783. Tadeusz Kościuszko served in the Army until the end of the American Revolutionary War. As a sign of gratitude for his remarkable achievements during the war, he received the Thanks of Congress.
Upon returning to his homeland, Kościuszko abandoned the military activities and focused on managing his estate. There he reduced peasant’s workload and completely freed the women from serfdom. Only after the proceedings of the Great Sejm (the Four-Year Sejm), which had increased the size of the Polish army, Tadeusz Kościuszko was allowed to join it as a general. For him, it was an excellent opportunity to use military skills he had acquired in America. Later, a part of the nobility and magnates, who strongly opposed the adoption of the Constitution of May 3, 1791, formed the Targowica Confederation and attempted to overturn the law with the support of Russian troops. The forces of the Russian Empress Catherine II attacked Polish troops. Poles were beginning to lose the battle, but the army of Tadeusz Kościuszko won several of them, including the one of Zieleńce. For his leadership during the war, he was awarded the Order of Virtuti Militari.
After the lost war, Tadeusz Kościuszko left for France where he began preparations to a national uprising. He also started negotiations with local revolutionaries in order to gain support for his idea. On March 24, 1794, Kościuszko announced the general uprising in a speech on Kraków's Main Market Square and assumed the powers of Commander in Chief of the Polish forces, which granted him full civil and military authority. He vowed that he would not to use these powers to oppress any person, but defend the integrity of the borders of Poland, regain the independence of the nation, and strengthen universal liberties. Furthermore, Kościuszko opposed terror, contrary to the French Revolution. He also wanted both the noble and the peasants to join the uprising. Due to lack of forces, Kościuszko ordered a mobilization of peasant troops, which contributed greatly to the victory against the Russian army in the Battle of Racławice on April 4, 1794. This victory boosted the morale of the Poles fighting for freedom and gave them hope that the uprising could be successful. Later on, in May, Kościuszko issued the “Proclamation of Połaniec” that granted personal freedom to the peasants and partially abolished their serfdom. After losing the Battle of Maciejowice on October 10, 1794, Tadeusz Kościuszko was imprisoned and the uprising began to falter. He was taken to St. Petersburg, where he was interrogated. Soon after, in 1795, the Third Partition of Poland took place and was carried out by Prussia, Russia, and Austria. As a result, the Republic of Poland was wiped off the map for 123 years. After the death of Catherine II, Tsar Paul I of Russia released Kościuszko from captivity – he had to pledge a loyalty oath to the Tsar. Consequently, 20,000 captives also regained their freedom along with the former commander of the uprising.
Kościuszko emigrated to the United States again in 1796. There, he renewed numerous political ties with people whom he met during the American Revolutionary War. In 1798, he returned to Europe and settled near Paris where co-founded the Polish Legions, however, he decided not to take command of them. Nevertheless, he remained a spiritual authority for this and local conspiracy groups. Kościuszko was against the Duchy of Warsaw and refused to support Napoleon Bonaparte because he did not trust his intentions towards Poles. After the defeat of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna, whose decisions were unfavorable for Poland, Tadeusz Kościuszko abandoned political life. On October 15, 1817, he passed away in Solothurn, Switzerland, from where he regularly corresponded with Thomas Jefferson. In the following year, his remains were placed at Wawel Cathedral in Cracow, Poland.
Although Tadeusz Kościuszko is known for his military achievements, he engaged in the fight for human rights. In addition to improving the situation of peasants in Poland, Kościuszko fought for the rights of slaves in the America. He discussed the matters of their liberation and redemption with Thomas Jefferson on multiple occasions. Furthermore, Kościuszko stood up for the rights of Native Americans – as a sign of appreciation he received a tomahawk/peace pipe from one of the tribal chiefs. Although the uprising failed, Tadeusz Kościuszko left behind an important political testament, outlining the nation’s path to fight for freedom and reconstruction of the country. Nowadays, there are numerous monuments and bridges commemorating his achievements in the United States. Kosciusko, a town located in Mississippi, was named after him. Additionally, under an executive order signed by former US President Donald Trump, Kościuszko is among 244 notable figures in the history of America to be honored in the National Garden of American Heroes.
Author: Maciej Tyburski
A graduate of Diplomacy and a student of Eastern Studies with a specialization in China and Russia. He gained his professional experience in the NGOs and public sector. His areas of interest include the politics of the Visegrad Group countries, the Three Seas Initiative, geopolitics and foreign languages.
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