Thaddeus Kościuszko was born on February 12, 1746 in eastern Poland. His parents were Ludwik and Tekla Kościuszko—gentry, but not wealthy by the standards of high Polish nobility. However, they owned land that was worked by peasant serfs, and lived plainly but comfortably. Ludwik was fair to the serfs who worked his land, which made a great impression on the youngest of his four children: Thaddeus. Thaddeus would grow up to be a lover of liberty and an advocate for the equal rights of all people.
After his father’s untimely death, Kościuszko began attending a prestigious Catholic high school run by Piarist Fathers in Lubieszow. When he was nineteen, he began attending the Royal Military Academy, located in Warsaw, where his diligence and work ethic caught the eye of the Polish monarch King Stanislaw. Due to his studiousness and charm, Kościuszko was granted a scholarship from the king to go study in France for several years, learning much about art, engineering, and military strategy, as well as the ideas and philosophies of the Enlightenment.
When the young Kościuszko returned to Poland in 1774, he was an educated and worldly man. Searching for a job, he started tutoring the young noblewoman Ludwika Sosnowski and rapidly fell in love with her. However, her father disapproved of their plans for marriage, and the broken-hearted Kościuszko left Poland to seek employment elsewhere. He found it in George Washington’s Continental Army.
The American Revolutionary War
Late in August 1776, Thaddeus Kościuszko stepped off a ship and onto the docks in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After making the acquaintance of Benjamin Franklin and proving his worth by designing blockades and fortresses along the Delaware River, Kościuszko was given the rank of colonel by Congress in October 1776. In December, he designed Fort Mercer in Red Bank, New Jersey. In the summer of 1777, he ordered the troops retreating from Ticonderoga to delay the British by felling trees and moving boulders onto the path, as well as diverting and damming streams to turn the woodland path into a swamp. In the autumn of 1777, Kościuszko’s structures and use of topography contributed to the American victory at Saratoga.
Reaching Fort West Point in New York in March 1778, Kościuszko heavily fortified the base, as well as the section of the Hudson River that it overlooked. It was here that he met the witty and charismatic Agrippa Hull, a black New-Englander who would accompany Kościuszko for the rest of the war as his servant, assistant, and companion.
Finally leaving West Point late in the summer of 1780, the engineer traveled south to meet up with his friend and mentor, General Horatio Gates. Gates, however, was soon replaced by General Nathanael Greene, whom Kościuszko would serve for the rest of the war. As the British general Lord Cornwallis chased Greene’s forces around the Carolinas, Kościuszko proved himself invaluable by leading the troops through shortcuts and building a fleet of small boats which could be used to transport supplies and soldiers across rivers.
In June 1781, while attempting to burrow closer to an enemy fort known as “Ninety-Six,” Kościuszko was bayoneted in the buttocks while inspecting his trench. He soon recovered from the criticism of his failed plan, as well as the embarrassment from his wound. In early autumn 1782, as the war was drawing to a close, Kościuszko was made a field commander. On November 14, Kościuszko led a skirmish outside Charleston, South Carolina, one of the last military skirmishes of the American Revolutionary War.
Revolution in Poland
After nine years away from his homeland, Thaddeus Kościuszko returned to Poland in September 1784. For a few years, he lived simply and alone on his remote farm while Poland and other parts of Europe underwent significant political changes. Weary of Russian domination, and inspired by the American Revolution, Poland began to strengthen its army, and on May 3,1791, it passed a new constitution. It is generally considered the second national constitution in history, the first being that of the United States.
Tensions eventually broke with the Russians, and Kościuszko, who had been given the title of major general in 1789, fought a year-long war for Poland's freedom. However, the Russian army was too strong, and in late July 1792, the Polish King Stanislaw surrendered to Czarina Catherine the Great. Kościuszko left Poland, as did many other leaders who fought against the Russians.
After spending over a year in western Europe, planning and gathering support, the revolutionaries re-entered Poland in March 1794, prepared to set off a fiery rebellion. Kościuszko was proclaimed commander in chief of Poland and chosen to lead the uprising. Leading his patchwork army--soldiers armed with guns and peasants armed with farming tools--the Polish army waged a battle with a Russian force near the village of Raclawice. The Polish army overpowered the unprepared Russian forces. The scythe-bearing peasants also brought an element of psychological warfare to the Polish army: with their long scythes and fierce war cries, they reminded the Czarina’s troops of the mythical grim reaper from folktales. Soon, people in cities all over Poland rose up to force out the occupying Russian soldiers, pledging their allegiance to Kościuszko.
However, Poland’s triumph was short-lived. An unexpected collaboration between the Russian and the Prussian armies defeated and demoralized the Polish army at the Battle of Szczekociny in June 1794. On June 15, Krakow fell to the Prussians. All efforts turned to defending Warsaw. A combined Russian and Prussian army lay siege to the capital city throughout the summer, but the Polish forces and the city’s inhabitants managed to stave them off until they retreated in September.
On October 10, 1794 the Polish army engaged the Czarina’s soldiers. Massively outnumbered, the Polish forces lost the battle. Kościuszko himself was badly wounded and captured. He was taken to St. Petersburg where he was imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress on December 10, 1794.
Return to America
On November 17, 1796, Catherine the Great died at the age of 67. Her son, Paul, became the new Czar and freed Kościuszko and other Polish prisoners on the condition that they would be loyal to Russia. Kościuszko, saddened by the loss of his homeland, resolved to travel across Europe, and ultimately back to America.
On the morning of December 19, Kościuszko and a few of his comrades left St. Petersburg, bound for Sweden and England. On the afternoon of August 18, 1797 Kościuszko left England for his “second fatherland” aboard the Adriana. Upon docking in Philadelphia, he was greeted with cheers. Soon after his arrival, however, renowned physician Dr. Benjamin Rush beseeched Kościuszko to flee the city due to an outbreak of yellow fever in the city. Kościuszko decided that he would spend the rest of the summer and autumn in the North, visiting old friends like General Horatio Gates, Agrippa Hull, and others.
Kościuszko returned to Philadelphia after the disease subsided with the first frost. After arriving at Mrs. Relf’s boarding house (located at 3rd and Pine Streets) in late November or early December 1797, a steady stream of notable visitors began to trickle into Kościuszko's humble and cramped second-floor room. Such guests included Virginia congressman John Dawson, who pushed Congress to pay Kościuszko what it owed him for his Revolutionary War service: $18,912 and 500 acres of land in Ohio. Chief Little Turtle (or Michikinikwa) of the Miami people also visited Kościuszko, and presented the general with an ornate peace pipe-tomahawk. Kosciuszko offered him a cloak and a pair of glasses in return.
During his second stay in Philadelphia, Kosciuszko became close friends with Vice President Thomas Jefferson. So close, in fact, that Kościuszko worked out his will with Jefferson’s legal help. Ever true to his core beliefs, the general requested that following his death, his estate be used to free as many slaves as possible. Kościuszko trusted Jefferson so deeply, that when he made plans to slip out of the country unnoticed, the vice president was the only person he told. With Americans’ distrust of immigrants increasing (eventually resulting in the Alien and Sedition Acts), and the sudden influx of Polish revolutionaries into Italy, presumably organizing for another attempt at Polish freedom, Kościuszko felt the pull of action. In the wee hours of the morning on May 5, 1798, Thaddeus Kościuszko boarded a ship in New Castle, Delaware, to return to Europe.
Final Years in Europe
On June 28, 1798, a ship docked in the harbor of Bayonne, France, and General Thaddeus Kościuszko limped off the gangplank and onto European soil. Kościuszko was wary of French general Napoleon Bonaparte, but he believed that if anyone could still restore Poland, it would be Napoleon. However, as he passed months in Paris, the freedom fighter’s faith in the French conqueror waned. On November 9, 1799, Napoleon overthrew the French government and declared himself the First Consul of the new regime. The dictator’s actions displeased Kościuszko greatly.
During the next year, relations between the two men became even more strained after Kościuszko helped write and propagate a pamphlet that called the Polish people to begin an uprising. Napoleon’s secret police censored the document and kept an eye on Kościuszko. During the years in which Napoleon conquered much of Europe, Kościuszko became increasingly removed from politics, and moved to the countryside estate of Peter Joseph Zeltner, the Swiss ambassador to France.
When Napoleon’s enemies finally joined forces and brought his conquests to an end in April 1814, European powers decided to rework the tangled borders of the continent at the Congress of Vienna. Czar Alexander, son of the assassinated Czar Paul, desired Kościuszko’s support and invited him to Vienna. Hesitant and cautious, Kościuszko went. Alexander had offered vague promises that he would restore Poland—ultimately, however, Poland was once again torn up into several pieces that were handed out to Russia, Prussia, and Austria. It was Kościuszko’s last opportunity to witness Polish liberty in his lifetime, and it had all come to naught. The dejected general began his journey back to France with Zeltner. On the way, they stopped in Soleure (Solothurn), Switzerland and stayed with Zeltner’s brother, Francis Xavier Zeltner. Due to unrest in France and the calm of the remote Swiss town, Kościuszko decided to make Soleure his home.
During the last years of his life, Kościuszko corresponded with Jefferson, tutored the Zeltner children, and rode his horse through the hills and valleys of Switzerland. He died at the age of 71 at 10:00 p.m. on October 15, 1817. His internal organs were buried in Soleure, but the rest of his body was placed in a coffin, which was picked up after a few months, under the orders of Czar Alexander, and transported to the Wawel Cathedral in Krakow. There he remains to this day, entombed alongside royalty and the heroes of Poland.
Nash, Gary B., and Graham Russell Hodges. Friends of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson, Tadeusz Kościuszko, and Agrippa Hull. Basic Books, 2008.
Storozynski, Alex. The Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Revolution. Thomas Dunne Books, 2009.