Today is Casimir Pulaski Day. If you just responded with a “huh?” you don’t live in Illinois where it is an official state holiday celebrating Polish ethnic pride and political clout. And, by the way, the Revolutionary War officer remembered as the Father of the Cavalry who died in a glorious but reckless lancer charge on British artillery at the siege of Savanah.
For decades Chicago’s huge Polish community—the Toddling Town was the largest Polish city in the world—yearned for acceptance and proof that they had muscled their way at last to equal recognition with the city’s other major ethnic groups. The damned Irish, who lorded it over everyone else had St. Patrick’s Day and two, count ‘em, two big Parades one on the South Side and the Daley extravaganza on State Street. The Italians had Columbus Day and their own big parade plus the Outfit which pretty much ran a lot of the city and all of those pizza parlors. The Puerto Ricans had their Independence Day and Humboldt Park even if they never got any real independence. The Mexicans got Cinco de Mayo which wasn’t even much of a thing south of the border. And then when Martin Luther King died, Blacks started demanding a holiday in his honor even though the Poles had been here longer and had patiently waited their turn.
When Chicago's Poles looked for a Revolutionary War hero to celebrate, it was puzzling that they passed over Tadeusz Kościuszko, who played a much more significant part in the war and was also an important patriot in the Old Country.
The Polish community pinned their hopes for recognition on the Continental Army officer. They could have picked another Polish emigre soldier, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, who played a much more significant role in Polish history. He was commissioned a Colonel and served as an engineering officer under General Horatio Gates. He distinguished himself at the Battle of Saratoga where he laid out the Continental defenses around Bemis Hill that would confound all of Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne’s attempts to attack. Later he constructed the fortifications of Fort Clinton at West Point then commanded by Benedict Arnold. Then he served with great distinction in the Sothern Campaign under Nathanial Green. At war’s end he was promoted to Brigadier General, but found that collecting his seven years back pay was nearly impossible.
After returning to Poland Kosciuszko became a hero and commander in the Polish–Russian War of 1792. That war ended with loss of territory which extended Russian influence over much of the Commonwealth. In 1794 the country faced partition between surrounding powers Russia, Austria, and Prussia. He became commander-in-chief of the insurrection that became known as the Kosciuszko Uprising and defended Warsaw from onslaughts by the Prussians and Russians. Eventually he was wounded, captured, and imprisoned by the Russians during the Third Partition of Poland. After finally being pardoned, he returned to the United States as an exile. He eventually returned to Europe where he engaged in talks to lead a Polish force in Napoleon’s army in exchange for French support for a liberal Polish republic. When Napoleon showed himself to be a dictator and only hoping to use the Poles as a pawn he abandoned that project. Kosciuszko was a true Democrat in Poland he advocated not just the emancipation of serfs and Jews, but offering them full citizenship rights. In his will he left his American holdings to a fund to free the slaves—which American courts refused to honor. Kosciuszko died in Switzerland at the age of 71 in 1817. He was revered as a Polish national hero.
You would think such a man would be the one Chicago’s Poles would choose to be their symbolic secular saint. Instead, they picked the dashing cavalryman. Poles are at heart deeply romantic and the cavalry holds a special place in the national identity. Units of hussars and later lighter uhlans were the core of Polish armies and their most successful forces. A man on horseback who died gloriously easily trumped an engineer, no matter how skilled or useful.
Casimir Pulaski, son a Polish noble was born on March 6, 1745 in Warsaw. After the election of King Stanisław II August of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1764 his father became one of the leaders of the Bar Confederation, which saw the King Stanisław as a Russian puppet and sought to end Russian hegemony over the Commonwealth and restore the traditional role of the nobility in a decentralized semi-feudal governance. The Bar Confederation went into open rebellion and young Casimir was commissioned as a cavalry officer fighting both the King’s loyal forces and the Russians.
Pulaski in a Polish Hussar uniform.
He proved to be an adept, skillful, and audacious commander of a Banner—the basic unit of Polish cavalry which was recruited and paid by the noble families sponsoring them—rising quickly after a series of victories in 1768. He was captured by the Russians that June after leading a two week defense in the siege of a monastery in Berdyczów. He was paroled after pledging to renounce his allegiance to the Bar Confederation and not again take up arms against the King. When he returned to Warsaw he declared that he did not consider his renunciation binding because it was given under duress. Many Bar leaders, including his father, considered the renunciation dishonorable and even pressed for a court martial.
But the rebels needed quality commanders and eventually he was reinstated however grudgingly. He served with notable distinction thought the rest of the war until 1772 when the Bar Confederation was finally defeated. During this time he won many victories and fame and was raised to the command of a regiment of several banners. He often operated independently and sometime refused to coordinate with other commands and units. He was considered a loose cannon and increasingly at odds with the political leadership of the Confederation.
The resistance was hard pressed by numerically superior forces including large Russian formations and by Austrians and Prussians equally eager to carve up Poland 1772. In some desperation Pulaski agreed to join a plot to kidnap the King. The plot was foiled and revealed forcing Pulaski to flee to France. He was tried in absentia, convicted of attempted regicide, stripped of all property, and sentenced to death. Because of the regicide charge he could not be given official sanctuary in Paris and had to stay there illegally. His attempts to offer his services to the French and other armies were rebuffed.
Benjamin Franklin, the lionized Continental envoy to the Frech Court, took a shine to young Puaski and wrote a glowing recommendation to Congress including inventing the non-existent claim of being a Polish Count to impress the rubes back home.
Pulaski survived with the support of a Polish exile community but was occasionally imprisoned for debt. He did meet liberal French aristocrats like the young Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette who in turn introduced him to American minister Benjamin Franklin who was looking for experienced European officers to serve the Continental Army in 1777. Franklin was deeply impressed by Pulaski and by his military reputation. He wrote an effusive letter of recommendation to General Washington, “Count Pulaski of Poland, an officer famous throughout Europe for his bravery and conduct in defense of the liberties of his country against the three great invading powers of Russia, Austria and Prussia ... may be highly useful to our service.” The grandiose title of Count was Franklin’s invention to impress Congress. The title did not exist in Poland and as a younger son of a nobleman, Pulaski had no title at all beyond his military rank.
Armed with the letter Pulaski sailed for North America arriving in Marblehead, Massachusetts in July of 1777. He met with Washington in August. The commanding General always had a soft spot for adventurous and idealistic young European officers. Besides which his rag-tag army was nearly bereft of organized cavalry beyond small units used as scouts and couriers. But Washington could not unilaterally appoint him an officer. That required Congressional action which was slow in coming because Congress was leery of the minor onslaught of European volunteers and the salaries to which they would be entitled. For several weeks Pulaski remained an unofficial member of Washington’s retinue and made visits to Philadelphia to plead his case.
While still technically a civilian, Pulaski rode with the 30 members of Washington’s personal mounted guard on a reconnaissance during the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777 as the main body of the army was under heavy pressure. He discovered British movements to cut off Washington’s line of retreat. The General directed him to intercept and collect troops he encountered and to use them “at his discretion” to protect and cover the Continental retreat. He led a charge that saved the undertrained and armed cavalry, kept the lines open, and was credited with saving the Army and Washington’s life. In his report to Congress Washington’s praise was enough to finally earn Pulaski’s official appointment as a Brigadier General of Cavalry on September 15.
He had not even officially learned of his appointment the next day, although he was now operating as an officer, when he led a patrol that spotted a major British force closing on Washington’s position. Although a major storm disrupted the maneuver, Washington once again had reason to be grateful.
That winter he went into camp with the Army at Valley Forge where he urged the Army to continue operations against the enemy through the winter pointing out that in Poland campaigning continued through the harsh weather. Because the British followed the Western European custom of going into camp for the winter, Pulaski felt that they could be trapped and surprised. Washington, who had one of his few outright battlefield victories when he crossed the Delaware on Christmas of 1776 to capture a Hessian garrison at Trenton, New Jersey, was sympathetic but his officer’s council of war were unanimous in opposition to the plan. Instead, Pulaski spent the winter planning his reorganization of Continental cavalry and drafting the first regulations for the formation.
He then joined the bulk of the cavalry at Trenton to begin training them. While there Pulaski supported Washington’s capable commander in New Jersey, “Mad” Anthony Wayne in his activities in Southern New Jersey. On February 28 Pulaski led 50 horsemen to intercept a much larger force under Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Stirling at Burlington who was convinced that he had encountered a much superior unit and prepared to withdraw across the Delaware. The next day Wayne and Pulaski’s combined force hit Stirling while still in camp. Pulaski’s horse was shot out from under him and his men took casualties. It was a minor skirmish, but disrupted British operational plans.
Wayne commended Pulaski in his official report but the cavalryman was disappointed when Congress rejected his plan to recruit and train a force of lancers and disgruntled that his promised pay was not forthcoming. He resigned as Brigadier of Cavalry in March 1778 and rejoined Washington at Valley Forge.
He then traveled south where he met General Horatio Gates at Yorktown, Virginia who accepted Pulaski’s plan and persuaded Congress to restore his rank as Brigadier with the new title Commander of the Horse. He was authorized to recruit a special unit of 68 Lancers and 200 supporting light infantry. He recruited the force in the horse country around Baltimore attracting young gentlemen of quality and European volunteers into the Pulaski Cavalry Legion. By August 1789 it was nearly at full force and was undergoing rigorous training. With pay and supplies from Congress still not forthcoming, Pulaski used his own slender purse and donations from the local aristocracy to uniform, arm, and equip his command to the highest standards. He quickly had one of the Continental Army’s first true elite units.
Despite his personal sacrifices, tight fisted Congressional auditors challenged his expenses and some local landowners complained of being subjected to excessive requisition to supply his troops. He was plagued by this on-going investigation for the rest of his life. And after death attempts were made to get “restitution” from his nearly nonexistent estate.
In October Pulaski endured one of the few disastrous defeats of his career. His Legion accompanied by three other companies of light infantry and other cavalry was sent to Little Egg Harbor district in Southern New Jersey to disrupt anti-smuggling activities by Captain Patrick Ferguson who was also trying to retrieve goods taken by American privateers. A deserter informed Ferguson about a camp of an infantry company along with word that adequate sentries had not been posted. Ferguson surprised the camp at dawn, killing 50 patriots by bayonet and capturing 5 before Pulaski’s Legion arrived on the scene drove Ferguson off capturing a few stragglers who could not reach their boats.
In early 1779 Pulaski was ordered to join the Sullivan Expedition against the British allied Iroquois who were devastating the Mohawk Valley in upstate New York. He did not relish the prospect of frontier service away from the main theaters of action against the British. He also felt, rightly, that the heavily wooded semi-wilderness was not suitable for his mounted force. He threatened to once again resign and return to Europe but instead asked for re-assignment to the Southern Command. Washington sent him to Charleston, South Carolina where he reported for duty on May 8 while the city was preparing for a siege by British Brigadier General Augustine Prevost who had caught American General Benjamin Lincoln’s troops attempting to re-take Savanah, Georgia and chased the undisciplined mostly militia force back to Charleston. Pulaski’s Legion was sent out to blunt the British advance on May 11 and was badly mauled by the superior force. In fact, he lost most of the 60 infantry Legionaries he had with him. But the action caused Prevost to retreat toward Savanah.Pulaski's heroic, noble, and ultimately foolish charge up a causeway to Savana into the teeth of British guns. Painting by S. Batowski: The Death of General Casimir Pulaski in the Polish Museum of America in Chicago.
Back in Charleston Pulaski suffered from bouts with malaria but remained in active command of his unit. In September Lincoln planned a push to retake Savanah with reinforcements by French troops under Admiral Charles Hector, Comte d’Estaing. The Legion was sent to Augusta, Georgia to join General Lachlan McIntosh in command of Georgia forces as the forward elements of Lincoln’s army. After capturing an important British outpost on the Ogeechee River the Legion became the advance guard of d’Estaing’s force. During the Siege of Savanah, he was placed in command of all cavalry forces both French and American. During an attack across the narrow causeway leading to Savanah on October 9, French troops began to buckle under intense British artillery fire. To rally them, Pulaski led a desperate charge up the causeway directly into the mouth of the British Guns. It was brave but foolhardy. He was unhorsed by a devastating round of grape shot and the charge was broken.
Pulaski was carried unconscious from the field and evacuated to the South Carolina privateer Wasp for medical attention. How and where he died are in dispute. Some accounts say he died of his wounds on board the Wasp on October 11 and was buried at sea. Others say he was landed and taken to the Greenwich plantation in Thunderbolt, near Savannah, where he died and was buried in an unmarked grave. On October 21 he received a symbolic burial with full military honors in Charleston.
The Siege of Savanah was broken and Lincoln had to retreat to Charleston. In March of 1780 the city was surrounded by a new 5,000 man British Army under General Henry Clinton. He was forced to surrender the city on May 12, although most of the South Carolina Militia and some Continentals were able to escape. It was the worst defeat in the Southern theater.
Pulaski’s dramatic but wasteful sacrifice was widely praised. He became a national hero with towns and counties in George, Tennessee, and elsewhere named for him. Monuments were erected including one at the symbolic grave which was dedicated by the Marquis de Lafayette in a Masonic service during his 1825 Grand Tour. His bust was also enshrined in the U.S. Capitol’s Hall of Heroes in 1867 and in an equestrian monument at Freedom Plaza, 13th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue in 1910. In 2009 President Barack Obama signed legislation posthumously confirming American citizenship only the 7th person so honored. There have also been commemorative medals struck and postage stamps issued.
Equestrian statute of Pulaski in Freedom Plaza, Washington, DC.
But the struggle to get Illinois to declare a holiday was epic in itself and a case study in ethnic pride and politics. Back in 2000 while I was a custodian at Briargate Elementary School in Cary, Illinois I reflected on that in a long poem I shared with the staff when school was closed to students for the Holiday. Later it was reprinted in the UUNews, a weekly unofficial UUA e-mail newsletter in which I was sort of a resident versifier. Somehow it was discovered by some Polish-American patriots who were very offended to the point of threatening physical violence.
You be the judge, because we are reaching way back and telling that part of the story in the old ballad style.
|Governor Dan Walker signed the law creating Casimir Pulaski Day as an Illinois holiday.|
Come, Let Us Venerate Him, St. Casimir Pulaski
This year, of all years, St. Casimir Pulaski,
we genuflect our gratitude,
at this day which you and the State of Illinois
in its infinite wisdom
have granted us.
So, we sing your paeans and remember—
How you, bright young Pole,
hero of your people,
burning with the Rights of Man
with dash, swagger, and soldierly stupidity
consecrated yourself a martyr
upon the Redcoat cannon at Savannah.
And it was you, in Great Chicago—Warsaw-by-the-Lake
who exiled Slavs,
fodder for the Stockyards,
taconite for blast furnaces,
faceless brawn in a thousand factories,
charwomen of the high rise palaces of privilege,
you they called to be their patron and their hero.
It was you they remembered
as they waited patiently for the Irish dynasty to pass,
to take their turn at command,
to reap the spoils, plunder, and patronage
due them for their steadfast, plodding service.
And it was to you they cried
when the niggers usurped their place
and when, with taunting arrogance,
dark Chicago named a feast for their saint,
the same King who had marched through
Polish bungalows and two flats
shattering the peace by inviting stones with his head.
In your name old Roman Puchinski,
the very Prince denied the throne
blocked a State feast until your name
could be placed with Columbus and St. Patrick
on the calendar of veneration,
until Harold Washington threw back his massive head,
crinkled his eyes and boom his great voice—
“It’s a deal!
I will come and stand by you
at the Polish National Alliance,
under the White Eagle Flag
and listen to pretty golden hair children in peasant dress
sing and spin to accordions.
And you will come with me in January
as we listen to some bright preacher’s son
recite, ‘I Have a Dream.’
Then both of us on St. Patrick’s Day
will don green paper derbies and broad sashes,
clutch blackthorn sticks
and arm in arm step off lively
behind the wailing pipes of the Shannon Rovers
as the Irish, green beer in hand,
jeer and hiss us both as interlopers and pretenders.”
—Patrick MurfinMayor Harold Washington and Bishop Alfred L. Abramowicz at the first official City of Chicago celebration of Pulaski Day, March 2, 1986. The Mayor was a significant player in the deal that traded Pulaski Day for a Martin Luther King Day celebration.
As for the Illinois Holiday, it has come in for hard times. Concerned with lost instructional times because of several holidays including the State observance of Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday and Veterans Day on November 11, the legislature made school closing optional with an application for an easily obtained waiver. Over 75% of Illinois school districts have done just that. Even in Chicago in 2012 the Public Schools contract with the Chicago Teachers Union allowed that massive system to opt out. Poles were enraged but their political clout has greatly diminished as many of second and third generation have assimilated and relocated to suburbia as part of the general ethnic White Flight. They have left behind vibrant but shrunken neighborhoods where the elderly first generation immigrants of the Post World War II years mingle with recent arrivals, many of them undocumented. From de facto control of broad swaths of the Northwest, Southwest, and East sides. Their political influence has shrunk to a handful of wards largely supplanted by the rising Latino communities, and the reverse migration from the suburbs of young professionals and hipsters.