Tadeusz Kosciuszko

Grayscale image of a young man in late 18th century military uniform, including a shoulder strap for a sword.
Print from an engraving of Tadeusz Kosciuszko.

Antoni Oleszczyński, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

[Tah-DAY-oos Kos-CHOO-sko]

Tadeusz (Thaddeus) Kosciuszko (b. 1746, d. 1817) is claimed as a native son by Poles, Lithuanians, and Belarussians alike, the United States also owes much to this military engineer, officer, and statesman.

Born to a low noble family of Polish-Lithuanian descent, Kosciuszko learned both the importance of wide-ranging education and the inherent value of the human person. This foundation was reinforced by the Piarist Fathers in Lubieszow, Poland and anchored his study at the military academy in Warsaw. Drawn to study military engineering, he traveled to Paris. French law prohibited foreigners from enrolling in French military academies, so Kosciuszko matriculated in the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, where his studies abounded with applied mathematics (geometry, proportionality/ratios, measurement, building design, etc.). On the side, he attended many military lectures and frequented military academy libraries.

Returning to Poland in 1775, General Josef Sosnowski hired Kosciuszko to tutor his daughters. When he and Sosnowski’s daughter, Ludwika, developed a romantic relationship, he asked to marry her but was turned down, purportedly as the General thought him too low-class. The couple tried eloping but were caught by Sosnowski’s guards, who beat Kosciuszko and returned Ludwika to her father.

Kosciuszko, likely fearing retribution, returned to France. Hearing of America’s uprising against Great Britain and needing military engineers, in June 1776 he departed for America and offered his services.

In Philadelphia, PA that summer, he introduced himself to Benjamin Franklin, who helped introduce Kosciuszko to the Continental Congress. By October 1776, Congress appointed Kosciuszko a military engineer and a colonel.

By the spring of 1777, Congress assigned him to the Northern Department of the Continental Army. Sent to review Fort Ticonderoga’s defenses, he and others recommended fortifying nearby Mount Defiance, but no defenses were undertaken. British forces under General John Burgoyne later got artillery atop that position, forcing the Americans to retreat south.

At the Battles of Saratoga in the autumn of 1777, Kosciuszko had skillfully designed American defenses, anchored at Bemus Heights, to capitalize on geographic features in the Hudson River Valley and give Gates a strong advantage against Burgoyne, thus contributing to Gates’ victory.

Not long after, from 1778-79, Kosciuszko developed fortifications at West Point. It is these defenses General Benedict Arnold attempted to betray to the British. Somewhere in this time, Kosciuszko’ received Agrippa Hull as aide-de-camp, though by many accounts Kosciuszko thought him as much a friend as an assistant.

By 1780, Kosciuszko transferred to the Southern Department of the American Army. Serving under General Nathaniel Green, his duties included building bateaux, siting camps, scouting river crossings, overseeing fortification construction, and establishing intelligence contacts. He also oversaw the siege of British defenses at Ninety-Six.

With the war’s end in 1783, Kosciuszko requested back pay owed him ($12,000, or almost $290,000 in 2020 dollars), and by 1784 returned to Poland. There, he purchased familial lands sold off by his brother and greatly reduced mandatory service time male peasants owed their manorial lord; he eliminated it for female peasants.

The action sent him into debt. Nonetheless, he later eliminated that mandatory service requirement for all his manor’s peasants.Still recalling America’s War for Independence, then-Major General Kosciuszko fought to free the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from foreign domination during the Polish-Russian War of 1792. His military successes were swept aside by King Poniatowski, who acceded to the Russians. Kosciuszko fled to Lwow, where one of his patrons, Izabela Czartoryska, suggested he marry her daughter Zofia and start anew. Imminent threat of Russian arrest, however, intervened and forced him to flee to France.

Returning to Poland in 1793, he led the famous Kosciuszko Uprising of 1794. Wounded in battle, captured, and imprisoned in St. Petersburg until 1796, the still-recuperating general left again for America in 1797. Welcomed as a hero in Philadelphia, he also bought a house for himself. His stay was short, as news of French hostilities with Russia beckoned him back to Paris in 1798. Hope for indirect support of Polish-Lithuanian sovereignty flickered, as he rightly discerned Napoleon’s only interest was leveraging his fame. Fleeing to Switzerland, Kosciuszko died there in 1817, but was buried in Krakow among the Polish kings.

In many ways a “son of Independence,” Kosciuszko toiled and bled supporting successful American independence. He labored and sacrificed even more for unsuccessful Polish independence. And, his 1798 will, directed his American wealth should be used to purchase, liberate, and educate enslaved Black people, including some of Thomas Jefferson’s (his will’s executor), though legal challenges intervened against it.

Last updated: November 3, 2020

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