Born March 4, 1747
Winiary Estate near Warsaw, Poland
Died October 11, 1779
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.
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.
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.
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).
PULASKI, CASIMIR. (1748–1779). Continental Army cavalry leader. Poland. A well-educated nobleman, Pulaski entered military service in 1767 and the next year fought with his family against the Russians, but he was forced to flee to Turkey after the first partition of Poland in 1773. By late 1775 he was in Paris, without money or prospects. He was introduced to Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane and expressed an interest in joining the American struggle for independence. With a letter of introduction from Franklin and with funds advanced by Deane, Pulaski reached Boston in July 1777 and met with Washington a month later, during which meeting they spoke about his cavalry experience in Poland. He served as a volunteer aide-de-camp to Washington at the Battle of the Brandywine, on 11 September, and performed so well in reconnoitering enemy positions and rallying dispirited American troops that Washington thought he might be the man to command the four regiments of dragoons authorized by Congress. Washington proposed his appointment to Congress in a letter dated 27 August. Congress created the post of "Commander of the Horse" on 15 September and appointed Pulaski to the position with the rank of brigadier general.
Like many of the other foreign officers in the Continental Army, Pulaski had already created considerable animosity by demanding a rank subordinate only to that of Washington and Lafayette. Unable to speak much English and unwilling to take orders from Washington (but reporting directly to Congress), he quickly became embroiled in controversy. He took little part in the Battle of Germantown on 4 October 1777 but thereafter performed outpost duty at Trenton and Flemington while the army was in winter quarters at Valley Forge and acted with Wayne on foraging expeditions. The two men did not get along, Wayne believing that Pulaski disparaged the fighting abilities of American soldiers and Pulaski resenting the fact that American officers disliked taking orders from a foreigner. During this time, he preferred court-martial charges against Stephen Moylan, one of his regimental commanders, for "disobedience to the orders of General Pulaski, a cowardly and ungentlemanly action in striking Mr. Zielinski, a gentleman and officer in the Polish service, when disarmed … and giving irritating language to General Pulaski" (Freeman, vol. 4, p. 537 n.). Moylan was acquitted but became Pulaski's ardent enemy.
In March 1778 Pulaski resigned his post as chief of cavalry and to add to his grievances, Moylan was temporarily elevated to fill it. Congress granted Pulaski's request to raise an independent body of mounted troops and approved his proposal to include prisoners and deserters if Washington had no objection. Despite Washington's disapproval of his recruiting scheme, Pulaski started gathering prisoners over the summer from his headquarters at Baltimore. On 17 September he appeared before Congress to complain that he was being given no opportunity for action. Less than a fortnight later he got his chance. Ordered to Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey, to guard stores, his poorly disciplined and carelessly deployed legion was surprised by Ferguson on 4-5 October 1778. When the Cherry Valley Massacre in New York on 11 November brought cries for the protection of frontier settlements, his legion was posted on the Delaware River at Minisink. From there he wrote Congress plaintively on 26 November that he could find "nothing but bears to fight."
With the British capture of Savannah, Georgia, on 29 December 1778 and the desperate need for American cavalry in the South, on 2 February 1779 Pulaski was ordered to march to Charleston, South Carolina. He arrived in time to help defend the town against Prevost's raid, but when he crossed the Cooper from his post at Haddrell's Point on 11 May in an attempt to ambush a detachment of the enemy, he was badly beaten. Now under Lincoln's command, he wrote Congress on 19 August to complain of the "ill treatment" he had encountered in the American army, although he expressed hopes that he might still have a chance to prove his devotion to the American cause. He led the advance of Lincoln's army that besieged Savannah in late September and established communication with the French fleet. Mortally wounded in a gallant but foolhardy cavalry charge on 9 October 1779, he died aboard the U.S. brig Wasp, probably on the 11th, after a surgeon had been unable to extract a grapeshot from his upper right thigh. He was buried at sea.
It has been said that "his American career was … a chronicle of disaster and embittered disappointment." However, the commentator continues, "his gallant death served to ennoble even his mistakes in the eyes of posterity" (Frank Monaghan in DAB 15, pp. 259-260).
Freeman, Douglas Southall. George Washington. 7 vols. New York: Scribner, 1948–1957.
revised by Harold E. Selesky
Casimir Pulaski (1747-1779), Polish patriot and American Revolutionary War hero, fought unsuccessfully against foreign control of his native Poland and then journeyed to America to fight in the American Revolution.
Born in Podolia, Casimir Pulaski was the eldest son of Count Joseph Pulaski. After brief service in the guard of Duke Charles of Courland (now a part of Latvia), Pulaski returned home to Poland. In 1768 he joined forces with the Confederation of Bar, a movement founded by his father, in a revolt against Russian domination of Poland. The confederation, however, proved to be too small to be victorious and was decisively defeated. Pulaski's estates having been confiscated, in 1772 at the time of the first partition of Poland he fled to Turkey. Here he remained for several years in a vain attempt to provoke the Turks into an attack on Russia. Finally, penniless and destitute, he left for Paris to seek other employment.
In the spring of 1775, as the American Revolution was beginning, the American commissioners to France gave Pulaski money to make the voyage to Boston. He arrived there armed with a letter of introduction to Gen. George Washington. Shortly after a meeting with Washington in August of that same year, Pulaski became a volunteer member of the general's staff. Distinguishing himself at the Battle of the Brandywine in September, he was consequently given command of a newly created cavalry troop in Washington's army. During the winter of 1777 he and his men served at Trenton, at Flemington, and at Valley Forge, where Pulaski shared responsibility with Gen. Anthony Wayne for the provisioning of the starving Americans. But difficulties with Wayne and some of the junior officers caused Pulaski to resign his command in March 1778.
As a result, later that same month the Continental Congress, on the advice of Washington, authorized Pulaski to raise an independent cavalry corp in the Baltimore, Md., area. Anxious for an active command, he was sent to Egg Harbor, N.J., to protect supplies there but was badly mauled by a surprise British attack on Oct. 15, 1778. He was next dispatched to defend Minisink on the Delaware River from further attacks by Native Americans. The command was too tame for Pulaski's liking, however, and 3 months later he obtained orders to join in the siege of Charleston. He reached that city on May 8 and promptly directed a headlong attack on advancing British forces. Badly defeated there, Pulaski sought vainly to redeem himself. Five months later while leading another heroic charge, this time during the siege of Savannah, he was mortally wounded. He died on board the American ship Wasp, probably on Oct. 11, 1779.
Two biographical studies in English of Pulaski are Clarence A. Manning, Soldier of Liberty (1945), and Wladyslaw Konopczynski, Casimir Pulaski (trans. 1947).
Jamro, R. D., Pulaski, a portrait of freedom, S.l.: s.n., 1981?.
Kopczewski, Jan Stanisaw, Casimir Pulaski, Warsaw: Interpress, 1980.
Szymanski, Leszek, Casimir Pulaski: a hero of the American Revolution, New York: Hippocrene Books, 1994.
Szymanski, Leszek, Kazimierz Pulaski in America: a monograph, 1777-1779, San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1986, 1979. □