The Life of Tadeusz Kościuszko: A Revolutionary on 2 Continents

Tadeusz Kościuszko was a prominent military engineer who became a national hero in Poland and the United States, among other nations. This is his story.

Jun 28, 2024By James Keating, BA History

tadeusz kosciuszko revolutionary life


Tadeusz was a hugely important facet of the American War for Independence. He met some of the most prominent figures of his era, including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Napoleon Bonaparte. His military prowess led him to become famous across Europe. Although he was born into a relatively privileged family, his victories were far from granted. Through hard work and forward-thinking principles, Kościuszko became world-renowned.


Early Life

Warsaw University Today. Source: Expedia


Tadeusz Kościuszko was born near Kosów in central Poland, not too far from Warsaw, in February 1746. He was the youngest son of a moderately wealthy family, for whom thirty-one peasant families worked. His father was Ludwik Tadeusz Kościuszko, a member of the “Szlachta” (untitled nobility) and an officer in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth Army. However, good fortune turned around not long after his father’s death in 1758. Tadeusz had been studying in Lubieszów for three years and was forced to suspend his studies due to newfound familial financial restraints.


In 1765, an opportunity arose. Polish King Stanisław August Poniatowski created a Corps of Cadets at what later became Warsaw University. Its purpose was to educate government officials and, importantly for Tadeusz, military officers. Tadeusz was enrolled on December 18, 1765, likely due to inherited family connections. After a year of studying the military, Tadeusz successfully graduated on December 20, 1766, and was given the rank of chorąży, which roughly equates to the level of a modern lieutenant. He stayed at the school for a further two years as a student instructor until he attained the coveted rank of captain. Not long after achieving this promotion, he finally set his sights beyond Poland.


Portrait of Tadeusz Kościuszko by Unknown, 1840-1850. Source: Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie


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Tadeusz toured Europe after the outbreak of the 1768 civil war in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. For five years, he frequented military academies and attended lectures in France. On his return to Poland in 1774, he found his older brother Józef had wasted most of the family’s wealth. This mismanagement meant Tadeusz was not able to buy the officer’s commission and join the Army, forcing him to have to tutor an affluent family.


The family was that of influential province governor Jósef Sylwester Sosnowski. During his time with the family, Tadeusz fell madly in love with the governor’s daughter, Ludwika. Any suggestion of elopement was rejected, and Sosnowski’s men reprimanded and attacked Tadeusz for what they saw as insubordination.


In late 1775, Tadeusz fled Poland to avoid Sosnowski’s men. He found himself once again in Paris, where he learned of the beginning of the American Revolutionary War. Early American victories were widely reported in France, as the French, in their animosity towards the British, were stalwart American sympathizers. Tadeusz, perhaps sore from having felt the sting of class distinction at the hands of Sosnowski’s influence, wanted to use his military expertise to help the American cause. He set sail for America in June 1776.


The American War for Independence

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, 1851. Source: Fine Art America


After eventually reaching America, Tadeusz sought out Benjamin Franklin. He was presented with a geometry exam, and his high marks resulted in Franklin’s recommendation. On August 31, 1776, he was assigned to the Continental Army.


Tadeusz’s contributions to the American effort were massive, particularly his efforts to build fortifications. His first assignment was to build defenses at Fort Billingsport to prevent the British from advancing up the river to Philadelphia. He also predicted British General John Burgoyne’s intentions to place artillery on what is now known as Mount Defiance. Despite his acute foresight, his recommendation to build a battery on Sugar Loaf was ignored. This error demanded a successful withdrawal, which Tadeusz was put in charge of. He employed the tactics of an engineer, damming streams and felling trees to bog down the heavily encumbered pursuing British forces. This gave the Americans time to withdraw across the Hudson.


In March 1778, Tadeusz arrived at West Point, New York, where he spent two years optimizing fortifications. His plans were widely applauded and deemed innovative for the time. It was also around this time that he was appointed his African-American orderly, Agrippa Hull, whom, by all records, he treated as a friend and his equal.


West Point is the oldest continuously occupied army post in the US to this day. Source: Bloomberg


Tadeusz was needed in the South, where he fortified American bases in North Carolina and was among the troops that reoccupied Charleston following the British evacuation of the city. He spent the remaining duration of the war in Charleston and eventually conducted a firework display on April 23, 1783, on the news that the Treaty of Paris had been signed and peace reigned. During the American War for Independence, he sustained only one injury, and that was a bayonet wound to his buttock during a siege in the town of Ninety-Six.


In May 1783, after seven years of service, he collected the hitherto untouched salary that was owed to him, and the following summer, he began his journey back to Poland.


Polish-Russian War of 1792

Portrait of Empress Catherine the Great by Fyodor Rokotov, 1763. Source: DailyArt Magazine


On his arrival in Poland, he quickly learned that new issues between his patrons, the Czartoryski family and King Stanisław, meant Tadeusz would fail to get a commission into the Commonwealth Army once again. His brother Józef had continued to invest poorly and, in turn, had lost much of the family’s land. Even with these issues, Tadeusz insisted on limiting his male peasant’s obligatory service to him and entirely exempting the females. His principles meant the estate quickly started heading towards debt.


In Poland, political pressure was growing to invest in the army. Through notable political alliances, Tadeusz finally received a royal commission as a major general on October 12, 1789. The generous salary of 12,000 zlotys a year meant his estate was no longer facing financial ruin. On May 3, 1791, the Constitution of May 3, 1791, was adopted. It came through the agitation of political reformers close to Tadeusz.


Unfortunately, the Commonwealth’s neighbors viewed the reforms as a threat to their influence over Poland. On May 18, 1792, a 100,000-man-strong army, at the behest of Catherine the Great, crossed the border, thus beginning the Polish-Russian War of 1792.


The Polish forces were outnumbered three to one. However, Tadeusz’s stalwart protection of the army’s flanks won him the “Virtuti Militari,” the greatest Polish military decoration to this day. This award won him fame across Europe. Tadeusz also masterminded the Battle of Dubienka on July 18, 1792, where, with roughly 5,000 men, he defeated 25,000 Russian soldiers. The victory got him promoted to the rank of lieutenant general.


Tadeusz received the greatest military award in Poland. Source: WW2Aircraft


In the face of such overwhelming numerical inferiority, the King ordered Polish-Lithuanian troops to cease hostilities on July 24, 1792. This capitulation was particularly hard for Tadeusz to accept, as he had not lost a single battle during the conflict. By September, he had decided he wanted to leave Poland again.


In Leipzig, Germany, he joined revolutionaries such as Ignacy Potocki and Hugo Kołłątaj to plan an uprising in Poland and end the Russian occupation. The support he brought was a great bonus for the cause, especially because of his newfound fame. Tadeusz even tried sponsoring support from the French due to the ongoing revolution but failed.


The Second Partition of Poland was signed on January 23, 1793, and Poland became a minor nation of only four million citizens. In September of the same year, Tadeusz crossed the Polish border to conduct observations and meet sympathizers for his plans for revolution.


The Kościuszko Uprising

Battle of Racławice by Jan Matejko, 1888. Source: Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie


Tadeusz was alerted to the fact that Tsarist agents were aware of the revolutionaries’ plans. In Warsaw, commanders and politicians were being arrested, forcing Tadeusz to begin the uprising earlier than he had originally planned. He set off for Krakow, and on March 23, 1794, in the main square, he announced the uprising. Tadeusz became commander-in-chief of the uprising and managed to amass an army of 6,000, a third of which were basic recruits. He began the march to Warsaw quickly.


Unfortunately for Tadeusz, the Russians had organized far faster than he had expected. Despite this, he managed to win a victory against the Russian force at the Battle of Racławice on April 4, 1794. During this clash, to bolster morale, he personally led an infantry charge of peasant volunteers. Despite this unlikely victory, the inferiority of his army forced a retreat to Kraków.


At Polaniec, Tadeusz managed to draw up some reinforcements. Here he issued the Proclamation of Polaniec, in which he stated that serfs were entitled to reduced work obligations and civil rights. At this very time, the Russians were placing a dead or alive bounty on his head.


Emperor Paul I of Russia Granting Liberty to General Kościuszko by Henry Singleton, 1797. Source: Sotheby’s


By June, the Prussian forces were aiding a Russian siege against Tadeusz’s army in Warsaw. For several weeks, the army defended until September, when the Prussians were forced elsewhere to deal with unrest. In a sortie against another Russian attack, Tadeusz was wounded and captured.


Tadeusz was taken to Saint Petersburg, where he was imprisoned in the Peter and Paul fortress. Not long after, his uprising collapsed. According to contemporary witness testimony, 20,000 Warsaw citizens were massacred by the Russians after the siege ended. Finally, in 1795, the Third Partition of Poland was signed. This partition meant the end of both a Polish and a Lithuanian state, which would last for the next 123 years.


The death of Catherine the Great on November 17, 1796 meant a change in attitudes, and Tadeusz was pardoned and released. The remainder of Tadeusz’s life was less militant. He remained politically active, writing a will to sell his American estate, and the finances were to be used to buy the freedom of Black slaves and fund their education. He also remained influential in Europe, meeting with figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Tsar Alexander I. Tadeusz Kościuszko died aged 71 on October 15, 1817, after suffering a stroke induced by a fall from his horse only a few days earlier.

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By James KeatingBA HistoryI hold a degree in History from the University of Liverpool and have always loved reading non-fiction in my spare time. My specific interests mainly lie in Russian history but I have also been fascinated with biographies outside of Russia from the biggest names in history such as Frida Kahlo or Oliver Cromwell.