Of the many distinguished military men who came from abroad to fight for the independence of the American colonies, Kosciuszko was the very first. In August 1776, only a month after the Declaration of Independence had been signed, the 30-year-old military engineer arrived in Philadelphia from Poland. He offered his services to the Continental Congress, and served continuously until the British surrender seven years later. For over 200 years, the memory of his dedication and contribution has forged strong bonds between the peoples of Poland the United States. Kosciuszko was born to an aristocratic family of modest means in Poland on February 4, 1746. He received a solid classical education at the local church school; mathematics, geometry and drawing attracted his special attention, and at 19 he decided on a military career. He entered the newly-established Royal Military School in Warsaw. Four years later, he graduated with honors, receiving a captainís commission, and was sent on a scholarship from King Stanislaw August to Paris, for advanced study of engineering and artillery.
When he returned to Poland five years later, the country had been forced to yield much of its territory to Russia, Prussia, and Austria, and there was little use for his skills. Hearing of the events at Lexington and Concord, he decided to enlist in the American cause, and traveled to Philadelphia.
He was commissioned Colonel of Engineers by Congress, and assigned to General Horatio Gates and the Army of the North. His strategic engineering skills were a major factor in the American victory at Saratoga a year later; it was this triumph that turned the tide of the war and convinced many European powers to support America against Britain.
Kosciuszkoís next task, probably his most important in this country, was the fortification of the heights of West Point, which Washington had called “the key to America.” This occupied him nearly two and a half years. He supervised the construction of interlocking batteries, and designed a massive 60-ton chain to block the Hudson River and keep the British from advancing South. (Later, this site became the home of the U.S. Military Academy; the first monument there, erected by the cadets themselves, was to Kosciuszko.)
He was then sent to the Army of the South, where he supervised troop movements crossing rivers and treacherous swamps. He had the honor of leading American troops into Charleston, the last point of British resistance in the South. At the warís end, Congress named him a Brigadier General.
In 1784, he returned to Poland, and five years later was called up to the Polish army. Polandís political fortunes were sinking, however, and the King ordered his troops to stop fighting. Resigning in protest, Kosciuszko resigned and went to Germany, where he maintained contact with Poles planning a general insurrection.
Finally, in March 1794, he returned to Poland to lead the long-planned revolt. He ordered the mobilization of all men fit to bear arms, even peasants. In America, Kosciuszko had learned how to work with such untrained volunteers. Seven thousand men rushed to join his army, and he soon won a stunning victory over the Russians at Raclawice. By October, however, combined Russian and Prussian troops overwhelmed his forces; Kosciuszko, seriously wounded, was captured. The next year, in a final partition, Russia, Prussia and Austria divided what was left of Poland between them, and the country vanished from the map of Europe.
Kosciuszko was held prisoner in Moscow under Catherine the Great, but her successor, Czar Paul I, freed him on the condition that that he not return to Poland.
Kosciuszko came back to America, his adopted homeland, and moved to Philadelphia. His earlier friendship with Jefferson bloomed, and the two met almost daily. When he left America for the last time, he named Jefferson the executor of his will, directing that all his American assets be sold and used to buy and free slaves.
His final years were sad and full of disappointments. He was invited to the Congress of Vienna in 1815, but the leaders there refused to restore Poland to post-Napoleonic Europe. He settled with friends in Switzerland friends,where he died in October 1817, at the age of 71. His body was returned to Poland, and lies in a royal crypt in Cracowís Wawel Cathedral.
After World War I, his courage inspired American volunteers to join the new Polish Air Force, forming the “Kosciuszko Squadron” to fight Russian forces a century after Kosciuszko himself had done so. And in 1925, the Kosciuszko Foundation was established in the United States, to promote educational and cultural exchanges between the United States and Poland. The Foundation continues to enrich both Poland and America through a deeper understanding of each other's cultures, values, and achievements.
Ironically, Kosciuszko could never secure for his homeland the freedom he helped America to win. But his life continues to encourage each new generation of Poles. Thomas Jefferson, who knew him as well as any American did, summed up his dear friend and colleague by declaring
“HE WAS AS PURE A SON OF LIBERTY AS I HAVE EVER KNOWN, AND OF THAT LIBERTY WHICH IS TO GO TO ALL, NOT TO THE FEW AND RICH ALONE.”
In 1939, the Penny Bridge over Newtown Creek was replaced with a new span connecting Maspeth in Queens and Greenpoint in Brooklyn, two towns which to this day are heavily settled by Polish immigrants. The new bridge was named after Thaddeus Kosciuszko. There is currently an ambitious plan to either rehabilitate or replace the Kosciuszko Bridge. In 2009, it will celebrate its 70th anniversary.