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The American Revolutionary War Hero U.S. Historians Have Ignored

One of the most overlooked figures in history is Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a Pole who arrived in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776 and played a major role in the American Revolution.

After attending the royal military academy in Warsaw, Poland, and auditing drafting and engineering classes at military academies in Paris, France, Kosciuszko tried to marry Louise Sosnowska, the daughter of one of the richest men in Poland. The noble lord spurred the marriage proposal saying, “Pigeons are not meant for sparrows and the daughters of magnates are not meant for the sons of the common gentry.”

Kosciuszko ignored society’s pecking order, and tried to elope with his beloved Louise. But they were caught, and the angry father wanted to prosecute him for kidnapping.

A staunch believer in freedom for all, Kosciuszko sailed to America and arrived in Philadelphia in 1776 where Benjamin Franklin put him in charge of building forts. He oversaw construction of defenses at Forts Billingsport, Mercer and Mifflin on the Delaware River that included underwater obstacles known as chevaux de frise. These interconnected wooden beams were sharpened at the top, capped off with iron tips and sunk into the river to puncture and tear open the bottom of any British vessel sailing towards Philadelphia.

He did such a good job that on October 18, 1776, the President of the U.S. Congress, John Hancock, wrote to Kosciuszko: "We reposing especial Trust and Confidence in your Patriotism, Valor, Conduct and Fidelity, Do by these Presents, constitute and appoint you to be An Engineer with the Rank of Colonel in the Army of the United States."

It became obvious to Gen. Horatio Gates and George Washington that Kosciuszko was the best engineer in the Continental Army. Gen. Gates sent Kosciuszko to Fort Ticonderoga, where the Polish engineer warned the officers present that they needed to arm nearby Sugar Loaf Hill, which overlooked the fort.  But the Americans ignored him, and on July 4, 1777 they woke to see Redcoats mounting cannons on that very hill. The British began firing down into the fort and the Continental Army had to evacuate.

Kosciuszko rescued the fleeing army by taking hundreds of men and chopping down trees to block the roads once the Continental soldiers had passed. The British needed roads to move their cannons and supply wagons, and Kosciuszko also had his men roll boulders to reroute streams to flood those roads. Because of Kosciuszko’s diversionary tactics, it took the British 22 days to travel 20 miles. The Americans escaped the impending disaster.

Further down the Hudson, in Stillwater, N.Y., Gates’s men were setting up camp along the lowlands on the riverbank. When Kosciuszko arrived, he warned them that this was a mistake. This time they listened to their Polish engineer.  He had the army move up to Bemis Heights where he drew up a map and laid out the strategy for the battle. This would force the British to march up hill, and the enemy would not be able to flank the Americans to the east because of the Hudson, or to the west because of a thick, impassible forest.

As a former journalist, I was always put off by pack journalism, reporters who follow the herd. Unfortunately, many historians have also acted like sheep when it comes to the Saratoga campaign, giving too much credit to the colorful Benedict Arnold.  Reading memoirs of people who were actually at the battle, such as Colonels Morgan Lewis, Udney Hay and James Wilkinson, it is clear that it was Kosciuszko’s strategy and military sense of coup d’oeil that won the Battle of Saratoga.

Even Gen. Gates, when praised by Doctor Benjamin Rush after the victory, said, “Stop, Doctor, stop. Let us be honest. In war, as in medicine, natural causes not under our control do much. In the present case, the great tacticians of the campaign were hills and forests, which a young Polish Engineer was skilful enough to select for my encampment.”

But strategy is not sexy, so historians have mostly ignored the humble Kosciuszko’s exploits in the American Revolution.  George Washington had Kosciuszko design the blueprints for West Point, which he turned into an impenetrable fortress that the British were afraid to attack. It was Kosciuszko’s plans for West Point that Benedict Arnold tried to sell to the British.  While the cadets at the U.S. Military Academy raised money to erect a monument of Kosciuszko in the most prominent spot at West Point – shortsighted American historians have somehow missed this tall statue that looks out over the Hudson.

During the Revolution, Kosciuszko developed a strong rapport with slaves and free black people such as his aide de camp, Agrippa Hull. After the war, Kosciuszko, who was an early abolitionist, became close friends with Thomas Jefferson and left him a last will and testament instructing him to use his $17,000 estate to buy slaves and free them. While Jefferson took Kosciuszko’s money – he refused to carry out the deal.  Yet Jefferson biographers conveniently omit the Kosciuszko will from their hagiographies.

Kosciuszko’s achievements in the United States alone make him “worthy of recognition” as Washington said of him, but he also carried the American torch of freedom across the Atlantic and helped to ignite a revolution in Europe. The French Revolutionaries made him an honorary citizen of France, and in Poland, the people made him their Commander in Chief.  Kosciuszko started a revolution in his own country to free the peasant serfs enslaved by feudalism, and to win more rights for the Jews. The Jews even called him “a messenger from God” and started a Jewish cavalry to fight along side of him.  This was the first wholly Jewish military unit in modern times.

His motto was, “for your freedom and ours,” and he also welcomed Muslim Tatars into his army and spoke up for the rights of Native Americans and all disenfranchised people.  Poets of the era such as Byron, Keats and Campbell immortalized Kosciuszko, through verse. 

Jefferson called him, “as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known.” Think about it. Jefferson knew Washington, Adams, Franklin, Madison, Paine, and all of the Founding Fathers and French Revolutionaries, yet in his eyes, Kosciuszko was the “purest son of liberty.” Yet so far teachers and professors in the United States have done little to teach students about Jefferson’s hero. Hopefully Kosciuszko’s name will find that special place in American history lessons where it belongs.