A Foreign Affair

Alien Patriots
by Daniel Shippey & Michael Burns

When we think of the patriots who sacrificed for American Liberty in the Revolution we recall images of the Minutemen at Lexington and Concord, the Continental Army at Valley Forge or Francis Marion’s ragged militia. Our history teachers, in the rush to get across simple concepts and quick answers for Friday’s test, largely left out the names of foreigners who made major contributions to the cause of Liberty. Names like Thaddeus Kościuszko, Casimir Pulaski, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben and the most famous of our foreign volunteers, Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette. These are only a tiny sample of names belonging to those who came from foreign places to offer their service. There were thousands when you add in Army & Navy volunteers, foreign naval support, or even financial support that came from places like Spain, France, Holland and Native American allies. Throughout the war these foreign Volunteers served, led, fought, were killed, were injured, were made prisoners and finally helped bring victory to the United States. What brought them to America? What motivated them to fight for another country? What were their lasting contributions? Any one of the four names above is worthy of their own book, but for the moment let’s just take the first name on the list and look a little further.

     It has been said that when Thaddeus Kościuszko (KOS-CHOOS-KO) first read the Declaration of Independence he wept, for in it he had found a document that encompassed all that he held true.

    Kościuszko was born in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (today Belarus) in the year 1746. Being the youngest child of a local noble often meant a future in the army, for the oldest son would have the title, and the next might become an important bishop in the church, but the options were limited for the third son. Thaddeus seemed to embrace the idea of military life, and determined to gain education as an officer in Warsaw at the Knights' School Cadet Corps. There, his skill at geometry won him a place in an engineering course for outstanding students. He flourished at the school with a surprisingly wide range of studies. Kościuszko graduated and stayed for some time as an instructor at the school, having achieved the level then referred to as “master” and the military rank of Captain.  After a time, he left the Knight’s School to pursue further education in France. As a foreigner in Paris he was not allowed to join the military academy, so he studied painting. Though he became a skilled painter, Thaddeus found himself unwilling to focus solely on fine art.  He returned to his study of the military arts on his own.  He attended lectures everywhere, including the academy as a visitor. These educational experiences in Poland and France left him with skills in languages, law, geography, arithmetic, geometry, engineering, philosophy, economics, military strategy and the fine arts. The breadth of knowledge he amassed is fairly astounding. His time in Paris also introduced him to the philosophy of the Enlightenment. This was a subject that he may not have intentionally set out to study, but that would direct and dominate the rest of his life.


    In 1772 Russia, Prussia and Austria annexed large portions of the Polish-Lithuanian territory and Thaddeus returned home to fight. It seems that the Polish-Lithuanian government lacked Kościuszko’s fortitude and quickly began to negotiate away its own power. Soon, as part of its negotiations, the government reduced its army’s size and there was no place for Kościuszko. Educated and trained with no options for his employment of choice,  he took a job as a tutor for the noble family of Sosnowski, where fell in love with one of his students, Ludwika.

The youngest son a minor noble was not considered an appropriate match, so the young couple decided to elope. Unfortunately some of Joseph Sosnowski’s retainers caught the couple before they could get away. Thaddeus was seriously beaten and Ludwika was returned to her father. She would go on to marry Prince Józef Aleksander Lubomirski.  Thaddeus never married.                                                             

  The series of disappointments continued for Kościuszko. He sought a position in the court at Dresden and again found no place for his intellect or his sword. Finally by 1775 he returned to Paris. Here in France he heard about the early struggles between America and the British crown. All of his enlightenment ideals, as well as his personal struggles against rank and injustice, seemed to be embodied in the American cause. Traveling and equipping himself at his own expense, he came to the colonies to join what he saw as a fight for the principals of liberty. Soon after he had arrived in Philadelphia in August of 1776 he presented himself as a volunteer to the Continental Congress with letters of recommendation from Charles Lee and Prince Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski. The story is told that when Kosciuszko was sent to Washington, their first meeting went as follows.

"What do you seek here?" inquired the General.

"I come to fight as a volunteer for American independence," answered Kosciuszko.

"What can you do?"

"Try me," was his quick reply.

He became a member of Washington's “military family”, October 18, 1776, as the ranking colonel in charge of engineers.

Kościuszko’s first assignment as head engineer was to fortify Philadelphia from attack by the British Navy. He produced a series of excellent forts, well designed and placed downstream of the city. By 1777 he had overseen the construction of forts as far North as Canada. Dispatched to the captured Fort Ticonderoga, he began work on a series of repairs and plans to assure that it could not be retaken by the British. He surveyed a glaring weakness in the terrain and strongly advised the building of a battery on Sugar Loaf Mountain, which commanded the fort. The garrison Commander, Arthur St. Clair, decided against following Kościuszko’s advice.




       When the British Army under Gen. John Burgoyne arrived, they placed cannon exactly where Thaddeus had warned they would and easily recaptured the fort. Now, with the American forces retreating from Ticonderoga under General Schuyler, Kościuszko was able to provide the army its means of escape.  He ordered the destruction of bridges, felling of trees, damming of streams and flooding of roads. It made progress almost impossible for the British troops and allowed Schuyler’s forces to escape across the Hudson river.

    Shortly after the escape across the Hudson, General Horatio Gates relieved Gen Schuyler. Gates recognized Kościuszko’s ability and assigned him the task of surveying the countryside between the opposing armies, selecting the most defensible position, and fortifying it. Kościuszko did not disappoint, but found the perfect position near Saratoga. He began work on an excellent series of defenses, nearly unassailable from any point. His judgment and meticulous skill thwarted the British attack on October 7, 1777. This allowed the Patriots the opportunity to deal the British a devastating tactical defeat.  The overwhelming American victory at Saratoga is often looked at as the turning point of the war. General Burgoyne was forced to surrender his entire army on October 16th, and the victory persuaded the French to become our ally. General Gates, writing about Kościuszko's work, said

"...the great tacticians of the campaign were hills and forests, which a young Polish engineer was skillful enough to select for my encampment".

      Washington, who was always one to seek out and promote talent, took notice of Kościuszko's success and put him to work creating a fortress for the strategically critical West Point north of New York. West Point would become Kościuszko's greatest engineering achievement.

He built a large polygonal fort atop an unassailable 197 foot rock face above the Hudson River. Four additional forts ringed the main fort on the riverbank and surrounding hills. Seven redoubts created links between the forts, with the entire fortified area designed to be manned by 2,500 soldiers. Completion of the project would only come after two and a half years of work by 82 laborers, 3 stone masons, and a single stone cutter. At some point during his stay, Kościuszko was given a slave named Agrippa Hull, whom he immediately freed. With the work completed, he requested to be transferred to the Army’s Southern department, where most of the conflict had shifted.

     In the South the war was different. Large armies, fortresses and battles had mostly become smaller scaled skirmishes, raids and more of what we would call guerrilla tactics today. Kosciuszko became chief engineer under General Nathaniel Greene. Working close with Greene, he made serious contributions to developing and executing the strategies used to reconquer the southern states. He fortified positions, scouted river crossings and built bateaux (flat bottom boats) used to carry men and supplies. British General Cornwallis exhausted his men chasing the Patriots until he finally gave up and returned to North Carolina. At the battle of the Ninety Six Kosciuszko conducted the longest siege of the war and suffered his only combat injury of the war. While working on an approach trench Kosciuszko’s position was overrun and he was bayonetted. He recovered and saw further combat at Hobkirk Hill and Eutaw Springs. When the first Continental soldiers moved in to reoccupy Charlston, Kosciuszko was with them. Popular tradition says that when the Treaty of Paris was signed, Thaddeus  organized and conducted a fireworks show to celebrate.

      Kosciuszko served through seven years of war. The Congress recognized his contribution by promoting him to the rank of Brigadier General, bestowing on him American Citizenship and a grant of land in the Ohio territory. He returned to his homeland in 1784, where in time he would again fight for Independence and Liberty but now for his home country. His efforts to support, strengthen and secure freedom for Poland throughout the rest of his life could easily fill a book. Sadly, the victory he helped secure in America was elusive in his native land. For his life’s work he is remembered as a national hero in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and the United States.

1797 A convalescent Kosciusko by artist  Benjamin West

We often hear historians discuss Washington, Jefferson, and Greene, but they rarely talk about foreign volunteers like Kosiuszko. However, those great men certainly had much to say about him. Washington called Kosciuszko a

a gentleman of science and merit.” 

General Nathanial Greene said he was

one of the most helpful and congenial companions,” mentioning his “perseverance, determination, indefatigable efforts” and his “incomparable modesty.

Thomas Jefferson wrote to him

From one man we can have but one life- You gave us the most valuable and active part of yours, and we are now enjoying and improving its effects. Every sound American, sincere votary of freedom loves and honors you ...

Jefferson’s final judgment of Kosciuszko may best demonstrate the high regard in which he held him and how we might remember him today.

He was as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known.”

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