He was “a pure son of liberty”, as Thomas Jefferson put it. Lord Byron described the sound of his name as a “sound that crashes in the tyrant’s ear”. His portrait even made his way to Captain Nemo’s submarine. The highest mountain of Australia is named to honor him.
Have you ever wondered why all these Kosciuszko streets, Kosciuszko bridges, Kosciuszko schools and Kosciuszko monuments all over the United States? Tadeusz Kościuszko (Kosh-chioo-shko), the Supreme Commander of the Polish National Armed Forces who led the uprising against Imperial Russia and the Kingdom of Prussia in 1794, trying to liberate the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth after the second partition of Poland, was a Polish national hero. How come he got to oversee the building of military fortifications at West Point and contribute to the key British defeat at Saratoga? What made him endear himself to America?
Kościuszko was born in 1746. He was schooled at the Royal Military Academy in Warsaw. After the First Partition of Poland he left the country and continued his education in France, where he was exposed to the French Enlightenment (which, along with the religious tolerance in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, would influence his future career). When he came back, he discovered that most of his family fortune was gone, squandered by his brother. He could not afford to buy an officer’s commission, so he took the position of tutor in Józef Sosnowski’s household. He fell in love with his daughter, but the magnate did not approve of their relationship. Kościuszko tried to elope with Ludwika, but his attempt failed, and he got severely beaten.
Heartbroken and humiliated, he decided to leave the country. First he travelled to Dresden and then to Paris, which is where he heard of the American Revolutionary War. It is worth pointing out that Kościuszko had revolutionary aspirations and was strongly dedicated to human rights and the ideals of freedom and equality. Needless to say, he was sympathetic to the American cause, so he boarded a ship and set off on a long and dangerous journey to America, where he would spend the following 8 years serving for the American army.
In 1776 Kościuszko was assigned to the Continental Army, where he became a colonel of engineers. He worked on building fortifications at Fort Billingsport. In 1777 he was sent north to join the Northern Army under Major General Horatio Gates. He received recognition after he contributed to the Continental Army victory at Saratoga, which was the turning point of the revolution. In 1778 he was appointed chief engineer of West Point, which became known as the American Gibraltar.
Kościuszko was one of George Washington’s most important engineers. Washington bestowed the title of Brigadier General upon Kościuszko and awarded him the Cincinnati Order Medal.
Kościuszko strongly believed in equality and thus he left all his American money for the President of the United States and his close friend, Thomas Jefferson. He wanted it to be used to buy freedom for slaves, educate them and give them land. Unfortunately, Jefferson never fulfilled his request.