Tadeusz Kościuszko: 6 Facts You Didn’t Know

Tadeusz Kościuszko was a distinguished military leader and Polish national hero, known especially for his pivotal role in the 1794 Polish uprising against the Russian Empire.

Jun 3, 2024By Tsira Shvangiradze, MA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l Relations

tadeusz kosciuszko facts


Tadeusz Kościuszko, a Polish-Lithuanian military leader, was born on February 12, 1746, in Mereczowszczyzna, Poland (today Belarus). He played a key role in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s struggle against the Russian Empire and actively engaged in the American Revolutionary War in the Continental Army on Washington’s side. For his devoted service, the Continental Congress promoted him to the rank of brigadier general in 1783. He was a keen defender of the principles of liberty and equality, and his figure is still celebrated in these countries as someone who fought for freedom and justice.


1. He Was a Skilled Engineer with a Military Education

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A Meeting of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture at the Louvre by Jean-Baptiste Martin, c. 1712–21. Source: Musée du Louvre, Paris (RMN-Grand Palais/Adrian Didierjean)


Tadeusz Kościuszko was born to an officer in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth Army, Ludwik Tadeusz Kościuszko. Inspired by his father’s service, he also decided to pursue a military career. Kościuszko was fascinated with the history of ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. He was particularly fond of the Greek military statesman Timoleon, who fought to free the Corinthians and the Sicilians from the tyranny of Carthage. Kościuszko once remarked: “He (Timoleon) overthrew tyrants, set up republics, and never demanded any power for himself.”


Tadeusz Kościuszko attended the Royal Military Academy in Warsaw and continued his studies at Piarist College in Lubieszów. The death of his father and subsequent financial struggles of the family forced Tadeusz Kościuszko to quit his studies in 1758. Polish prince Adam Czartoryski volunteered to finance Kościuszko to continue his studies at the newly established military academy in Warsaw and later sent him to Paris to study at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. Parts of the portraits of live models, graphic art, and sketches of ancient sculptures from this period are still available at the Czartoryski Museum in Kraków.


As a foreigner in France, Kościuszko could not officially attend the military engineering academy in Mézières, so he additionally took private tutoring from the military professors in Paris. He was well known for his excellent abilities in designing and building military equipment and transport, which he learned from Marshal Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban, a well-known and prominent figure in architecting forts.

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Tadeusz Kościuszko returned to Poland in 1774 and discovered that his brother had wasted the family’s fortune. Due to financial difficulties, he couldn’t obtain an officer’s license and began tutoring the daughters of a Polish-Lithuanian magnate and general, Józef Sosnowski.


2. Kościuszko Had an Unhappy Love Life

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Young Kościuszko teaching a lesson to Ludwika Sosnowska in Sosnowica by Zygmunt Ajdukiewicz. Source: Google Arts & Culture


Tadeusz Kościuszko fell deeply in love with the daughter of Józef Sylwester Sosnowski, Ludwika Sosnowska. They secretly ran away and attempted to marry in 1775, but Sosnowski strongly opposed their marriage, stating, “Magnate daughters cannot marry nobles without status.” His guards chased the couple and forced Ludwika to return home, accusing Kościuszko of kidnapping his daughter. The accusation was punishable by death. Devastated, Kościuszko fled back to Paris.


During this period, the economic theory of physiocracy was gaining momentum in Europe, particularly in France. The theory opposed feudalism and envisaged agriculture as the primary source of wealth. It suggested a single land tax, advocating for individual liberty. Kościuszko was inspired by this theory and envisaged it as a base for the Polish people’s liberty.


His beloved Ludwika was the first to assist in the translation of the first physiocracy book from French to Polish. Thus, Ludwika’s and Tadeusz’s views regarding social change and the abolition of feudalism in Poland were aligned. In this way, Kościuszko perceived separation from Ludwika Sosnowska not only as a personal but as an ideological setback.


Equally unfortunate appeared to be Tadeusz Kosciuszko’s relations with Tekla Zurowska, the daughter of a prominent Ukrainian nobleman. In 1791, Kosciuszko, intending to marry Zurowska, was once again rejected by her father due to his social and financial standing.


3. He Is Regarded as a War Hero in the United States

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West Point, New York, (which Kościuszko was commissioned to fortify) by Pierre Charles L’Enfant. Source: Museum of American Revolution, Philadelphia


Following the tragic separation from Ludwika Sosnowska, Tadeusz Kościuszko returned to Paris, and not seeing his military prospects in Europe, he decided to travel to the United States, which, in the midst of its War of Independence, was in urgent need of military engineers. In June 1776, Kościuszko arrived in the United States. In October, he was appointed a colonel in the Continental Army. Aiming to defend Philadelphia from the British Navy, he was assigned to design and build forts on the Delaware River and evaluate Fort Ticonderoga’s defenses north of New York.


Kościuszko’s defensive installations along the Hudson River were pivotal during the Battle of Saratoga against Britain. Historians often describe the victory at Saratoga as a turning point in the American Revolutionary War since it persuaded Louis XVI, France’s king, to enter the war on the American side.


Then commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, George Washington, was fascinated with Kościuszko’s contributions to the victory of the Continental Army and often praised him in his official correspondence, despite spelling Kościuszko’s name 11 different ways. Following the siege of Charleston in 1782, Washington awarded Kościuszko two pistols and a sword.


4. He Was Also a National Hero in Poland & Captive of Catherine the Great

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Kościuszko Uprising: Warsaw insurrection 1794 by Juliusz Kossak. Source: Wielkopolska Biblioteka Cyfrova


The American Revolutionary War inspired Kościuszko to fight for Polish independence and sovereignty in his homeland. He sailed back to Poland in 1784. King Stanislaw II Poniatowski had already initiated important political reforms, culminating in the adoption of the Constitution of May 3, 1791. The constitution was intended to strengthen independent Poland and decrease foreign dominance.


Empress Catherine II of Russia, fearing the loss of Russian influence, invaded Poland, resulting in the Polish-Russian War of 1792. Tadeusz Kościuszko, given command of a division near Kyiv, showed unprecedented resistance, tactics, and leadership to the Russian forces. Despite the initial success, Poland was defeated due to international pressure and the threat of Prussia entering the war. The war resulted in Poland’s partition in 1793, the abolishment of the 1791 constitution, and the loss of approximately 300,000 square kilometers of Poland to Russia.


The events intensified Kościuszko’s struggle for independence and set the stage for the 1794 Kościuszko Uprising. As commander-in-chief of Poland, he courageously led the Polish rebels against the Russian forces for more than seven months. Reportedly, Catherine the Great put a price on his head.


In 1794, Kościuszko was wounded and brought to Russia, where he spent two years in captivity until Catherine died in 1796. Catherine’s son, Paul I of Russia, who disapproved of his mother’s aggressive policies, released Kościuszko from prison along with nearly 20,000 Polish prisoners. In exchange, Kościuszko pledged to the Tsar to never return to Poland. Having once again lost the battle for Polish freedom, Kościuszko sailed back to the United States in August 1797.


5. Kościuszko Was Among the First Republicans & A Friend of Thomas Jefferson

Tadeusz Kościuszko, from the Polish-American Fraternity series, by Arthur Szyk, 1938. Source: Culture Poland


Tadeusz Kościuszko is praised for his commitment to liberty and freedom. He was deeply moved by the Declaration of Independence and its principal author, Thomas Jefferson, who would later become the third president of the United States. Based on the shared principles of equality and liberty, these two formed a close friendship and maintained correspondence until Kościuszko died in 1817. In 1798, Thomas Jefferson admirably referred to Kościuszko: “He is the purest son of liberty I have ever known, and not just for the wealthy and high-born.”


Kościuszko was a keen supporter of equal rights and opposed racial segregation based on ethnicity, race, or social status. He often stood for the equal rights of peasants, Jews, Indigenous peoples of America, and African Americans, as historian and author Alex Storozynski claims. During his struggles with the American and Polish revolutions, Kościuszko hired African Americans as his aides-de-camp to assist in military operations: Agrippa Hull in America and Jean Lapierre in Poland.


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Portrait of Tadeusz Kosciuszko by Henry H. Houston, c. 1796. Source: National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC


Despite being close friends and colleagues with Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, Kościuszko was not content with the fact that Jefferson and Washington were enslavers. Upon returning to Europe in May 1798, Kościuszko wrote a will. He left all his American assets, $18,912 ($500,000 in 2023) and 500 acres of land in Ohio, to Thomas Jefferson. These assets should have been used to free enslaved Africans.


Kościuszko outlined in the will to use the assets “in purchasing negroes from among his own as well as any others,” “giving them liberty in my name,” and “giving them an education in trades and otherwise.” However, Jefferson did not implement the will. Although he believed that slavery was not morally justified, he considered the sacred law of ownership more important. In 1921, Jefferson officially refused his rights on Kościuszko’s will.


A year after Jefferson died in 1826, most of his slaves were sold at auction. Larrie Ferriero, who is the author of the book Brothers at Arms, remarked:


He was fighting next to people who believed they were fighting for independence, but not doing it for all; even before Americans themselves fully came to that understanding, he saw it.”


6. Tadeusz Kościuszko Opposed Napoleon Bonaparte & Tsar Alexander I 

Tadeusz Kościuszko returned to Paris in 1798 after his forced emigration to the United States. Soon, Napoleon Bonaparte consolidated power in France following the successful completion of the Jacobin Revolution in 1799.


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Tadeusz Kościuszko’s monument in Kraków, Poland. Source: Panoramio


Napoleon Bonaparte envisaged Poland as a buffer state between France and neighboring European states. By supporting Polish independence and obtaining public support as a supporter of oppressed nations, Napoleon hoped to gain political leverage against other powers, particularly Russia and Austria.


Tadeusz Kościuszko met with Bonaparte twice in 1799, discussing the possibilities of Polish independence. In a letter dated January 22, 1807, Kościuszko requested Napoleon to ensure the establishment of a parliamentary democracy and the enlargement of Polish borders. However, the French emperor disregarded his request. The negotiations failed. Napoleon referred to Kościuszko as a “fool” who “overestimated his influence.”


Eventually, the Duchy of Warsaw, a semi-autonomous state and France’s satellite, was created on July 9, 1807, following the signing of the Tilsit Treaties between France and Russia. The treaty partitioned the territories of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Kościuszko, distancing himself from politics, once again relocated to Switzerland, near La Genevraye.


Napoleon was defeated in 1814. The Congress of Vienna decided to give Poland to the Russian Empire. In April 1814, Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, adviser to Tsar Alexander I, invited Tadeusz Kościuszko to a party organized for Tsar Alexander I. The tsar greeted 68-year-old Kościuszko with the following words: “A place! A place for a great man!


He sought to bring the famous hero back to Poland to assist in the establishment of the Russian-allied Polish state. In this case, as well, Kościuszko demanded socio-political reforms and the restoration of pre-partition territories, only to discover that the Tsar’s Poland would be even smaller than promised by Napoleon’s Duchy of Warsaw.


Kościuszko was once again defeated in his fight for Polish independence. Soon, on October 15, 1817, aged 71, Kosciuszko died of poor health and subsequent complications.

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By Tsira ShvangiradzeMA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l RelationsTsira is an international relations specialist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. She holds a MA in Diplomacy and International Politics and a BA in International Relations from Tbilisi State University. In her spare time, she contributes articles in the field of political sciences and international relations.