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Meet Thaddeus Kosciusko, the Polish Engineer Fought Both in the American Revolution and for His Homeland

Meet Thaddeus Kosciusko, the Polish Engineer Fought Both in the American Revolution and for His Homeland

America needed men like him.

He arrives at Fort Ticonderoga in the spring of 1777 and conducts an inspection of the fortifications as well as those on Mount Independence, a fortified point across the strait of Lake Champlain on the Vermont side. Although an artist, Kosciusko is no dummy and asks why no one is fortifying nearby Mount Defiance, which basically controls both Ticonderoga and Independence.

So, we know all about the heroes of the American Revolution, right? George Washington, John Adams, Paul Revere – OK, well, not him, he was a good silversmith, an average errand rider, and a godawful general. But odds are you probably haven’t heard of Andrzej Tadeusz Bonawentura Kosciuszko. Nor can you spell it or pronounce it; join the club, but we’re working on it.

Thaddeus Kosciusko was born in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (long story, don’t ask) in 1746, the youngest son of a member of the nobility, aka, “not going to inherit anything, might as well join the army.” Accordingly, he popped off to Warsaw in 1765 to go be a cadet, commissioning in 1766, and made captain by 1768. Which was an awkward year to make captain, because the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth decided to celebrate his promotion with a civil war to overthrow the king. Kosciusko decided that discretion was the better part of valor and headed off to France in 1769.

This article by The Angry Staff Officer originally appeared on The Angry Staff Officer in 2019.

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His purpose was to continue his military education, but as foreigners were not allowed to attend the French military academies, he opted to study art and architecture instead. Sort of a weird diversion there. But he still attended military lectures and read works of military theory, while also hanging out with members of the French Enlightenment, as one does.

In 1772, Russia, Prussia, and Austria do that national tradition of theirs: annexing bits of Poland and Lithuania. Kosciusko went home, to find that the family was basically bankrupt. To raise some cash, he began tutoring the family of the provincial government and predictably fell in love with the governor’s daughter. They attempted elopement in 1775, got caught, and Kosciusko got some severe treatment at the hands of her father’s bodyguards. This may have had something to do with his disdain for class hierarchy that he would develop in life.

With all this hanging over his head, Kosciusko decided that some fresh air would be good – specifically any air that wasn’t being breathed by the provincial governor. So in 1776, he decided to go off and check out this whole American Revolution thing. Sympathetic to the American cause, he offered his services to the Continental Congress, who assigned him to the Army the next day. Hey, when you’re trying to build an army out of nothing, talent management moves very quickly.

By October of 1776, Kosciusko is a colonel of engineers – that whole art and architecture thing – and does some work in Pennsylvania and Maryland. But it’s in 1777 that Kosciusko really gets his chance, when he’s assigned as the engineer for the Northern Army in upstate New York. He arrives at Fort Ticonderoga in the spring of 1777 and conducts an inspection of the fortifications as well as those on Mount Independence, a fortified point across the strait of Lake Champlain on the Vermont side. Although an artist, Kosciusko is no dummy and asks why no one is fortifying nearby Mount Defiance, which basically controls both Ticonderoga and Independence. General Arthur St. Clair, the commanding general of the garrisons, stated that there was no way to get guns up there.  Spoiler alert: of course there was.

Enter General John Burgoyne, aka “Gentleman Johnny,” with his British army coming down Lake Champlain in July, who sends his own troops up Mount Defiance because, in his words, “where a goat can go a man can go, and where a man can go he can drag a gun.” Which is ironic, because that’s how the cannon from Ticonderoga had moved from there to Boston in 1775. With artillery on Mount Defiance, Ticonderoga and Independence become untenable and St. Clair evacuates them, leaving Lake Champlain wide open for the British to cruise on into New York. By the way, we’ll meet St. Clair after the war when he heads up one of the worst defeats in U.S. military history, but that’s another story.

Kosciusko , in all this, is doing what an engineer does best: making life difficult for the enemy. In Burgoyne’s way, he fells trees, blows up bridges, dams streams, and does anything he can to slow the British movement. It works. These obstacle belts buy enough time for Kosciusko to select a good defensive position for the Northern Army at Bemis Heights, near the town of Saratoga. His fortifications play a major role in defeating Burgoyne’s army at the Battle of Saratoga – one of the keys to bringing international recognition to the revolution, and causing France to enter the war. Not bad for an art major…who also found time to compose a polonaise for harpsichord during that year. Because why the hell not.

From the northern campaign, Kosciusko now heads to West Point, which was then a fortified position on the Hudson rather than a factory for over-inflated egos, I mean, stellar officers. In 1780, Kosciusko requested to go back into a combat role, which Washington granted, sending him to the Southern Army. Now, the war in the south was going less than well, so Kosciusko spent most of his time scouting river crossings, gathering intelligence, and building the boats that the Continental Army would use to cross rivers while being chased by a superior British force. He helped pick the site where the Battle of Guilford Courthouse took place, which resulted in a tactical win for the British but a strategic win for the Americans. If that seems confusing, just think Bunker Hill: too many British casualties. This turned the tide of the war in the south.

Kosciusko would continue campaigning through 1781 and 1782 as the war in the south continued on a slow burn, with negotiations dragging on in Paris. During this time, he unsuccessfully laid siege to the British fort at the weirdly-named town of Ninety-Six, South Carolina. It was during this siege that he receives his only wound – a bayonet stab in the butt during a British attack on a trench he was building. One can only imagine the jokes surrounding this incident.

Kosciusko returns to Poland in 1784, with the war concluded, and an essentially useless certificate for pay from the U.S. government which is basically insolvent at this point. Finding the family still bankrupt, he helps to buy back some of the land and then institutes basic reforms of serfdom – essentially curtailing it on his estate. Which leads to it going under because of debt. By 1789, he gets a commission from the king as a major general. Here he lobbies for military reforms as well as social reforms, to allow peasants and Jews full citizenship as that would motivate their defense of Poland in the event of war. I know, crazy idea, right? But while there is some limited reform of the government, but Kosciusko doesn’t see that it goes far enough.

Still, it is radical enough that some in Poland decide that it’s too radical and ask Russia for help in overthrowing the government. Russia is, of course, all too happy to hop back into Poland and on May 18, 1792, a 100,000-man Russian army invades Poland. In a series of delaying actions, Kosciusko – now commanding a division – manages to inflict several defeats on larger Russian forces, winning the highest military award that Poland has at the time. His skillful defensive operations and the way he can read terrain allow him to out-general his Russian opponents – defeating an army of 25,000 with just over 5,000 of his own men at Dubienka. For this, he receives a promotion to lieutenant general. Still, the Polish are forced to retreat, and on July 24, 1792, the king capitulates and orders his armies to cease hostilities.

Annoyed at having to face defeat when his forces had never actually been defeated, Kosciusko leaves Poland and heads to Leipzig, where a group of Polish emigres have been plotting a revolution – as one does. Attempting to gain French assistance, Kosciusko arrives in Paris in 1793 – a Paris that has its own revolution brewing. However, he sees that no help will arrive from this quarter and returns to Leipzig. At the same time, Prussia and Russia once again partition Poland, their great national pastime, leaving Poland an embarrassing 77,000 square miles. They humiliate Poland, forcing her to reduce her military and incorporate large parts of it into the Russian army.