GENERAL CASIMIR PULASKI
Let me begin with a brief background. I’m from a very small community of 1700 in central Illinois. It was a great place to grow up and 42 years after I left, I still count many friends who live there. But my wife, Marcy, asked a question one day about the man the community was named after…..and I didn’t have an answer. After some prodding, I determined to find out what I could about the man. Here’s what I have discovered.
His name was Casimir Pulaski and he gave his life for the cause of American independence. He was born to wealth and privilege, and he sacrificed wealth and privilege in the struggle for freedom: first in his native Poland, then second, in America. He sought no personal advantage, nor any rewards-----and he found none. His life is a story of reversals, defeats, deprivations and disasters---but in the end, his life was very significant to people who love freedom.
Casimir Pulaski was born in 1747 at the family estate in central Poland. His father was a wealthy attorney, landowner, businessman and politician.
Although Poland was a monarchy, the people voted the king into power and Poland was considered a “free” nation---that is, you were free if you were educated, had financial means, and achieved status among the elite of the country.
At the time of Casimir’s birth, Poland had been untroubled by war for nearly one hundred years. However, Russia, and small German states like Bavaria and Prussia were rapidly moving toward war with Poland, which had become a very weak nation. Poland maintained only a small army, mostly for ceremonial purposes.
At the age of 6, Casimir began his formal education in a local parish school. At the age of 12 he was sent to Warsaw for high school. Then, when he was 15, Casimir was sent for his final training to the eastern border of Poland to learn the intricacies of courtly manners, gentlemanly behavior, and military skills.
When Pulaski was 19, Poland came under attack by several countries and had no means to defend itself. His father sent Casimir and his older brother to recruit an army paid for by the family fortune. By himself, Casimir was able to recruit and equip an army of nearly six thousand men. During the next few years, Casimir became an accomplished military leader….respected for his military skills by both friend and foe, ultimately, however, he was forced to find exile in France.
While he was in
France, political intrigue and schemes resulted in Casimir being
robbed and eventually thrown into debtor’s prison for debts he
incurred trying to raise another army to fight for Polish freedom.
Friends secured his release from prison by paying his debts. Soon after his release, Casimir arranged an introduction to Benjamin Franklin, the American ambassador to France. With letters of introduction citing Pulaski’s (1) military skills, (2) reputation as a cavalry leader and (3) commitment to freedom, Pulaski persuaded Franklin to help him travel to America with letters of recommendation to General George Washington and the Continental Congress. Franklin was agreeable on the condition that Pulaski pay his own way to America.
When Casimir reached Boston, he was 30 years old and had nearly 14 years of military experience. The only English he knew was learned on his voyage to America from the ship’s officers. After he arrived at General Washington’s headquarters, Pulaski begged Washington for a commission so he could begin serving immediately in the American Army with the cavalry. But, because Washington was unable to grant him a commission, Casimir was forced to return to Philadelphia and request a commission from the Continental Congress.
Unfortunately, his command of the English language was so poor that the Congress thought Pulaski was requesting command of the entire army instead of a “volunteer corps of cavalry” [composed of two hundred officers and men who would serve directly under the command of General Washington]. While this misunderstanding was being worked out, Pulaski spent each day riding with Washington and performing reconnaissance.
Washington did not have any military background with cavalry, so Pulaski was anxious to demonstrate how valuable cavalry could be. Pulaski often tried to emphasize the use of cavalry and talked to anyone who would listen about his military experiences, including General Washington. Unfortunately, because of his limited English and his youthful energy and confidence, he was considered brash, over-confident, impetuous, and egotistical---and probably he was. His personal motto had become: “to win at war, you must seize the offensive.” But with his limited experience, supplies, and trained forces, Washington more often than not was forced to parry, defend and retreat with his army rather than seek the offensive.
On September 11, 1777, (and before he was commissioned by Congress) Pulaski was scouting the British Army and discovered they were advancing toward the American army at Brandywine Creek, near Chadds Ford, PA. The British were planning to destroy Washington’s forces and capture Philadelphia (which was the American capital at the time) with one major thrust. One British column advanced into the open…..while another, under Lord Cornwallis, made a flanking movement behind the American encampment. This maneuver was familiar to what Casimir had seen in European battle tactics. The British struck quickly and the American army was nearly surrounded. General Washington realized that his army was in another desperate position and decided to save his supplies by sending them north. Washington quickly lost hope of saving Philadelphia. Casimir took this opportunity to display the value of cavalry. He begged Washington for a small detachment of thirty cavalrymen. The right side of the American army entrenchment was breaking, and the center was about the give way. Washington quickly accepted Pulaski’s request.
As was his normal practice in battle, Pulaski led (not directed) his detachment of troops. His cavalry detachment could hardly understand his orders…..but his actions spoke volumes. The British were caught by surprise and quickly halted their advance. With the advance stopped, the American foot soldiers began to rally. This opportunity gave Washington the necessary time to save his supplies and Washington extricated far more of his army than he thought possible. Casimir proved the value cavalry. His gallant rear-guard action had helped save the Revolutionary Army.
As soon as word of his commission to brigadier general was published, Casimir set up the cavalry corps. One significant difficulty that Pulaski encountered was that American generals could not understand why cavalry should be an independent corps. Up to that point the American Army used cavalry units to scout and send messages. Throughout his service to America, Pulaski constantly had to defend and prove the use of cavalry for offensive purposes.
On December 11, 1777, at Schuylkill River, PA., Pulaski’s cavalry found a foraging expedition of the British army approaching toward the American Army. Pulaski charged into the astonished vanguard of the British army and forced its retreat.
Though his constant raids were on a small scale, Pulaski showed great ingenuity. At the Battle of Chestnut Hill, when the American ranks were broken, his small cavalry detachment arrived in time to turn disaster into victory. Pulaski sent a barrage of letters to Congress asking for a stronger cavalry force, but with no success. General Washington had his own problems and wasn’t in a position to support Pulaski’s requests for additional support and supplies. Washington’s own command was in jeopardy with political in-fighting and a scarcity of supplies and equipment for his rag-tag army.
Among his many struggles, Pulaski was very frustrated as he tried to train his cavalry. Demands persisted to provide reconnaissance and support for the Americans in daily skirmishes with the enemy, so much so that Pulaski couldn’t train his men to the level he wanted.
In June 1778, Casimir received an urgent request for assistance from General Wayne who was under attack by two-to-three thousand British troops under General Howe near Wilmington, Delaware. At the time, Casimir was heavily into arrangements for a major series of training maneuvers with his cavalry. His initial response was to explode in anger and indignation. General Wayne had demanded a detachment of cavalry immediately and Pulaski was angered at such a demand because he, Pulaski, was assigned directly to General Washington and was supposed to take orders directly from Washington, himself. He threw General Wayne’s letter aside, but on second consideration, quickly ordered a detachment of 30–50 men to saddle up immediately. Pulaski and his detachment rode several hours late into the night to arrive at General Wayne’s location near Wilmington in the late hours. While his fatigued men and horses rested a few hours, Pulaski conferred with General Wayne and developed a plan of attack.
Casimir recommended an immediate surprise attack to take advantage of the howling blizzard that was beginning. The British were completely surprised by the charge of cavalry into their outposts and the outpost guards fell into full retreat. The snowstorm disguised the small number of cavalry and soon up to 3,000 British soldiers were retreating back to Philadelphia, abandoning supplies and equipment.
Meanwhile, the impetuous Casimir’s indignation mounted to the point that he wrote a letter of resignation to General Washington. For the first and only time in his career, his resentment was stronger than his commitment.
Despite the resignation, Pulaski approached General Washington at Valley Forge with a new plan to form an independent legion, composed of both cavalry and infantry. It would be placed directly under General Washington’s immediate command for use as the spearhead for Washington’s army. Washington was very interested in the plan, but this was the vicious winter at Valley Forge and Washington had more basic issues with keeping his men fed and clothed. He advised Pulaski to ask Congress for a very small unit-----since it was Washington’s considered opinion that Congress was in no mood to spend much money to form such a force.
At once, Casimir drew up a petition to Congress with modest specifications for an independent mobile legion of three companies of lancers supported by three companies of infantry, a total of nearly 300 men. Pulaski begged for quick action from Congress so that the new legion could be prepared for the coming summer’s campaign. Although General Washington supported Pulaski’s request, he recommended that Pulaski recruit the cavalry among Americans who could pay for their own horses and who would accept the Continental reward for prisoners as their pay. The Board of War (our early Department of Defense) offered advice to Congress on Pulaski’s recommendation, and suggested that because Pulaski was such a talented and skilled military leader, he should be given a command of at least eight hundred infantry and twelve hundred cavalrymen. In all its wisdom, Congress authorized sixty-eight horsemen and two hundred infantry.
Pulaski was not deterred and quickly recruited and equipped his small force (most of whom owned their own horses and paid their own upkeep). After a brief assignment with his force in upstate New York, Pulaski was sent to Charleston, S.C.
When Pulaski entered Charleston, he was informed that British General Prevost had 3,600 men advancing toward the city. Pulaski’s immediate response was to join his Legion with volunteers from the local militia, and proceeded to destroy the enemy’s advance parties and take prisoners from the astonished British front guard.
Pulaski’s aggressiveness toward Prevost’s army forced Prevost to withdraw his army to Beaufort Island to the south to await reinforcements before he could mount a British campaign against Charleston.
As Prevost retreated to Beaufort, Pulaski pursued the enemy all the way. Using tactics Pulaski developed in Poland, he took many British prisoners and used captured supplies abandoned by the British. Pulaski made Prevost fight every step of the way into Beaufort. Prevost had started toward Charleston with 3,600 men; by the time his army arrived in Beaufort only eight hundred remained.
The next test was whether British reinforcements would arrive first to support an attack on Charleston or the French fleet would arrive so that the Americans and French could attack Savannah. With the exception of the small army at Beaufort Island, the rest of the British were in the Savannah area.
The French fleet arrived first and a plan of attack was prepared on Savannah. However, the night before the attack, a traitor from the Charleston local militia took details of the plan to the British. This treason wasn’t discovered until after the attack began. During this battle, Pulaski was mortally wounded by a shell fragment. This treason resulted in a French and American defeat.
Pulaski had lost so much blood that he was too weak for immediate surgery. Time was Pulaski’s last enemy. Within three days, Pulaski succumbed to gangrene.
Casimir Pulaski died on October 11, 1779, at the age of 32. The funeral procession for Pulaski was so immense that it encircled the entire city of Charleston. The Continental Congress commanded that a statue be erected in Charleston in memory of Pulaski. King Stanislaus of Poland remarked at news of Pulaski’s death: “He died as he lived, a hero, but an enemy of kings.” What a tribute to this 32 year old military leader.
At the time, the battle of Savannah was considered a major disaster. Actually it was the turning point in the war. The British losses during the previous summer in the retreat to Beaufort and the constant harassment by Pulaski’s Legion against the remaining British forces around Savannah were much more significant than anyone realized. The British soon withdrew from the south. The lesson that Pulaski taught was bearing fruit: “once a war begins, you must seize the offensive to win.”
Many historical accounts credit Pulaski for strength of character, quality of military leadership, daring, and bravery. Some historians, though, view him as brash, feisty, arrogant, touchy, obstreperous, a show-off, and someone constantly embroiled in squabbles with his fellow officers. There was a great deal of jealousy among American officers who didn’t want to take orders from a “foreigner”, especially one who spoke English so poorly.
This young Polish patriot might well occupy a much greater place in our history had he been spared by God for longer and fuller achievement commensurate with his genius and devotion. Casimir Pulaski was a great patriot, committed to freedom above even his own life. I’m constantly left to wonder: why has our nation been given such people…both men and women throughout our history, who have been willing to sacrifice their treasures and themselves for freedom, and more specifically, for our freedom?
I have a two word answer: God’s blessing.
I’ll leave you to seek your own answer to that question.
(1) Soldier of Liberty, Casimir Pulaski by Clarence A. Manning, Publisher: Philosophical Library, Inc. (1945)
(2) Cavalry Hero Casimir Pulaski by Dorothy Adams, Publisher: P.J. Kenedy & Sons, New York (1957)
(3) Wikipedia On-Line Free Encyclopedia, www.wikipedia.org/wiki/casimir_pulaski (2003)
This was a
speech originally prepared in 2003 as a presentation to the Greater
Dallas Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.