Born on 4 February 1746, Tadeusz Andrzej Bonawentura Kościuszko came from a middling noble family in eastern Poland. His fight for national independence, his support for social justice, and his selflessness earned him acclaim in his lifetime and veneration from later generations of both nationalists and social radicals.
Kościuszko studied military engineering in Warsaw and Paris and fought in the American Revolutionary army as colonel of engineers. He constructed fortifications for Philadelphia (1776- 1777), Fort Ticonderoga (1777), and West Point (1778-1780). His field fortifications at the Battle of Saratoga (1777) and his service as engineer, logistics expert, and battlefield captain in the southern campaigns (1780-1782) were highly regarded. After the war, Kościuszko was promoted to brevet brigadier general, was one of the founders of the Society of the Cincinnati, and was given his substantial back pay. In America, Kościuszko crystallized his philosophical support for social and political democracy and learned specific techniques for organizing armies based on commitment and enthusiasm rather than rigorous training.
Returning to Poland, Kościuszko settled on his estates until 1789 when he was commissioned general. Service in the 1792 Russo-Polish War earned him promotion and honorary French citizenship. He resigned and went into exile when the war ended prematurely. As an émigré’ leader, Kościuszko went in January 1793 on an unsuccessful mission to gain French support for an uprising. After his return, he was chosen commander of the future uprising and traveled to the Austrian-Polish border to check on preparations, which he judged insufficient.
Impelled by Russian-ordered cuts to the Polish army, Kościuszko launched the insurrection in Kraków (Cracow) on 23 March 1794, making a dramatic appearance on the Market Square and taking command of the garrison. He was appointed “dictator” with full military and civil powers, although in practice he shared civil power with experienced political leaders. Other units of the Polish Army joined him, and he declared a levée en masse of nobles, burghers, and peasants. He had at his disposal fifty-five thousand regular troops plus twenty-eight thousand militia, and thousands more enlisted for local defense. The Russians and Prussians opposed him with twice the force and much better equipment.
Kościuszko marched toward Warsaw with four thousand regular soldiers and two thousand peasant recruits and defeated the Russians at Racławice, near Cracow, on 4 April when he personally led a charge by peasants armed with scythes. The arrival of fresh Russian units forced him to retreat, however. A successful uprising in Warsaw on 24 April allowed Kościuszko to move north. Prussian and Russian forces defeated him at Szczekociny (10 June), but he got through and defended the capital until a revolt in western Poland forced the Prussian and Russian armies to retreat in early September. The dispatch of Russian reinforcements forced him to take the offensive. Losing the battle of Maciejowice (10 October), Kościuszko was badly wounded, captured, and sent to St. Petersburg.
Throughout the insurrection, Kościuszko mediated between left and right. Radicals approved his Połaniec Manifesto, which granted peasants personal freedom and reduced their labor obligations, and his efforts to recruit peasants. Yet Kościuszko supported conservatives by relieving a leading radical of command in Wilno (Vilnius) and suppressing radical mobs in Warsaw. He restricted but protected the unpopular Polish king, Stanisław II August Poniatowski (r. 1764-1795).
Freed by Russian Emperor Paul I, Kościuszko came to America in August 1797 but left for France in May 1798. Personal friendship led Vice President Thomas Jefferson to serve as the executor of Kościuszko’s will, which provided funds to emancipate and educate African American slaves. In France, Kościuszko helped organize the Polish legions to support the French armies in Italy but became increasingly suspicious of French motives, particularly when Napoleon took power. Despite joining the Polish Republican Society, his growing conviction that Poland had to win independence without foreign assistance by emancipating the serfs and creating a strong national government isolated him politically. He withdrew from politics.
Both Napoleon (1807) and Alexander I (1815) unsuccessfully attempted to recruit Kościuszko to lead their versions of Polish statehood. He rebuffed them, posing unacceptable demands for a parliamentary government and eastern borders that extended well beyond pre-partition levels, and moved in 1815 to Solothurn, Switzerland, where he died on 15 October 1817. Kościuszko was buried in Wawel Castle (Cracow) while his heart was buried in Solothurn; it was returned to Poland in 1927.
After his death, Kosciuszko’s reputation solidified into inviolable legend. Poles celebrated him by building a large memorial hill near Kraków (completed in 1823), and in numerous paintings (notably by Jan Matejko, 1888) and literary portraits (notably by Nobel laureate Władysław Reymont). His death was often commemorated through illegal political demonstrations, and Polish emigrants also celebrate the Kościuszko cult, notably through museums in Rapperswil and Solothurn, Switzerland, and the Kościuszko Foundation (New York). The highest peak in Australia, a county in Indiana, an island in Alaska, and towns in Mississippi and Texas have been named after him.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Korzon, Tadeusz. Kościuszko: Biografia z dokumentów wysnuta. Cracow, Poland, 1894. The most complete biography. In Polish. Pula, James S. Thaddeus Kościuszko: The Purest Son of Liberty. New York, 1999. Emphasizes Kościuszko’s American activities. Szyndler, Bartłomiej. Tadeusz Kościuszko. Warsaw, 1991. Includes historiographical references. In Polish.
Having learned that the Russian garrison left Kraków, Kościuszko entered the city on the night of March 23, 1794. The next morning, at the Kraków’s Main Square, he announced the initiation of the uprising. He received the title of Naczelnik (Commander-in-Chief) of all Polish-Lithuanian forces fighting against the Russian occupation. Kościuszko began mobilizing the populace, intending to raise sufficient numbers of volunteers to counteract the larger and more professional Russian Army, he was also hoping that neither Austria nor Prussia would intervene, and thus he would discourage any insurgent activity in the Austrian and Prussian Partitions. Kościuszko gathered an army of about 6,000, including 4,000 regular soldiers and 2,000 new recruits, and marched on Warsaw. The Russians succeeded in organizing an army to oppose him more quickly then he expected, but nonetheless he was able to score a victory at the Battle of Racławice on April 4, 1793, where the battle was turned by him personally leading an infantry charge of the peasant volunteers (the kosynierzy). Nonetheless while the Russians were defeated on the battlefield, their loss was not strategically significant, and the Russian forces quickly forced Kościuszko to retreat towards Kraków. Near Połaniec he received some reinforcements, and met with other leaders of the Uprising (Kołłątaj, Potocki), thus Połanie became the site of a major political declaration of the uprising, the Proclamation of Połaniec. In the meantime, the Russians declared a bounty on his head, for bringing them Kościuszko, “dead or alive”.
By June the Prussians had decided to actively aid the Russians, and on June 6 he fought a defensive battle against the Prussian-Russian force at the Battle of Szczekociny. From late June Kościuszko defended Warsaw, then under the control of the insurgents. He defended Warsaw successfully for several weeks, and with the Prussian forces needed to suppress the Greater Poland Uprising, the siege of Warsaw was lifted by the morning of September 6. During a sortie against a new Russian attack, Kościuszko was wounded at the Battle of Maciejowice on October 10, and captured by the Russians. He was imprisoned at Saint Petersburg in the Peter and Paul Fortress. Soon afterward, the uprising ended with the Battle of Praga, and the subsequent massacre, where (according to a contemporary Russian witness) the Russians troops killed about 20,000 of the Warsaw inhabitants. The Third Partition of Poland that followed ended the existence of the sovereign Polish state for the next 123 years