The Deeds of Kazimierz Pulaski
by Peter K. Gessner
Pulaski was born on March 7, 1745, at a time when the Polish Kingdom was experiencing increasing encroachment on its sovereignty by the surrounding autocratic imperial powers, particularly Russia. The latter, under the pretense of guaranteeing the "golden" freedoms of the Polish gentry, stationed large military forces in Poland, while Poland's Royal Army was limited, by treaty, to a paltry 12,000 men.
When Pulaski was 19, he witnessed how Catherine the Great, the Russian Tsarina, ensured the election to the Polish throne of Stanislaw August Poniatowski, a man who had been her passionate lover. The election was held in the fields on Warsaw's outskirts. There, some 13,000 delegates, including Pulaski's father, gathered for the election. To ensure the desired outcome of the election, 60,000 Russian troops surrounded the election fields. Even though, to observed the proprieties of the occasion, they had decorously withdrew to a distance of 3 miles, it was enough to make the blood of many Poles boil. Worse was to follow. Though the newly elected King proved less pliant than Catherine had hoped, any reforms he tried to bring about to render Poland's situation less helpless, were blocked by the Russians, who felt free to arrest and deport to Siberia any Polish parliamentarians who dared criticize them.
This state of affairs appalled many patriotic Poles. Led by Jozef Pulaski, Kazimierz's father, they met in the town of Bar and formed an armed Confederation whose aim was to liberate the country of the Russian presence. Kazimierz became one of the Confederation's chief military leaders, crisscrossing Poland, leading Confederate armies into battle after battle, more often than not against superior Russian forces, showing great strategic inventiveness and personal bravery. In the four year years of the Confederacy, he was involved in over 30 separate battles against the Russians. Among the most memorable of these was his brilliant defense of the Czestochowa monastery against a Russian siege. He held the fortress for two years thereby evoking memories of the almost legendary events of 1655 when the successful defense of the same fortress, as the last piece of free Polish soil, had resulted in the stemming of a Swedish invasion. At 25, Pulaski had emerged as the greatest Polish military leader since Sobieski, and a man whose devotion to the concept of a truly free Poland was an inspiration to all.
In time, the Confederates came to see their goal as unachievable as long as the King, to whom many Poles felt loyalty, continued to uphold the legitimacy of Russian operations in Poland. Though Pulaski, throughout the four years of the Confederacy, had studiously avoided any armed conflict with the King's Polish Army, he now participated in the planning of a plot to depose the King. To this end, the King was to he kidnaped and brought to Czestochowa. However, the kidnaping was bungled. Some of the those in the King's entourage were killed and the King was wounded, but managed to escape his captors. Pulaski and the others involved in the plot were accused of attempted regicide. Although years after his death, Pulaski was cleared of that charge, the accusation was so grave that he had no alternative but to quit the country, first for Prussia, then France.
It was in France that Pulaski met Benjamin Franklin. The latter, aware of Pulaski's reputation, recommended him highly to both George Washington and the Continental Congress as "famous throughout Europe for his bravery and conduct in defense of the liberties of his country." Landing at Boston in late July 1777, Pulaski reported to the Continental Army's Commander-in-chief, General George Washington and offered his military services to the Continental Congress. While waiting for his commission to come through, he witnessed the reverses suffered by the Continental Army at the battle of Brandywine Creek. Aware from his own scouting of the danger in which the Army found itself, he asked and received Washington's permission to use the headquarters' cavalry detachment of some 30 men for a rear-guard action. Personally leading a charge upon the British center, he caused a delay in its advance. In the process, he noted a British move to cutoff the road to Chester along which the Continental Army was retreating. Authorized by Washington to collect as many scattered troops as he could, Pulaski again led an advance on the British right flank, preventing them from achieving their aim and thereby protecting the retreat of the Continental Army.
Appointed by Congress as General of the Cavalry, Pulaski endeavored to create a highly mobile fighting force that would give tactical advantage to the Americans. Up to this time, no tactical cavalry units had existed in the colonies and American commanders lacked an understanding of their potential. As a consequence, they tended to assign cavalry men to liaison and escort duties. This lack of understanding and the high price the of steeds prevented the force from ever becoming fully established. In time, many of the premises advanced by Pulaski, a consummate expert on the use of the cavalry and on irregular warfare, became accepted and integrated into the modus operandi of the American forces, but that came about only after his death.
Faced with the difficulties in making the cavalry an effective force within the Continental Army, Pulaski resigned his commission and, with the permission of Congress, formed a Foreign Legion. The legion, which at its maximum strength counted just 250 men, took part in the defense of Charleston. There, under Pulaski's leadership, it attacked superior British forces advancing on the city. The attack caused the British to withdraw and saved the city. This was the last successful action in which Pulaski took part. He died gallantly from a wound sustained while rushing to take over command from a wounded French commander at. the battle of Savannah. Considered one of the most experienced generals of the Continental Army, he died at the age of 34, giving his life to the American cause.