A Brief History
On October 11, 1779, Polish cavalry officer and American Brigadier General, Casimir Pulaski, died of wounds incurred during the Battle of Savannah (Georgia) during the American Revolutionary War. Pulaski, known as “The Father of American Cavalry,” had fought in Poland against the Russians, and was forced to flee his own country, taking his military skills to America where he became a hero of the American Revolution. Pulaski was not the only major Polish officer to fight for America’s Independence, and of course other foreign born people also served in America during the Revolutionary War. Here we list 5 of the most notable of those foreign freedom fighters fearlessly fighting foes of freedom. (Hey, a little alliteration never hurts!)
1. Casimir Pulaski, Poland.
Born Kazimierez Pulaski in Warsaw, Poland, Pulaski came to America to help fight for independence after being forced to leave Poland after defeat at the hands of Russia. Pulaski organized the Pulaski Cavalry Legion and also formed and trained the entire US Cavalry contingent of the American Army. He is known as “The Father of the American Cavalry.” Pulaski was mortally wounded by grape shot during the Battle of Savannah, and died 2 days later, giving his life for a free America. He is remembered in numerous place names, street names, organization names, events, works of art, and is one of 8 people that have been granted Honorary US Citizenship. In 1825, Lafayette personally laid the cornerstone to the Pulaski Monument in Savannah. A bust of Pulaski resides in the Capitol among those of American Heroes. Pulaski is also considered a national hero in Poland.
2. Tadeusz Kosciuszko, Poland.
Born Andrzej Tadeusz Bonawentura Kosciuszko in 1746, the son of a military officer and of minor nobility, he was of Lithuanian/Belarusian/Ruthenian/Polish heritage, though culturally and linguistically he was Polish. At the age of 19 Kosciuszko entered the officer cadet program and a year later was commissioned as the equivalent of a Lieutenant, quickly rising to the rank of Captain. Unable to continue his military career in Poland due to political disruption, he went to France and continued to study military science, and when he could not find employment in Europe as an officer, he went to America in 1776 to fight in the Revolution. At first serving as one of Benjamin Franklin’s volunteers, Kosciuszko was soon appointed a colonel of engineers in the American Army. Kosciuszko quickly distinguished himself with keen military intellect, especially regarding terrain analysis and fortifications. He was wounded by a bayonet in 1781, and also commanded cavalry troops and an infantry unit along with engineering units. After the War, Kosciuszko was broke financially, and had to wait until 1784 to get paid for his service. He returned to Poland/Lithuania where his economic woes continued due to the United States stiffing him on promised payments and interest. Kosciuszko became a Major General in 1789 in the Polish Army, and was politically active in reforms giving peasants and Jews the rights and privileges of all citizens. When the Russians invaded in 1792 with an army 3 times the size of Poland’s army, Kosciuszko again distinguished himself and was awarded the highest Polish military honor. Although Kosciuszko had not lost a battle, the Polish Army was defeated and he was forced into exile in Leipzig. In 1794 Kosciuszko led an uprising against the Russians, demanding that Serfs be granted all civil rights. He was captured by the Russians and the insurgency failed, but Kosciuszko was pardoned by the Czar and released in 1976. Kosciuszko went to the United States in 1797 but returned to Europe in 1798 when Napoleon and France were fighting the Prussians. Napoleon failed to convince Kosciuszko to command the Polish legions fighting for France, and Kosciuszko died in 1817 at the age of 71. He remains a hero in Poland and the United States to this day. Numerous places in the US are named in his honor, including an Alaskan island.
3. Marquis de Lafayette, France.
Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, born in Paris in 1834, became a great admirer and friend of George Washington, and worked closely with Washington in many military campaigns during the Revolution. Lafayette also helped persuade French authorities to support the American cause financially, and then militarily. After the American Revolution, he took those revolutionary ideals back to France, where he became a major player in the French Revolution, although he was not a radical and tried to accommodate both the Royalist and the Revolutionary sides. Today he is remembered as a major hero of the American Revolution and is also honored in France as a national hero. Lafayette is one of the eight people with Honorary US Citizenship bestowed upon him. The place, building, institution and other things named for Lafayette are numerous, and when American volunteers went to fight for France during World War I they formed the Lafayette Escadrille (squadron). Lafayette Square, in Washington, D.C., has a monument with statues honoring Lafayette, Kosciuszko, Von Steuben, and Rochambeau.
4. Baron von Steuben, Prussia.
Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand von Steuben (his actual birth name was Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben, but who is keeping track?) was born in 1730 into a Prussian military family, and first served with his father at the age of 14. Despite displaying keen military instinct and courage under fire (wounded twice and captured once, and chosen for elite training), Von Steuben was unemployed after the end of the Seven Years War in 1763. He became a sort of aide de camp to a Prussian prince, and by 1771 began referring to himself as “Baron.” Von Steuben suffered economic reverses, and when introduced to Benjamin Franklin in 1777 decided to take up Franklin’s offer of a position with the American Army, an army sorely lacking in highly trained military professionals. Von Steuben came to America, trained and drilled the American Army into the semblance of a professional force, creating along the way the drill manual used by the US Army all the way until the Civil War. When Von Steuben first arrived, the American authorities had become leery of foreign officers that demanded high pay and high rank, which had angered natural born American officers, so Von Steuben had to serve as a volunteer. At first disgusted with arrangements in America, Von Steuben went back to Prussia where he found he had been slandered in his absence. Von Steuben returned to America where he performed near miracles with organizing and training American troops. So valuable was Von Steuben’s military expertise, he became George Washington’s Chief of Staff during the last couple years of the war. After the Revolution, Von Steuben was made a US Citizen and moved to New York City where he lived until his death in 1794. Numerous testaments to the legacy of Von Steuben exist, including the naming of towns and cities, monuments, works of art, and even US ships.
5. Comte Jean de Rochambeau, France.
Unlike the other officers listed above, Rochambeau did not serve in the American Army, but was the commander of French troops sent by France to aid the American War for Independence. Born Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur de Rochambeau in 1725, he was Jesuit schooled and entered the military as a young man, seeing combat in Europe and distinguishing himself, rising to the rank of Brigadier General during the Seven Years War. Rochambeau was a front line commander, and was wounded in battle more than once. In 1789 Rochambeau was appointed a Lieutenant General and given command of French ground forces in America, an army that actually outnumbered that of George Washington, though at only 7000 troops was small enough to cause Rochambeau hesitation in taking such a small unit into combat. Not until 1781 did Rochambeau decide to sally forth, and when he did it was to great effect, working with Lafayette and Washington to defeat Cornwallis at Yorktown, effectively winning the War. Returning to France, Rochambeau was caught up in the French Revolution, promoted to Field Marshall and was almost executed. Napoleon Bonaparte honored the service of Rochambeau and granted the old Marshall a pension. Rochambeau died in 1807 at the age of 81.
Question for students (and subscribers): Who would you add to this list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see..
Collins, David and Larry Nolte. Casimir Pulaski: Soldier On Horseback. Pelican Publishing, 1995.
Kajencki, Francis Casimir. Casimir Pulaski: Cavalry Commander of the American Revolution. Southwest Polonia Pr, 2001.
Szymanski, Leszek. Casimir Pulaski: A Hero of the American Revolution. Hippocrene Books, 1993.
The featured image in this list, the Siege of Savannah during the American Revolutionary War by A. I. Keller (1866 – 1924), is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 532940. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.