Casimir Pulaski | Encyclopedia.com (2024)

Born March 4, 1747
Winiary Estate near Warsaw, Poland
Died October 11, 1779
Savannah, Georgia

Military leader

Casimir Pulaski, freedom fighter, was a young man of outstanding bravery and energy. He fought to free his own country of Poland from domination by Russia. Falsely accused of trying to assassinate the king of Poland, he went into exile in France, where he heard talk of revolution in America. He offered his expertise to the cause and distinguished himself as a military instructor and soldier before his tragic death during the battle for Savannah, Georgia.

Casimir Pulaski was born in 1747 on his family's estate, about forty miles southwest of Poland's capital city of Warsaw. He was the second son and one of eight children born to Josef Pulaski, a lawyer, and Marjanna Zielinska Pulaski, an heiress. The Pulaskis were among the wealthiest of Poland's lesser nobility (a step below the upper ranks). All eight of the Pulaski children were healthy enough to survive to adulthood. The family was warm and loving, and the children remained close throughout their lives. They practiced the Roman Catholic religion.

According to biographer Clarence A. Manning, for the Pulaski boys, childhood "was an almost ideal existence … the customs of the day prescribed that children should not be overburdened with discipline and education. There was plenty of good and active exercise in the open air, many objects of diversion around the one-storied manor house … and nearby were the villages with the homes of the [servants] and the peasants." Casimir Pulaski learned to hunt and shoot, and "at a very early age was recognized in all manly sports as a natural leader."

Pulaski's father was educated in the classics (the literature of ancient Greece and Rome), and he passed this knowledge on to his son. Josef Pulaski served as a lawyer to Poland's richest men, preparing speeches for noblemen to deliver at government meetings. He became directly involved in politics when a grateful wealthy family arranged for him to become a mayor in 1732.

When Casimir Pulaski was twelve, his father sent him for more formal schooling in Warsaw. Apparently the boy was not much of a scholar; his father chose a school not known for high standards. There were no restrictions placed on young Pulaski; he could come and go as he pleased, and he could study whatever subjects he wished. He probably dabbled in the study of French, Italian, public speaking, dancing, and good manners—subjects considered suitable for a young gentleman of his time. When he had completed his studies, his father sent the fifteen-year-old youth to serve in the court of Prince Karl of Courland, son of King Augustus of Poland.

His duties during the six months he spent at Prince Karl's court were light. He took up pistol shooting, wrestling, and card playing and practiced stunts on horseback. He also became bewitched by Prince Karl's nineteen-year-old wife, and according to Clarence Manning, this "was the nearest to a love affair that he was ever to know."

Political situation in Poland

Pulaski grew up during a time of political upheaval in Polish history. Russia, Poland's much larger and aggressive neighbor, was gradually extending its control over Poland. As a boy, Pulaski often heard the story of how his grandfather had been killed in a battle against Russia. At the court of Prince Karl, he overheard more discussions of Russian domination.

Poland had a political system in which the king had little power and noblemen mismanaged the government. Josef Pulaski had grown rich from the troubled system, but his feelings toward it changed after the 1763 death of King Augustus.

In the normal way, Prince Karl would have been elected the new king. However, Queen Catherine of Russia managed (partly by force and partly by trickery) to get her former lover, Stanislas August Poniatowski, placed on the throne. It was clear that he would be nothing but a puppet for Russia. Josef Pulaski and his sons were disgusted, and they talked seriously about going to war to rid Poland of the Russians.

In 1767 Russian troops entered Poland to force its lawmakers to end the privileged status of the Roman Catholic Church. For the Pulaskis, this was the last straw. Josef Pulaski helped form a resistance organization, and he was placed in charge of its military arm. On his twenty-first birthday, Casimir Pulaski was given the command of a military regiment. For the next three years, he learned the art of warfare and distinguished himself in military campaigns against Russian soldiers, fighting "For Faith and Freedom." He gained invaluable experience collecting supplies and recruiting men to the cause. For a time it seemed that Poland's army, once the butt of jokes, might actually rise up and win this struggle.

In October 1771, Casimir was falsely accused of kidnaping King Stanislas, and in 1772, he fled Poland, never to return. That same year, Russia, Prussia (a state in Germany), and Austria divided Poland among themselves. The fight for Poland's freedom had failed; Pulaski lost his father and a brother in the cause. King Stanislas spread the word that Pulaski was a murdering troublemaker, and Pulaski, briefly the idol of all Europe, was scorned and ridiculed.

Exile

Pulaski's experiences had been instructive. He developed a passion for the cause of liberty. He also developed some unpopular notions of what was due to an army fighting for liberty. He had seen his soldiers suffer because civilians were not patriotic enough to make sacrifices for them. He had allowed his men to go out into the countryside to take what they needed wherever they could find it. Despite howls of protest, he continued to believe that this behavior was proper during wartime. Pulaski spent two years wandering through Europe, laying low to avoid the Russians. While he was away, in September 1773, a Warsaw court condemned him to death for supposedly trying to kill the king. He finally made his way to Paris, France, where he lived under a false name (though many knew who he was) and grew depressed from inactivity.

Then Pulaski heard that the country of Turkey had taken up arms against Russia. He grew excited and decided to go to Turkey to ask for help in liberating Poland. He convinced Polish patriots (including his own family members) to put up money for this venture. But the Turks were defeated by the Russians in June 1774, and Pulaski was forced to return to France.

Hears of revolution in America

King Louis XVI see entry granted the disgraced Pulaski his permission to remain in France, as long as he did so quietly and under an assumed name. Pulaski was humiliated. He also faced the problem of how to support himself. He was twenty-eight years old, had little education, expensive habits, and no job skills except for soldiering. Although he had a fine reputation as a soldier, and it was common for soldiers to serve in foreign armies, no army would take on a man who had been condemned as a regicide (pronounced REJ-i-SIDE; king killer). He took to gambling and fell deeper and deeper into debt. No one seemed willing to help, and he considered suicide, but his religion did not allow it. Matters reached a low point in 1775, when he was thrown into debtors' prison.

Finally, his friends rallied around the former hero, secured his release from prison, and paid his debts. But what was he to do next?

In the summer of 1776, Silas Deane of Connecticut arrived in France to discuss military assistance in America's struggle for independence from Great Britain. In October 1776, Pulaski wrote Deane, expressing "the zeal which I have to contribute in my particular way to the success of the cause of English America."

Pulaski's letter went unanswered. But, when Benjamin Franklin see entry arrived in France, he made inquiries among his many acquaintances in Paris. Franklin was told that Pulaski was an outstanding soldier. In fact, of all the men who applied to fight for American liberty, Pulaski was easily the most qualified. But to Franklin, there was a major hurdle in enlisting Pulaski. Franklin wanted the kings of Europe to see the American cause as a respectable one, and Pulaski, with a charge of regicide hanging over him, was looked upon with disfavor.

But Pulaski's friends, who believed he could salvage his tarnished reputation in America, spoke on his behalf to Franklin. Franklin promised nothing, but he did offer to pay for Pulaski's trip to America and to write a letter of introduction to General George Washington see entry. After that, it would be Washington's and Congress's decision what to do with Pulaski.

Pulaski goes to America

For Pulaski, Franklin's offer opened up a prospect of a brighter future. He could fight for liberty with men who were willing to risk their own lives in a great cause. In the process he might clear his name.

Casimir Pulaski arrived in the New World in July 1777. As a nobleman (a count), he found American ideas of equality very strange. He realized he had a lot to learn.

Eager to get to work, Pulaski went immediately to Washington's headquarters near Philadelphia. In addition to Franklin's letter, Pulaski had brought with him a letter of introduction from the wife of the Marquis de Lafayette see entry. Lafayette at once took him to see George Washington, who was very impressed by the serious Polish officer. It took a whole month, and Pulaski grew impatient at the delay, but on September 15, 1777, on Washington's recommendation, the Continental Congress created a new position, "Commander of the Horse," and appointed Pulaski a general in charge of the cavalry (troops who fight on horseback).

Pulaski trains and outfits his soldiers

Pulaski ran into trouble right away. He spoke no English and was often unable to understand what was being said to him. He was unwilling to take orders from Washington. The two men never grew close, yet Washington saw and appreciated Pulaski's leadership qualities.

It was obvious that Pulaski was willing and ready to help. He spent the winter of 1777 at Trenton, New Jersey, dazzling everyone with his trick riding skills and drilling soldiers in cavalry techniques. But he grew frustrated when he saw that the Americans did not look upon a cavalry in the same way he did. His vision was to use the cavalry as a fighting force of swordsmen who could take independent action without having to wait for orders from above. The Americans had learned how to fight on the frontier, where horses were often more of a hindrance than a help, and guns were their weapon of choice. They did not see a cavalry as a superior unit, but just one of several types of fighting forces.

Frustrated, Pulaski resigned from his position and asked that he be allowed to form a special unit. On March 28, 1778, Pulaski received permission, and over the next five months he formed the unit that earned him the title "father of the American cavalry." His new unit consisted of Americans, Frenchmen, Poles, Irishmen, German deserters from the British army, and prisoners of war.

Pulaski faced problems getting supplies and paychecks for his men, the same kind of problems General Washington endured throughout the war. Congress had to approve everything, and Congress was several days' journey away. Pulaski was exasperated at the huge amount of paperwork involved in getting the most minor supplies. Sometimes he used his own money; other times he allowed his men to go out into the countryside and take what they needed. Citizens complained, and so did Congress. Washington sent several warning letters, but no doubt he sympathized with Pulaski. Pulaski remained unfazed: the needs of his men were foremost, and he expected all patriotic Americans to feel the same way.

Pulaski's unit is battle tested

By late summer of 1778, Pulaski's Legion was finally ready, and he was enormously proud of it. In August, the Legion passed inspection by an impressed Congress in Philadelphia. But still there were delays, and Pulaski grew irritable.

Finally, on October 4, 1778, General Washington ordered Pulaski to Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey, a few miles north of modern Atlantic City. The harbor was a haven for

American privateers, which were ships owned by private citizens that attacked and captured enemy vessels. British soldiers were on their way to raid Little Egg Harbor and Pulaski's Legion was supposed to thwart this attack. Unfortunately, one of Pulaski's German deserters betrayed him by warning the British. The encounter was a disaster for the Americans; fifty officers and men were killed, including one of Pulaski's commanders.

Pulaski took a great deal of criticism over the battle losses. His personality had earned him enemies, who revived the old charges of regicide. They complained that after all the money spent on the Legion, it had proved useless. Pulaski wrote a long letter to Congress defending the honor of his men. He said he was the victim of prejudice against foreigners. He reminded them that he had funded the Legion out of his own money. He seriously considered returning to Europe.

Joins war in the South

General Washington did not know what to do with Pulaski and his Legion. He offered to let Pulaski spend the winter of 1778–79 on the frontier (upstate New York), where American settlements were being raided by combined British-Indian war parties. Pulaski went, but he soon realized that the frontier was not the place for his type of fighting unit. Men who were trained to fight with swords on horseback were no match for the occasional surprise Indian-style attack. After only two weeks, Pulaski wrote to Washington that he was leaving that place "where there is nothing but bears to fight," and returning to Poland.

But Pulaski changed his mind. It seemed he could not stand to leave America with the war unfinished; he wanted one last chance to prove that his theories of warfare were sound.

The war shifted to the South in late 1778. In December the British captured Savannah, Georgia, then turned their attention to South Carolina. Pulaski and his Legion reached Charleston, South Carolina, on May 8, 1779. The city, one of the largest in the southern states, had been under siege for some time and morale was at a low point. Pulaski was just in time to prevent the surrender of Charleston to the British. In the fighting that followed, the Americans prevailed over a greater number of British soldiers. The victory was a big boost for the Americans, proving to anyone who doubted that they would fight for their cause.

But many lives were lost, including forty of Pulaski's foot soldiers. Still, he was hailed as a hero, and he was pleased when Southern military leaders sought him out and asked for his advice. After all the personal attacks he had experienced in the North, and all the bickering with Congress over money matters, Pulaski finally felt appreciated in the refined atmosphere of Charleston.

The British abandoned South Carolina and retreated to their heavily fortified stronghold at Savannah, Georgia. The American siege of Savannah began on September 3, 1779, and it went on for more than a month. The odds favored the Americans, whose force of 1,500 was assisted by 4,000 French soldiers. A major assault was planned for October 9. Pulaski's orders were to position his 200 cavalry behind the French foot soldiers and wait for the proper moment to attack. But once again, a deserter informed the British of the American plan. Surprised by heavy British fire, the French soldiers panicked. In the chaos, Pulaski charged forward and was shot. Wounded, he fell from his horse. The British held their fire while the dying general was carried from the battlefield. The siege ended October 28 with Savannah still in British hands.

Pulaski was carried to an American ship, the Wasp, where he died on October 11 at the age of thirty-two. His body was buried at sea. News of the death of the gallant soldier was greeted with sadness. King Stanislas of Poland said: "Pulaski has died as he lived—a hero—but an enemy of kings." Today, Casimir Pulaski is especially revered among Polish Americans, who have set aside a special day to celebrate his memory.

For More Information

Boatner, Mark M, III. "Pulaski, Casimir." Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994, pp. 320-22,638, 900-01.

Collins, David R. Casimir Pulaski: Soldier on Horseback. New York: Pelican, 1995.

Manning, Clarence A. Soldier of Liberty, Casimir Pulaski. New York: Philosophical Library, 1945.

Web Sites

Kulczycki, John J. "Casimir Pulaski 1747-1779: A Short Biography." Published by the Polish Museum of America. [Online] Available http://cpl.lib.uic.edu/003cpl/pulaskibiog.html (accessed on 10/8/99).

Casimir Pulaski | Encyclopedia.com (2024)

FAQs

Why does Chicago celebrate Casimir Pulaski Day? ›

Both the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago will observe Casimir Pulaski Day on Monday in commemoration of the Polish war hero who died in pursuit of America's freedom. Born in 1747, Pulaski fought for Poland's freedom from Russia until 1771, when he was exiled to France, according to the Library of Congress.

Did Casimir Pulaski save George Washington's life? ›

On September 11, 1777, Casimir Pulaski rode into battle with the Continental Army, led a skillful counterattack to slow the British advance, and helped save George Washington's life.

Why is Casimir Pulaski sometimes referred to as the father of the American cavalry? ›

He's known as the father of the American cavalry

After Brandywine, George Washington made him a general and appointed him as the first leader of the U.S. cavalry. He led the Pulaski Legion, a brigade of German Hessians, French and Poles that prevented Charleston, S.C., from being overtaken by the British in 1779.

Who was the Polish general who helped George Washington? ›

Casimir Pulaski's abilities as a cavalryman and commander is credited with helping to save George Washington from capture at the Battle of the Brandywine in 1777, after which Pulaski's undeterred insistence led to the creation and deployment of more numerous and well-trained cavalry for the Revolutionary army.

Why is Casimir Pulaski important? ›

Casimir Pulaski (1745-1779), a Polish soldier and commander, was recruited for the American Revolution, where he made his mark as a cavalry officer and came to be known as "The Father of American Cavalry." Pulaski was mortally wounded in battle at Savannah, Georgia.

Is Pulaski Day still a thing? ›

Casimir Pulaski Day is a local holiday officially observed in Illinois, on the first Monday of March in memory of Casimir Pulaski (March 6, 1745 – October 11, 1779), a Revolutionary War cavalry officer born in Poland as Kazimierz Pułaski.

Was Casimir Pulaski a good person? ›

Pulaski is remembered as a hero who fought for independence and freedom in Poland and the United States. Numerous places and events are named in his honor, and he is commemorated by many works of art.

What does Pulaski mean in Polish? ›

Polish (Pułaski): habitational name for someone from the Pułazie in Podlaskie Voivodeship. Americanized form of Polish Puławski: habitational name for someone from Puławy in Lublin Voivodeship.

Where is Pulaski buried? ›

What happened to Casimir Pulaski? ›

As the tide quickly turned against the Americans, Pulaski led an assault against the British position hoping to drive a wedge between the British troops to regain the advantage. He was wounded during the attack and, though his troops secured his body during the retreat, he died some days later.

What states celebrate Casimir Pulaski Day? ›

Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky and Indiana have state recognition of this holiday, which is particularly popular in Chicago and Milwaukee. General Pulaski's Day is a holiday recognized by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, United States, "in commemoration of the death of revolutionary General Casimir Pulaski".

What rank in the army was Casimir Pulaski? ›

On September 15, 1777, the American congress promoted Pulaski to the rank of Brigadier General in command of cavalry. Pulaski quickly distinguished himself at Brandywine, where he covered the retreat of Washington's troops, preventing a total rout.

Who was one of George Washington's most trusted generals? ›

Benedict Arnold

Shortly after joining the militia, Arnold established himself as one of George Washington's most trusted generals. As a general, Arnold quickly recognized how valuable New York was to the Patriots' cause and assembled a unit of men and marched on Fort Ticonderoga.

Who was the greatest Polish general? ›

General Stanisław Kopański (19 May 1895 – 23 March 1976) was a Polish military commander, politician, diplomat, an engineer and one of the best-educated Polish officers of the time, serving with distinction during World War II.

Who was the German that helped George Washington? ›

Significance: In winter of 1777, Steuben joined General Washington's troops at the Valley Forge encampment and put them through proper military training; creating a newer, more effective, and more professional Continental Army in the process.

What does Pulaski have to do with Chicago? ›

Chicago is known for its large population of Polish immigrants who came to the United States during the 19th century. One of the city's main arteries, Pulaski Road, is named after him. On Feb. 26, 1986, Mayor Harold Washington introduced a resolution to designate the first Monday in March as “Casimir Pulaski Day.”

Is Pulaski Day a Chicago holiday? ›

Casimir Pulaski Day became a city of Chicago holiday in 1986

And while Pulaski Day is one of Chicago's 13 holidays that the city observes, it is not a federal holiday which means banks and the United States Post Office will remain open.

What states recognize Casimir Pulaski Day? ›

Some areas with large Polish-American populations instead celebrate Casimir Pulaski Day on the first Monday of every March, marking Pulaski's March 4, 1746 birth. Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky and Indiana have state recognition of this holiday, which is particularly popular in Chicago and Milwaukee.

Do Chicago Public Schools have Pulaski Day off? ›

According to Chicago Public Schools' calendar, CPS schools will remain open Monday. Many other schools in Illinois will also be open Monday, as it is not on the Illinois State Board of Education's list of observed holidays.

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