The Kościuszko Uprising

United States - Scott #734 (1933)
United States – Scott #734 (1933)

On March 24, 1794, in the Krakow, Poland, town square, Tadeusz Kościuszko — a veteran of the American Revolutionary War — announced a general uprising against Imperial Russia and the Kingdom of Prussia and assumed the powers of the Commander in Chief of all of the Polish forces. He vowed “not to use these powers to oppress any person, but to defend the integrity of the borders of Poland, regain the independence of the nation, and to strengthen universal liberties.” The uprising was a failed attempt to liberate the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from Russian influence after the Second Partition of Poland (1793) and the creation of the Targowica Confederation.

Kościuszko was born on February 4, 1746, in a manor house on the Mereczowszczyzna estate in Nowogródek Voivodeship, Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (now in Belarus). At age 20, he graduated from the Corps of Cadets in Warsaw, Poland, but after the outbreak of a civil war involving the Bar Confederation in 1768, Kościuszko moved to France in 1769 to pursue further studies. He returned to Poland in 1774, two years after its First Partition, and took a position as tutor in Józef Sylwester Sosnowski’s household. After Kościuszko attempted to elope with his employer’s daughter and was severely beaten by the father’s retainers, he returned to France. In 1776, Kościuszko moved to North America, where he took part in the American Revolutionary War as a colonel in the Continental Army. An accomplished military architect, he designed and oversaw the construction of state-of-the-art fortifications, including those at West Point, New York. In 1783, in recognition of his services, the Continental Congress promoted him to brigadier general.

Upon returning to Poland in 1784, Kościuszko was commissioned as a major general in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth Army in 1789. After the Polish–Russian War of 1792 resulted in the Second Partition of Poland, he organized an uprising against Russia in March 1794, serving as its Naczelnik (commander-in-chief). Russian forces captured him at the Battle of Maciejowice in October 1794. The defeat of the Kościuszko Uprising that November led to Poland’s Third Partition in 1795, which ended the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth’s independent existence for 123 years. In 1796, following the death of Tsaritsa Catherine the Great, Kościuszko was pardoned by her successor, Tsar Paul I, and he emigrated to the United States. A close friend of Thomas Jefferson’s, with whom he shared ideals of human rights, Kościuszko wrote a will in 1798 dedicating his American assets to the education and freedom of U.S. slaves. He eventually returned to Europe and lived in Switzerland until his death in 1817. The execution of his will later proved difficult, and the funds were never used for the purpose he had intended.

Portrait of Tadeusz Kościuszko by Karl Gottlieb Schweikart. Kościuszko is shown wearing the Eagle of the Society of the Cincinnati, awarded to him by Gen. Washington.
Portrait of Tadeusz Kościuszko by Karl Gottlieb Schweikart. Kościuszko is shown wearing the Eagle of the Society of the Cincinnati, awarded to him by Gen. Washington.

Andrzej Tadeusz Bonawentura Kościuszko (Andrew Thaddeus Bonaventure Kosciuszko) was born in February 1746 in a manor house on the estate called Mereczowszczyzna near Kosów, (now Kosava, Belarus) in Nowogródek Voivodeship, Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. His exact birthdate is unknown; commonly cited are February 4 and February 12. Kościuszko was the youngest son of a member of the szlachta (nobility), Ludwik Tadeusz Kościuszko, an officer in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth Army, and his wife Tekla, née Ratomska. The Kościuszkos held the Polish Roch III coat of arms. At the time of Tadeusz Kościuszko’s birth, the family possessed modest landholdings in the Grand Duchy, which were worked by 31 peasant families.

Tadeusz was baptized by the Roman Catholic church and the Orthodox Church, thereby receiving the names Andrzej, Tadeusz, and Bonawentura. His paternal family was ethnically Lithuanian–Ruthenian and traced their ancestry to Konstanty Fiodorowicz Kostiuszko, a courtier of Polish King and Grand Duke of Lithuania Sigismund I the Old. Kościuszko’s maternal family, the Ratomskis, were also Ruthenian.

Modern Belarusian writers interpret his Ruthenian or Lithuanian heritage as Belarusian. He once described himself as a Litvin, a term that denoted inhabitants, of whatever ethnicity, of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, within the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Modern Belarusian writers interpret Litvin as designating a Belarusian, before the word “Belarusian” had come into use. Kościuszko, however, did not speak the Belarusian language; his family had become Polonized as early as the 16th century. Like most Polish–Lithuanian nobility of the time, the Kościuszkos spoke Polish and identified with Polish culture.

In 1755, Kościuszko began attending school in Lyubeshiv, but never finished due to his family’s financial straits after his father’s death in 1758. Poland’s King Stanisław August Poniatowski established a Corps of Cadets (Korpus Kadetów) in 1765, at what is now Warsaw University, to educate military officers and government officials. Kościuszko enrolled in the Corps on December 18, 1765, likely thanks to the patronage of the Czartoryski family. The school emphasized military subjects and the liberal arts, and after graduating on December 20, 1766, Kościuszko was promoted to chorąży (a military rank roughly equivalent to modern lieutenant); he stayed on as a student instructor and by 1768 had attained the rank of captain.

In 1768, civil war broke out in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, when the Bar Confederation sought to depose King Stanisław August Poniatowski. One of Kościuszko’s brothers, Józef, fought on the side of the insurgents. Faced with a difficult choice between the rebels and his sponsors — the King and the Czartoryski family, who favored a gradualist approach to shedding Russian domination — Kościuszko chose to leave Poland. In late 1769, he and a colleague, the noted artist Aleksander Orłowski, were granted royal scholarships, and on October 5 they set off for Paris. They wanted to further their military education, but as foreigners they were barred from enrolling in French military academies, and so they enrolled instead in the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. There Kościuszko pursued his interest in drawing and painting and took private lessons in architecture from the noted French architect Jean-Rodolphe Perronet.

Portrait of Tadeusz Kościuszko, member of the Wasow Cadet Corps' first class and its most famous alumnus
Portrait of Tadeusz Kościuszko, member of the Wasow Cadet Corps’ first class and its most famous alumnus. Portrait by Kazimierz Wojniakowski.

Kościuszko, however, did not give up on improving his military knowledge. He audited lectures for five years and frequented the libraries of the Paris military academies. His exposure to the French Enlightenment, along with the religious tolerance practiced in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, strongly influenced his later career. The French economic theory of physiocracy made a particularly strong impression on his thinking. He also developed his artistic skills, and while his career would take him in a different direction, all his life he continued drawing and painting.

In the First Partition of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1772, Russia, Prussia and Austria annexed large swaths of Polish–Lithuanian territory and gained influence over the internal politics of the reduced Polish and Lithuanian states. When Kościuszko finally returned home in 1774, he found that his brother Józef had squandered most of the family fortune, and there was no place for him in the Army, as he could not afford to buy an officer’s commission. He took a position as tutor to the family of the magnate, province governor (voivode) and hetman Józef Sylwester Sosnowski and fell in love with the governor’s daughter Ludwika. Their elopement was thwarted by her father’s retainers. Kościuszko received a thrashing at their hands, an event that may have led to his later antipathy to class distinctions.

In the autumn of 1775, he decided to emigrate to avoid Sosnowski and his retainers. In late 1775, he attempted to join the Saxon army but was turned down and decided to return to Paris. There he learned of the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War, in which the British colonies in North America had revolted against the crown and begun their struggle for independence. The first American successes were well-publicized in France, and the French people and government openly supported the revolutionaries’ cause. On learning of the American Revolution, Kościuszko, himself a man of revolutionary aspirations, sympathetic to the American cause and an advocate of human rights, sailed for America in June 1776 along with other foreign officers, likely with the help of a French supporter of the American revolutionaries, Pierre Beaumarchais. On August 30, 1776, Kościuszko submitted an application to the Second Continental Congress; he was assigned to the Continental Army the next day.

Tadeusz Kościuszko wearing the Virtuti Militari and, below it, the Eagle of the Cincinnat.
Tadeusz Kościuszko wearing the Virtuti Militari and, below it, the Eagle of the Cincinnat.

Kościuszko’s first task was building fortifications at Fort Billingsport in Paulsboro, New Jersey, to protect the banks of the Delaware River and prevent a possible British advance up the river to Philadelphia. He initially served as a volunteer in the employ of Benjamin Franklin, but on October 18, 1776, Congress commissioned him a colonel of engineers in the Continental Army.

In spring 1777, Kościuszko was attached to the Northern Army under Major General Horatio Gates, arriving at the Canada–U.S. border in May 1777. Subsequently posted to Fort Ticonderoga, he reviewed the defenses of what had been one of the most formidable fortresses in North America. His surveys prompted him to strongly recommend the construction of a battery on Sugar Loaf, a high point overlooking the fort. His prudent recommendation, in which his fellow engineers concurred, was turned down by the garrison commander, Brigadier General Arthur St. Clair.

This proved a tactical blunder: when a British army under General John Burgoyne arrived in July 1777, Burgoyne did exactly what Kościuszko had warned of and had his engineers place artillery on the hill. With the British in complete control of the high ground, the Americans realized their situation was hopeless and abandoned the fortress with hardly a shot fired in the Siege of Ticonderoga. The British advance force nipped hard on the heels of the outnumbered and exhausted Continentals as they fled south. Major General Philip Schuyler, desperate to put distance between his men and their pursuers, ordered Kościuszko to delay the enemy. Kościuszko designed an engineer’s solution: his men felled trees, dammed streams, and destroyed bridges and causeways. Encumbered by their huge supply train, the British began to bog down, giving the Americans the time needed to safely withdraw across the Hudson River.

Gates tapped Kościuszko to survey the country between the opposing armies, choose the most defensible position, and fortify it. Finding just such a position near Saratoga, overlooking the Hudson at Bemis Heights, Kościuszko laid out a strong array of defenses, nearly impregnable from any direction. His judgment and meticulous attention to detail frustrated the British attacks during the Battle of Saratoga, and Gates accepted the surrender of Burgoyne’s force there on October 16, 1777. The dwindling British army had been dealt a sound defeat, turning the tide to an American advantage. Kościuszko’s work at Saratoga received great praise from Gates, who later told his friend Dr. Benjamin Rush: “[T]he great tacticians of the campaign were hills and forests, which a young Polish engineer was skillful enough to select for my encampment.”

At some point in 1777, Kościuszko composed a polonaise and scored it for the harpsichord. Named for him, and with lyrics by Rajnold Suchodolski, it later became popular with Polish patriots during the November 1830 Uprising. Around that time, Kościuszko was assigned a black orderly, Agrippa Hull, whom he would treat as an equal and a friend.

Remains of Ft. Clinton, NY - Revolutionary War defensive work at West Point, NY, fortified by Kościuszko. In background: his statue.
Remains of Ft. Clinton, NY – Revolutionary War defensive work at West Point, NY, fortified by Kościuszko. In background: his statue.

In March 1778 Kościuszko arrived at West Point, New York, and spent more than two years[39] strengthening the fortifications and improving the stronghold’s defenses. It was these defenses that the American General Benedict Arnold subsequently attempted to surrender to the British when he became a traitor. Soon after Kościuszko had finished fortifying West Point, in August 1780, General George Washington granted Kościuszko’s request to transfer to combat duty with the Southern Army. Kościuszko’s West Point fortifications would be widely praised as innovative for the time.

After traveling south through rural Virginia in October 1780, Kościuszko proceeded to North Carolina to report to his former commander General Gates. However, following Gates’s disastrous defeat at Camden on August 16, 1780, the Continental Congress had selected Washington’s choice, Major General Nathanael Greene, to replace the disgraced Gates as commander of the Southern Department. When Greene formally assumed command on December 3, 1780, he retained Kościuszko as his chief engineer. By then, he had been praised by both Gates and Greene.

Over the course of this campaign, Kościuszko was placed in command of building bateaux, siting the location for camps, scouting river crossings, fortifying positions, and developing intelligence contacts. Many of his contributions were instrumental in preventing the destruction of the Southern Army. This was especially so during the famous “Race to the Dan”, when British General Charles Cornwallis chased Greene across 200 miles (320 km) of rough back country in January and February 1781. Thanks largely to a combination of Greene’s tactics, and Kościuszko’s bateaux, and accurate scouting of the rivers ahead of the main body, the Continentals safely crossed each river, including the Yadkin and the Dan. Cornwallis, having no boats, and finding no way to cross the swollen Dan, finally gave up the chase and withdrew back into North Carolina. The Continentals regrouped south of Halifax, Virginia, where Kościuszko had earlier, at Greene’s request, established a fortified depot.

During the race to the Dan, Kościuszko had helped select the site where Greene eventually returned to fight Cornwallis at Guilford Courthouse. Though tactically defeated, the Americans all but destroyed Cornwallis’ army as an effective fighting force and gained a permanent strategic advantage in the South. Thus, when Greene began his reconquest of South Carolina in the spring of 1781, he summoned Kościuszko to rejoin the main body of the Southern Army. The combined forces of the Continentals and Southern militia gradually forced the British from the back country into the coastal ports during the latter half of 1781 and, on August 16, Kościuszko participated in the Second Battle of Camden. At Ninety Six, Kościuszko besieged the Star Fort from May 22 to June 18. During the unsuccessful siege, he suffered his only wound in seven years of service, bayonetted in the buttocks during an assault by the fort’s defenders on the approach trench that he was constructing.

Kościuszko subsequently helped fortify the American bases in North Carolina, before taking part in several smaller operations in the final year of hostilities, harassing British foraging parties near Charleston, South Carolina. He had become engaged in these operations after the death of his friend Colonel John Laurens, taking over Laurens’s intelligence network in the area. He commanded two cavalry squadrons and an infantry unit, and his last known battlefield command of the war occurred at James Island, South Carolina, on November 14, 1782. In what has been described as the Continental Army’s final armed action of the war, he was very nearly killed as his small force was routed. A month later, he was among the Continental troops that reoccupied Charleston following the British evacuation of the city. Kościuszko spent the rest of the war there, conducting a fireworks display on April 23, 1783, to celebrate the signing of the Treaty of Paris earlier that month.

Having not been paid in his seven years of service, in late May 1783, Kościuszko decided to collect the salary owed to him. That year, he was asked by Congress to supervise the fireworks during the July 4 celebrations at Princeton, New Jersey. On October 13, 1783, Congress promoted him to brigadier general, but he still had not received his back pay; many other officers and soldiers were in the same situation. While waiting for his pay, unable even to finance a voyage back to Europe, Kościuszko, like a number of others, lived on money borrowed from the Polish-Jewish banker Haym Solomon. Eventually, he would receive a certificate for 12,280 dollars, at 6%, to be paid on January 1, 1784, and the right to 500 acres (202.34 ha; 0.78 square miles) of land, but only if he chose to settle in the United States. For the winter of 1783–84, his former commanding officer, General Greene, invited Kościuszko to stay at his mansion. He was also inducted into the Society of the Cincinnati.

Statue of Kościuszko on Northerly Island, Chicago, Illinois.
Statue of Kościuszko on Northerly Island, Chicago, Illinois.

On July 15, 1784, Kościuszko set off for Poland, where he arrived on August 26. Due to a conflict between his patrons, the Czartoryski family, and King Stanisław August Poniatowski, Kościuszko once again failed to get a commission in the Commonwealth Army. He settled in Siechnowicze (Belarusian Сяхновічы, now Sehnovichi, Belarus). His brother Józef had lost most of the family’s lands through bad investments, but with the help of his sister Anna, Kościuszko secured part of the lands for himself. He decided to limit his male peasants’ corvée (obligatory service to the lord of the manor) to two days a week, and completely exempted the female peasants. His estate soon stopped being profitable, and he began going into debt. The situation was not helped by failure of the money promised by the American government — interest on late payment for his seven years’ military service—to materialize. Kościuszko struck up friendships with liberal activists; Hugo Kołłątaj offered him a position as lecturer at Kraków’s Jagiellonian University, which Kościuszko declined.

Finally the Great Sejm of 1788–1792 introduced some reforms, including a planned build-up of the army to defend the Commonwealth’s borders. Kościuszko saw a chance to return to military service and spent some time in Warsaw, among those who engaged in the political debates outside the Great Sejm. He wrote a proposal to create a militia force, on the American model. As political pressure grew to build up the army, and Kościuszko’s political allies gained influence with the King, Kościuszko again applied for a commission, and on October 12, 1789, received a royal commission as a major general. He began receiving the high salary of 12,000 złoty a year, ending his financial difficulties. He asked for a transfer to the Lithuanian army but was instead assigned to a unit in the west, in Greater Poland. On February 1, 1790, he reported for duty in Włocławek, and in mid-March he was given a command. Around summer, he commanded some infantry and cavalry units in the region between the Bug and Vistula Rivers. In August 1790 he was posted to Volhynia, stationed near Starokostiantyniv and Międzyborze. Prince Józef Poniatowski, who happened to be the King’s nephew, recognized Kościuszko’s superior experience and made him his second-in-command, leaving him in command when he was absent.

Meanwhile, Kościuszko became more closely involved with the political reformers, befriending Hugo Kołłątaj, Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz and others. Kościuszko argued that the peasants and Jews should receive full citizenship status, as this would motivate them to help defend Poland in the event of war. The political reformers centered in the Patriotic Party scored a major victory with the adoption of the Constitution of May 3, 1791. Kościuszko saw the Constitution as a step in the right direction, but was disappointed that it retained the monarchy and did little to improve the situation of the most underprivileged, the peasants and the Jews. The Commonwealth’s neighbors saw the Constitution’s reforms as a threat to their influence over Polish internal affairs. A year after the Constitution’s adoption, on May 14, 1792, reactionary magnates formed the Targowica Confederation, which asked Russia’s Tsaritsa Catherine II for help in overthrowing the Constitution. Four days later, on May 18, 1792, a 100,000-man Russian army crossed the Polish border, headed for Warsaw, beginning the Polish–Russian War of 1792.

“Battle of Racławice”, Jan Matejko, oil on canvas, 1888, National Museum in Kraków. April 4, 1794.

The Russians had a 3:1 advantage in strength, with some 98,000 troops against 37,000 Poles; they also had an advantage in combat experience.[69] Before the Russians invaded, Kościuszko had been appointed deputy commander of Prince Józef Poniatowski’s infantry division, stationed in Polish West Ukraine. When the Prince became Commander-in-Chief of the entire Polish (Crown) Army on May 3, 1792, Kościuszko was given command of a division near Kiev.

The Russians attacked on a wide front with three armies. Kościuszko proposed that the entire Polish army be concentrated and engage one of the Russian armies, in order to assure numerical parity and boost the morale of the mostly inexperienced Polish forces with a quick victory; but Poniatowski rejected this plan. On May 22, 1792, the Russian forces crossed the border in Ukraine, where Kościuszko and Poniatowski were stationed. The Crown Army was judged too weak to oppose the four enemy columns advancing into West Ukraine, and began a fighting withdrawal to the western side of the Southern Bug River, with Kościuszko commanding the rear guard. On June 18, Poniatowski won the Battle of Zieleńce; Kościuszko’s division, on detached rear-guard duty, did not take part in the battle and rejoined the main army only at nightfall; nonetheless, his diligent protection of the main army’s rear and flanks won him the newly created Virtuti Militari, to this day Poland’s highest military decoration. (Storożyński, however, states that Kościuszko received the Virtuti Militari for his later, July 18 victory at Dubienka.) The Polish withdrawal continued, and on July 7 Kościuszko’s forces fought a delaying battle against the Russians at Volodymyr-Volynskyi (the Battle of Włodzimierz). On reaching the northern Bug River, the Polish Army was split into three divisions to hold the river defensive line—weakening the Poles’ point numerical superiority, against Kościuszko’s counsel of a single strong, concentrated army.

Kościuszko’s force was assigned to protect the front’s southern flank, touching up to the Austrian border. At the Battle of Dubienka (July 18, 1792) Kościuszko repulsed a numerically superior enemy, skilfully using terrain obstacles and field fortifications, and came to be regarded as one of Poland’s most brilliant military commanders of the age. With some 5,300 men, he defeated 25,000 Russians led by General Michail Kachovski. Despite the tactical victory, Kościuszko had to retreat from Dubienka, as the Russians crossed the nearby Austrian border and began flanking his positions.

After the battle, King Stanisław August Poniatowski promoted Kościuszko to lieutenant-general and also offered him the Order of the White Eagle, but Kościuszko, a convinced republican would not accept a royal honor. News of Kościuszko’s victory spread over Europe, and on August 26 he received the honorary citizenship of France from the Legislative Assembly of revolutionary France. While Kościuszko considered the war’s outcome to still be unsettled, the King requested a ceasefire. On July 24, 1792, before Kościuszko had received his promotion to lieutenant-general, the King shocked the army by announcing his accession to the Targowica Confederation and ordering the Polish–Lithuanian armies to cease hostilities against the Russians. Kościuszko considered abducting the King as the Bar Confederates had done two decades earlier, in 1771, but was dissuaded by Prince Józef Poniatowski. On August 30 Kościuszko resigned his army position and briefly returned to Warsaw, where he received his promotion and pay, but refused the King’s request that he remain in the Army. Around that time, he also fell ill with jaundice.

The King’s capitulation was a hard blow for Kościuszko, who had not lost a single battle in the campaign. By mid-September 1792 he was resigned to leaving the country, and in early October he departed from Warsaw. First he went east, to the Czartoryski family manor at Sieniawa, which gathered various malcontents. In mid-November he spent two weeks in Lwów (in Ukrainian, Lviv; in German, Lemberg), where he was welcomed by the populace; since the war’s end, his presence had drawn crowds eager to see the famed commander. Izabela Czartoryska discussed having him marry her daughter Zofia. The Russians planned to arrest him if he returned to territory under their control; the Austrians, who held Lwów, offered him a commission in the Austrian Army, which he turned down.[78] Subsequently they planned to deport him, but he left Lwów before they could do so. At the turn of the month, he stopped in Zamość at the Zamoyskis’ estate, met Stanisław Staszic, then went on to Puławy.

He did not tarry long there either: on December 12–13, he was in Kraków; on December 17, in Wrocław; and shortly after, he settled in Leipzig, where many notable Polish soldiers and politicians formed an émigré community. Soon he and some others began plotting an uprising against Russian rule in Poland. The politicians, grouped around Ignacy Potocki and Hugo Kołłątaj, sought contacts with similar opposition groups in Poland and by spring 1793 had been joined by other politicians and revolutionaries, including Ignacy Działyński. While Kołłątaj and others had begun planning an uprising before Kościuszko joined them, his support was a major boon to them, as he was among the most popular individuals in Poland.

After two weeks in Leipzig, before the second week of January 1793, Kościuszko set off for Paris, where he tried to gain French support for the planned uprising in Poland. He stayed there until summer, but despite the growing revolutionary influence there, the French paid only lip service to the Polish cause, and refused to commit themselves to anything concrete. Kościuszko concluded that the French authorities were not interested in Poland beyond what use it could have for their own cause, and he was increasingly disappointed in the pettiness of the French Revolution—the infighting among different factions, and the growing reign of terror.

On January 23, 1793, Prussia and Russia signed the Second Partition of Poland. The Grodno Sejm, convened under duress in June, ratified the partition and was also forced to rescind the Constitution of May 3, 1791. With the second partition, Poland became a small country of roughly 77,000 square miles (200,000 km²) and a population of some 4 million. This came as a shock to the Targowica Confederates, who had seen themselves as defenders of centuries-old privileges of the magnates, but had hardly expected that their appeal for help to the Tsarina of Russia would further reduce and weaken their country.

In August 1793, Kościuszko, though worried that an uprising would have little chance against the three partitioning powers, returned to Leipzig, where he was met with demands to start planning one as soon as possible. In September, he clandestinely crossed the Polish border to conduct personal observations and meet with sympathetic high-ranking officers in the residual Polish Army, including General Józef Wodzicki. The preparations went slowly, and he left for Italy, planning to return in February 1794. However, the situation in Poland was changing rapidly. The Russian and Prussian governments forced Poland to again disband most of her army, and the reduced units were to be incorporated into the Russian Army. In March, Tsarist agents discovered the revolutionaries in Warsaw and began arresting notable Polish politicians and military commanders. Kościuszko was forced to execute his plan earlier than he had intended and, on March 15, 1794, set off for Kraków.

On March 12, 1794, General Antoni Madaliński, the commander of 1st Greater Polish National Cavalry Brigade (1,500 men) decided to disobey the order to demobilize, advancing his troops from Ostrołęka to Kraków. This sparked an outbreak of riots against Russian forces throughout the country. The Russian garrison of Kraków was ordered to leave the city and confront Madalinski, which left Kraków completely undefended, but also foiled Kosciuszko’s plan to seize their weapons.

Tadeusz Kościuszko takes the oath to the King on the Rynek in Kraków, on March 24, 1794. The red brick Town Hall with white bastion still standing on a 1797 painting by Franciszek Smuglewicz.
Tadeusz Kościuszko takes the oath to the King on the Rynek in Kraków, on March 24, 1794. The red brick Town Hall with white bastion still standing on a 1797 painting by Franciszek Smuglewicz.

Learning that the Russian garrison had departed Kraków, Kościuszko entered the city on the night of March 23, 1794. The next morning, in the Main Square, he announced an uprising. Kościuszko received the title of Naczelnik (commander-in-chief) of Polish–Lithuanian forces fighting against the Russian occupation. In order to strengthen the Polish forces, Kościuszko issued an act of mobilization, requiring that every five houses in Lesser Poland delegate at least one able male soldier equipped with carbine, pike, or an axe. Kościuszko’s Commission for Order in Kraków recruited all males between 18 and 28 years of age and passed an income tax. The difficulties with providing enough armament for the mobilized troops made Kościuszko form large units composed of peasants armed with scythes, called the “scythemen”. He also hoped that neither Austria nor Prussia would intervene, and so discouraged insurgent activity in the Austrian and Prussian Partitions.

Kościuszko gathered an army of some 6,000, including 4,000 regular soldiers and 2,000 recruits, and marched on Warsaw. To destroy the still weak opposition, Russian Empress Catherine the Great ordered the corps of Major General Fiodor Denisov to attack Kraków. On April 4, both armies met near the village of Racławice. In what became known as the Battle of Racławice Kościuszko’s forces defeated the numerically and technically superior opponent, turning the tide by personally leading an infantry charge of peasant volunteers (kosynierzy, scythemen). Nonetheless, this Russian defeat was not strategically significant, and the Russian forces quickly forced Kościuszko to retreat toward Kraków. After the bloody battle the Russian forces withdrew from the battlefield. Kościuszko’s forces were too weak to start a successful pursuit and wipe the Russian forces out of Lesser Poland. Although the strategic importance of the victory was close to none, the news of the victory spread fast and soon other parts of Poland joined the ranks of the revolutionaries. By early April the Polish forces concentrated in the lands of Lublin and Volhynia, ready to be sent to Russia, joined the ranks of Kościuszko’s forces.

On April 17, in Warsaw, the Russian attempt to arrest those suspected of supporting the insurrection and to disarm the weak Polish garrison of Warsaw under Gen. Stanisław Mokronowski by seizing the arsenal at Miodowa Street resulted in an uprising against the Russian garrison of Warsaw, led by Jan Kiliński, in the face of indecisiveness of the King of Poland, Stanisław II Augustus. The insurgents were aided by the incompetence of Russian ambassador and commander, Iosif Igelström, and the chosen day being the Thursday of Holy Week when many soldiers of the Russian garrison went to the churches for the Eucharist not carrying their arms. Finally, from the onset of the insurrection, the Polish forces were aided by the civilian population and had surprise on their side as they attacked many separate groups of soldiers at the same time and the resistance to Russian forces quickly spread over the city. After two days of heavy fighting the Russians, who suffered between 2,000 and 4,000 casualties out of an initial 5,000 strong garrison, were forced to leave the city. A similar uprising was started by Jakub Jasiński in Vilnius (Wilno) on April 23 and soon other cities and towns followed. The massacre of unarmed Russian soldiers attending the Easter service was regarded as a “crime against humanity” by Russians and was an argument for a vengeance later, during the siege of Warsaw.

Polish Grenadiers in peasant costumes, Kraków 1794
Polish Grenadiers in peasant costumes, Kraków 1794

On May 7, 1794, Kościuszko issued an act that became known as the “Proclamation of Połaniec”, in which he partially abolished serfdom in Poland, granted civil liberty to all peasants and provided them with state help against the abuses by the nobility. Although the new law never fully came into being and was boycotted by much of the nobility, it also attracted many peasants to the ranks of the revolutionists. It was the first time in Polish history when the peasants were officially regarded as part of the nation, the word being previously equal to nobility.

Despite the promise of reforms and quick recruitment of new forces, the strategic situation of the Polish forces was still critical, although they consisted of 6,000 peasants, cavalry, and 9,000 soldiers. On May 10, the forces of Prussia, 17,500 soldiers under General Francis Favrat, crossed the Polish borders and joined the 9,000 Russian soldiers operating in northern Poland. On June 6, Kościuszko was defeated in the Battle of Szczekociny by a joint Russo-Prussian force and on June 8, General Józef Zajączek was defeated in the Battle of Chełm. Polish forces withdrew towards Warsaw and started to fortify the city under directions from Kosciuszko and his 16,000 soldiers, 18,000 peasants and 15,000 burghers. On June 15, the Prussian army captured Kraków unopposed. Warsaw was besieged by 41,000 Russians under General Ivan Fersen and 25,000 Prussians under king Frederick William II of Prussia on July 13. On 20 August, an uprising in Greater Poland started and the Prussians were forced to withdraw their forces from Warsaw. The siege was lifted by September 6, 1794, when the Prussians and Russians had both withdrawn their troops.

Although the opposition in Lithuania was crushed by Russian forces (Vilnius was besieged and capitulated on August 12), the uprising in Greater Poland achieved some success. A Polish corps under Jan Henryk Dąbrowski captured Bydgoszcz (October 2) and entered Pomerania almost unopposed. Thanks to the mobility of his forces, General Dąbrowski evaded being encircled by a much less mobile Prussian army and disrupted the Prussian lines, forcing the Prussians to withdraw most of their forces from central Poland. However, the Poles did not stay long in Prussian territories, and soon retreated to Central Poland.

Tadeusz Kościuszko falling wounded in the battle of Maciejowice, October 10, 1794.
Tadeusz Kościuszko falling wounded in the battle of Maciejowice, October 10, 1794.

Meanwhile, the Russians equipped a new corps commanded by General Aleksandr Suvorov and ordered it to join up with the corps under Ivan Fersen near Warsaw. After the Battle of Krupczyce (September 17) and the Battle of Terespol (September 19), the new army started its march towards Warsaw. Trying to prevent both Russian armies from joining up, Kościuszko mobilized two regiments from Warsaw and with General Sierakowski’s 5,000 soldiers, engaged Fersen’s force of 14,000 on October 10 in the Battle of Maciejowice. Kościuszko was wounded in the battle and was captured by the Russians. He was imprisoned by the Russians at Saint Petersburg in the Peter and Paul Fortress.

The new commander of the uprising, Tomasz Wawrzecki, could not control the spreading internal struggles for power and ultimately became only the commander of weakened military forces, while the political power was held by General Józef Zajączek, who in turn had to struggle with both the leftist liberal Polish Jacobins and the rightist and monarchical nobility.

On November 4, the joint Russian forces started the Battle of Praga, the right-bank suburb of Warsaw. After four hours of long hand-to-hand struggle, the 22,000 men strong Russian forces broke through the Polish defenses and Suvorov allowed his Cossacks to loot and burn Warsaw. Approximately 20,000 were murdered in the Praga massacre. Zajaczek fled wounded, abandoning the Polish army.

On November 16, 1794, near Radoszyce, Wawrzecki surrendered. This marked the end of the uprising. The power of Poland was broken and the following year the third partition of Poland happened, after which Austria, Russia and Prussia annexed the remainder of the country.

After the failure of the Kościuszko Uprising, the country ceased to exist for 123 years, and all of its institutions were gradually banned by the partitioning powers. However, the uprising also marked the start of modern political thought in Poland and Central Europe. Kościuszko’s Proclamation of Połaniec and the radical leftist Jacobins started the Polish leftist movement. Many prominent Polish politicians who were active during the uprising became the backbone of Polish politics, both home and abroad, in the 19th century. Also, Prussia had much of its forces tied up in Poland and could not field enough forces to suppress the French Revolution, which added to its success and briefly restored a Polish state.

In the lands of partitioned Poland, the failure of the uprising meant economic catastrophe, as centuries-old economic markets became divided and separated from each other, resulting in the collapse of trade. Several banks fell and some of the few manufacturing centers established in the Commonwealth were closed. Reforms made by the reformers and Kosciuszko, aimed at easing serfdom, were revoked. All the partitioning powers heavily taxed their newly acquired lands, filling their treasuries at the expense of the local population.

The death of Tsaritsa Catherine the Great on November 17, 1796, led to a change in Russia’s policies toward Poland. On November 28, Tsar Paul I, who had hated Catherine, pardoned Kościuszko and set him free, after he had tendered an oath of loyalty. Paul promised to free all Polish political prisoners held in Russian prisons and forcibly settled in Siberia. The Tsar gave Kościuszko 12,000 rubles, which the Pole later, in 1798, attempted to return, when also renouncing the oath.

The Thaddeus_Koscuiszko_National_Memorial at the corner of S. 3rd Street in the Society Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia preserves the home of the Polish patriot and hero of the American Revolution.
The Thaddeus_Koscuiszko_National_Memorial at the corner of S. 3rd Street in the Society Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia preserves the home of the Polish patriot and hero of the American Revolution.

Kościuszko left for the United States, via Stockholm, Sweden and London, departing from Bristol on June 17, 1797, and arriving in Philadelphia on August 18. Though welcomed by the populace, he was viewed with suspicion by the American government, controlled by the Federalists, who distrusted Kościuszko for his previous association with the Democratic-Republican Party.

In March 1798, Kościuszko received a bundle of letters from Europe. The news in one of them came as a shock to him, causing him, still in his wounded condition, to spring from his couch and limp unassisted to the middle of the room and exclaim to General Anthony Walton White, “I must return at once to Europe!” The letter in question contained news that Polish General Jan Henryk Dąbrowski and Polish soldiers were fighting in France under Napoleon and that Kościuszko’s sister had sent his two nephews in Kościuszko’s name to serve in Napoleon’s ranks. Around that time Kościuszko also received news that Talleyrand was seeking Kościuszko’s moral and public endorsement for the French fight against one of Poland’s partitioners, Prussia. The call of family and country drew Kościuszko back to Europe. He immediately consulted Thomas Jefferson, who procured him a passport under a false name and arranged for his secret departure for France. Kościuszko left no word for either his former comrade-in-arms and fellow St. Petersburg prisoner Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz or for his own servant, only leaving some money for them.

Other factors contributed to his decision to depart. His French connections meant that he was vulnerable to deportation or imprisonment under the terms of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Jefferson was concerned that the U.S. and France were verging on the brink of war after the XYZ Affair and regarded him as an informal envoy. Kościuszko later wrote, “Jefferson considered that I would be the most effective intermediary in bringing an accord with France, so I accepted the mission even if without any official authorization.”

Kościuszko arrived in Bayonne, France, on June 28, 1798. By that time, Talleyrand’s plans had changed and no longer included him. Kościuszko remained politically active in Polish émigré circles in France, and on August 7, 1799, he joined the Society of Polish Republicans (Towarzystwo Republikanów Polskich). Kościuszko, however, refused the offered command of Polish Legions being formed for service with France. On October 17 and November 6, 1799, he met with Napoleon Bonaparte; however, he failed to reach an agreement with the French general, who regarded Kościuszko a “fool” who “overestimated his influence” in Poland. Kościuszko, for his part, disliked Napoleon for his dictatorial aspirations and called him the “undertaker of the [French] Republic”. In 1807, Kościuszko settled in château de Berville, near La Genevraye, distancing himself from politics.

On April 2, 1817, Kościuszko emancipated the peasants in his remaining lands in Poland, but Tsar Alexander disallowed this. Suffering from poor health and old wounds, on October 15, 1817, Kościuszko died in Solothurn at age 71 after falling from a horse, developing a fever, and suffering a stroke a few days later.

The practice of recognizing foreigners who aided American colonies in American Revolutionary War was continued by the release of Scott #734 on October 13, 1933. The 5-cent blue stamp honoring General Tadeusz Kościuszko, issued on the occasion of the 150th anniversary Kosciusko’s naturalization as an American citizen, portrays the statue of the uniformed general that sits in Lafayette Park in the District of Columbia. The statue was made by Anton Popiel and unveiled on May 11, 1910, being presented to the United States Government by the Polish-American Alliance. The stamp was designed by Victor S. McCloskey, Jr. with the vignette engraved by J.C. Benzing and the lettering executed by E.M. Hall, all of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. They were printed on flat bed presses from 400 subject plates, divided into the conventional panes of 100 by horizontal and vertical guide lines, perforated 11. There were four plate numbers, one to each pane, above and below the fifth vertical row of the left panes, and in similar position on the sixth row of the right panes.  A total of 45,137,700 Kościuszko stamps were printed.

Scott #734 was first issued in Chicago, Illinois (selected because it was the headquarters of the Polish National Alliance who had lobbied for the stamp) and several other cities including Boston, Massachusetts (where Kościuszko had landed in 1777); Detroit, Michigan (home of U.S. Congressman Lesinsky, one of the most active sponsors of the stamp), St. Louis, Missouri, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Buffalo, New York (large Polish population centers); and Kosciusko, Mississippi because it was named after the Polish general.

Flag of Poland with Coat of Arms

Roch III heraldic arms

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