Pulaski at Savannah

Stanislaw Batowski, "Pulaski at Savannah" or "The Death of General Casimir Pulaski" 1933
Original in Polish Museum of America, Chicago


Casimir Pulaski 1747 – 1779: A Short Biography



Introduction | Commonwealth | Exile | American Revolutionary War | Honoring Pulaski

The following article on Casimir Pulaski was written by John J. Kulczycki (UIC), published by the Polish Museum of America, and is reprinted here with their permission. Chicago Public Library's staff at the HWLC Foreign Language Information Center and the Portage-Cragin Polish Language Collection work closely with the Polish Museum of America.

Introduction

Casimir Pulaski belongs to that select group of heroes, including the Marquis de Lafayefte, Thomas Paine, Giuseppe Garibaldi, and Pulaski's fellow countryman, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, who opposed tyranny not only in their homelands, but wherever they found it. We especially honor Pulaski because he paid the ultimate price, having sustained a mortal wound while fighting for American independence at the battle of Savannah in 1779. Today he remains a symbol of the ideal of valiant resistance to oppression everywhere in the world.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

Pulaski was born on March 4,1747, in Winiary, some 40 miles outside of Warsaw. His family belonged to the minor Polish nobility, and his ancestors fought with King Jan Sobieski against the Turks at the siege of Vienna in 1683. His father Jozef successfully built up the family fortune and deeply involved himself in politics. But the vast Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had fallen on hard times. No longer the military power of Sobieski's day, it came increasingly under the domination of its aggressive neighbors, particularly Tsarist Russia. Russia demonstrated its influence over the Commonwealth's affairs when in 1764 Empress Catherine the Great imposed her candidate Stanislaus Poniatowski, as the Commonwealth's next elected monarch. Poniatowski sought to carry out much needed reforms, but aroused the suspicion of the nobility who feared the establishment of a royal despotism. Moreover, the Russian ambassador regularly interfered in the Cornmonwealth's domestic affairs, in 1767, even using Russian troops to coerce its parliament into passing legislation that ended the privileged position of the Catholic Church. In these circumstances, in 1768, Jozef Pulaski joined with others in initiating an insurrection known as the Confederation of Bar, a town in the Ukraine, where it was formed. Under the motto, "For Faith and Freedom," the elder Pulaski assumed the military leadership of the confederation, and Casimir on his 21st birthday took command of a detachment of partisans. For the next 3 1/2 years, in military campaigns against Russian forces that sought to put down the rebellion, the young commander proved his valor and genuine military talent in more than a dozen major action and numerous skirmishes.

Exile

In October 1771, Pulaski undertook one last major expedition as part of a plot to abduct the king. The plot misfired, but it led to the young Casimir being unjustly accused of attempted regicide and later, after he left the country, to a death sentence. When in 1772, Russia, Prussia, and Austria began negotiations to partition the Commonwealth, he and the other confederates saw the futility of continuing the struggle. In the face of the charges against him, he was forced to flee his homeland, never to see it again. Within months of his departure, the Commonwealth's aggressive neighbors agreed to divide over a quarter of its territory among themselves. The effort to defend the Commonwealth had failed, but the heroism of Pulaski and other confederates would inspire future generations of their countrymen. Meanwhile, Pulaski faced a difficult exile. After two years in western Europe, he again joined battle against Russia, this time, on the side of the Turks. Their defeat forced him to return to France where, in the summer of 1776, he learned of America's war for independence and sought permission from the Americans to join their forces. Most American colonists were not yet enthusiastic in the support of the war, and George Washington, a commander-in-chief, needed battle-tested officers like Pulaski. Finally, in May 1777, Pulaski received a letter of recommendation from Benjamin Franklin, the American commissioner in Paris, and left for America, landing near Boston in July. In August, he reported to Washington's headquarters near Philadelphia.

The American Revolutionary War

On Washington's recommendation, the Continental Congress appointed Pulaski general of the cavalry on September 15, 1777. But even before his formal appointment, he demonstrated his value. At the battle of Brandywine Creek, where Washington's forces suffered a defeat, Pulaski led a counterattack that covered the retreat of the Americans and helped prevent a military disaster. Pulaski spent the winter of 1777 training his soldiers at Trenton, not far from Washington's headquarters at Valley Forge. He introduced new battle drills in an effort to transform them into a highly mobile force. But, realizing that the Americans did not share his conception of the cavalry as a separate combat force, Pulaski asked to be relieved of his position and allowed to form a special infantry and cavalry unit capable of more independent action. With Washington's support, Pulaski gained the consent of Congress on March 28, 1778. It took Pulaski, regarded as "the father of the American cavalry," another five months to form his legion at his headquarters in Baltimore, where he recruited Americans, Frenchmen, Poles, Irishmen, and especially Germans; mainly deserters from the Hessian mercenaries employed by the British. But for some time the American command could not find a suitable role for Pulaski's legion, leading him again to request reassignment. Finally, on February 2,1779, he received orders to proceed to South Carolina to reinforce the southern American forces under British attack. Now Pulaski began his most active period of service in the war with the front line combat he sought. At the head of a troop of some 600, Pulaski arrived in Charleston in May 1779, just in time to contribute to its successful defense against a much larger British force, which after occupying Georgia was steadily advancing northward. This victory proved pivotal in the war in the South as it broke the British momentum and boosted American morale. What remained was to win back the territory that the British had occupied. Savannah became the fateful goal. Newly arrived French forces under Admiral Charles Henri d'Estaing together with the Americans planned a risky all out assault on the heavily fortified town. The siege began on October 9. The mission of the Pulaski Legion was to follow in behind the French infantry and break down the enemy's line of defense. But the French got caught in a cross fire, and d'Estaing himself was wounded. Awaiting the proper moment for his cavalry to enter the battle, Pulaski could see the infantry breaking ranks under heavy fire. To try to save the situation, he charged forward into the battle only to be grievously wounded himself. Carried from the battlefield, he was put on a ship to be taken back to Charleston, but never regained consciousness. On October 11, 1779, the 32 year old Polish commander died at sea, where he was buried.

In Honor of Pulaski

Americans have always recognized Pulaski's heroism and the price he paid for their freedom. Shortly after his death a solemn memorial service was held in Charleston, and, before the end of 1779, the Continental Congress resolved that a monument should be erected in his honor, though a statue was not put into place in Washington, D.C., until 1910. Over the years Americans have kept alive his memory naming many countries, towns, streets, parks, and squares after him. Among those of Polish descent, his fame rivals that of Kosciuszko, who, after his service in the American Revolutionary War, returned to his homeland, where, in 1794, he led an insurrection against the same Russian domination that Pulaski had fought before coming to America. In his first letter to Washington, after arriving in America, Pulaski wrote, "I came here, where freedom is being defended, to serve it, and to live or die for it." He proved true to his word. For this, we honor him as a soldier of Liberty for all.


Source: Casimir Pulaski 1747-1779: A Short Biography
Written by and reprinted with permission of: John J. Kulczycki, Professor of History, University of Illinois at Chicago; Published by the Polish Museum of America, 984 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, IL 60622;
(312) 384-3352

Last Updated Febraury 26, 2001

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