Premier Polish Patriot: Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a Member of Poland's Nobility, Used His Engineering Genius on the Behalf of Both America's and Poland's Freedom

By Scaliger, Charles | The New American, October 12, 2009 | Go to article overview

Premier Polish Patriot: Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a Member of Poland's Nobility, Used His Engineering Genius on the Behalf of Both America's and Poland's Freedom


Scaliger, Charles, The New American


British General John Burgoyne must have been bitterly disappointed one day in July 1777 in the upper Hudson Valley--the day his army, hot in pursuit of the Americans they had just driven from Fort Ticonderoga, ran into a lake that wasn't supposed to exist. This part of upstate New York had already been thoroughly explored and mapped, yet the Redcoats, confident of speedily overtaking and finishing off the American force, suddenly found themselves blocked by a brand-new body of water where dry forest and field was supposed to provide swift passage. The British must have soon ascertained, as they tried to find a way around the unexpected obstacle, that the lake was the work of the Americans; somehow, the Continentals had figured out how to swiftly divert a fiver into the path of a pursuing army. They probably had no idea who was responsible, but the water, along with large tangles of trees deliberately felled to create impenetrable barriers, bought the Americans enough time to escape and fight another day.

The architect of the Americans' remarkable escape after the debacle at Ticonderoga was in fact not an American at all, but a brilliant young Polish military engineer, Tadeusz Kosciuszko (pronounced kosh-CHOOSH-ko). A product of Prussian and French military schooling, Kosciuszko, who had become a passionate partisan of liberty while studying in Paris, volunteered his services and technical expertise to the American cause in 1776. So great was his genius for building fortifications that the man Thomas Jefferson once called "as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known," and who is today regarded as a national hero in four countries--the United States, Poland, Lithuania, and Belarus--was probably as instrumental as any single man could have been in assuring the success of the American cause.

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Path to America

Kosciuszko was born in 1746 near the town of Kosava in what was then the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and is now part of Belarus. His family was Polish nobility--albeit not exceptionally prominent--which enabled him to enroll in Polish military school, where he studied history, languages, economics, and philosophy in addition to military science. As testament of his military precocity, he received the rank of Captain of Artillery upon graduation, and soon left for Paris on a scholarship to study art and architecture.

Kosciuszko's first love, however, was military science, and although as a foreigner he was unable to formally enroll in any French military academy, he educated himself as best he could in all things military, especially engineering, by attending lectures and reading whatever French works on the subject he could lay his hands on in the many libraries in Paris. At the same time, Kosciuszko became acquainted, seemingly for the first time, with the doctrines of liberty in circulation in mid-century France. We may assume that he studied the likes of Montesquieu and Locke, whose writings on liberty and limited government were also having a profound effect in the American colonies.

He returned to Poland in 1774, where he attempted to find gainful employ in the Polish military. Two years previous to his return, however, Russia, Prussia, and Austria had partitioned Poland, reducing its territory by 30 percent and compelling the Polish to submit to humiliating reforms in the structure of the Polish government and military that would prevent the upstart Poles from trying to throw off the yoke their more powerful neighbors had imposed on them. Kosciuszko found, doubtless to his dismay, that there was to be no place for him in a drastically reduced and denatured Polish military. After less than two years in his homeland, during which time he attempted to elope with a young female student but was apprehended and punished, Kosciuszko once again headed for the West.

At first he tried to find military employ in Saxony, but failing that, he returned to Paris, where he learned of the revolt against Britain in the American colonies. …

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