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date: 11 November 2019

Kościuszko, Tadeusz Andrzej Bonawenturafree

(12 February 1746–15 October 1817)
  • Harry M. Ward

Tadeusz Kościuszko.

Engraving by H. B. Hall, after a painting by Joseph Grassi.

Courtesy of the National Archives (NWDNS-148-GW-611).

Kościuszko, Tadeusz Andrzej Bonawentura (12 February 1746–15 October 1817), revolutionary war officer and leader for Polish independence, was born at one of his family’s estates, either “Mereczowszczyna” or “Siechnowicze,” both near Kosów, Poland, the son of Ludwig Tadeusz Kościuszko, an army colonel and member of the minor gentry, and Thecla Ratomska. As the youngest of four sons, Kościuszko could share in inheritance but not control of the family estates. Thus he chose an army career. His father died in 1758, and his mother ten years later. After being tutored by an uncle and briefly attending a Jesuit school in Brześć, Kościuszko, from 1755 to 1760, studied at a school of the Piarist Fathers in Lubieszów, near Pinsk. Sponsored by Prince Casimir Czartoryski, Kościuszko entered the Royal Corps of Cadets at the Royal Military School in Warsaw in December 1765. After one year he was an ensign and an instructor of students; in 1768 he was promoted to captain, graduating the following year.

Kościuszko received a royal scholarship and borrowed money from his brother to enroll at the École Militaire in Paris in 1769. He subsequently studied artillery and engineering in Mézières, France, and for about a year he attended the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in Paris. Kościuszko became a skilled artist and draftsman, and many of his sketchings have been preserved.

Kościuszko returned to Poland in 1774. Poland had experienced its first partition, and the army was almost nonexistent. His brother’s mismanagement had left the family estates on the verge of bankruptcy. Kościuszko fell passionately in love with Ludwika Sosnowska, whose father, a wealthy nobleman, put an end to the relationship. Kościuszko would never marry. Brokenhearted and with no possibility of career advancement in Poland, Kościuszko decided to seek his fortune abroad. He probably was acquainted with Charles Lee (1731–1782), who served in the Polish army from 1765 to 1770 as an honorary major general and subsequently held a high military command in America. With a loan from his brother-in-law, Kościuszko went to America to obtain an officer’s commission from Congress. Awaiting Congress’s decision after arriving at Philadelphia on 30 August 1776, he was employed by the Pennsylvania Committee of Defense to lend his engineering talents in the construction of American forts on the Delaware River. On 18 October 1776 Congress appointed Kościuszko a colonel of engineers.

Kościuszko joined the northern army at Ticonderoga, where he sought to establish a wide range of fortifications on the hills surrounding the fort and especially to make Mount Defiance a main line of defense. His advice went unheeded, and a British army under General John Burgoyne, by emplacing big guns on Mount Defiance, was able to capture Fort Ticonderoga on 5 July 1777. As engineer to the northern army under General Horatio Gates, Kościuszko selected the battlefield and supervised fortifications that contributed to the American victory at Saratoga on 17 October 1777.

From March 1778 to June 1780 Kościuszko was responsible for building the defenses at West Point. He cultivated a garden that is still maintained at the U.S. Military Academy as “Kościuszko’s Garden.” When Gates assumed the command of the southern army, he invited Kościuszko to be chief of engineers for the Southern Department. Kościuszko arrived in the South after Gates’s disastrous defeat at Camden, South Carolina. Gates was replaced by General Nathanael Greene, with whom Kościuszko served during the remainder of the war. During the winter of 1780–1781 Kościuszko had charge of reconnaissance of the Catawba River and supervised transportation of Greene’s army as it raced to and crossed the Dan River. One of Kościuszko’s feats was the building of wagons, with detachable wheels, that could also serve as boats. At the unsuccessful siege of Ninety-Six, South Carolina, 22 May–19 June 1781, he was criticized for convincing Greene to concentrate the attack on the enemy’s strongest position and for erecting siege works too close to the enemy’s fortifications. During 1782, near Charleston, South Carolina, Kościuszko acted primarily as a cavalry officer. At war’s end he was brevetted a brigadier general (13 Oct. 1783). He helped found the Society of the Cincinnati in 1783.

In summer 1784 Kościuszko returned to Poland and settled at Siechnowicze in the role of a small landlord. In October 1789 he received a commission as major general in the Polish army. He led a radical reform of the Polish army, recruiting peasants as regular soldiers. Leading Polish forces in the war with Russia that began in 1792, he managed to save the Polish army from annihilation at Dubienka, 18 July 1792. King Stanislaw Augustus made him a lieutenant general and conferred upon him the citation of Virtuti Militari, Poland’s highest military honor. With the defeat of the Polish army, Kościuszko went into exile at Leipzig, Saxony. Returning to Poland in 1794, he assumed military and political leadership for Polish independence. He wrote and promulgated the “Act of Insurrection,” similar to America’s Declaration of Independence, and also the “Manifesto of Polanliec,” which called for freeing the serfs. He was victorious at the battle of Raclawice, 4 April 1794, and turned back the Prussians at the siege of Warsaw, but Kościuszko’s army was defeated at Szczekociny, when Prussian troops arrived to assist the Russians. Kościuszko suffered a decisive defeat by the Russians at Maciejowice, 10 October 1794, where he was severely wounded from a lance through a thigh and a sword blow to the head. Captured, he spent two years in Russian prisons. Poland ceased to exist after the third partition in 1795. Upon Catherine II’s death, Kościuszko won favor from the new tsar, Paul I, who treated him as a war hero.

Leaving Russia in 1797, Kościuszko visited England, where the king’s doctors attended to his wounds, and then the United States, arriving at Philadelphia on 18 August 1797. He received a hero’s welcome. Congress provided him pay for his war services in the amount of $18,912.03, $2,947.33 for four years of interest on the debt, and 500 acres of land in Ohio.

In May 1798 Kościuszko left the United States for Paris, where he lived for the next three years. In 1800 he wrote, in French, a manual, Manoeuvres of Horse Artillery, published in English in the United States in 1808. The handbook became widely used by the American army, and Kościuszko has been regarded as the father of American artillery tactics.

Kościuszko preferred exile from his native land because of the foreign oppression. From 1801 to 1815 he lived with the family of Peter Joseph Zeltner, first minister of the Helvetian Republic, at Berville, Switzerland. From 1815 until his death Kościuszko resided with the family of Franz Xavier Zeltner at Solothurn, Switzerland. Tsar Alexander I invited Kościuszko to the Congress of Vienna in 1814; Kościuszko attended but was disappointed that nothing was done to liberate Poland. Thomas Jefferson and Kościuszko were frequent correspondents from 1798 until Kościuszko’s death. In a letter to Jefferson dated 5 November 1805, Kościuszko wrote, “It is pusillanimity and indecision which destroy Nations, but never their valor and order.” Kościuszko donated the proceeds from the sale of his Ohio lands to establish the Colored School at Newark, New Jersey. Before he died at Solothurn, he emancipated his serfs. In 1818 his body was transferred from Switzerland to a crypt in the cathedral at Cracow; his heart was preserved in an urn for museum display, and his intestines were interred at Zuchwil, Poland.

Kościuszko was a hero in the cause of liberty on two continents, exemplifying republican virtue by his public service and defense of liberty. He was self-effacing to the point of refusing to seek promotion in the American army, and he looked after the welfare of the common soldier. Jefferson said of Kościuszko in a letter to Gates, 21 February 1798, “He is as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known, and of liberty which is to go to all, and not to the few and rich alone.”


Kościuszko’s papers are in the Archives and Museum of the Polish Catholic Union of America, Chicago. His correspondence is scattered in collections of Continental army officers, including the George Washington Papers, Library of Congress. Some of the military material is published in Metchie J. E. Budka, ed., Autograph Letters of Thaddeus Kosciuszko in the American Revolution (1977). Kościuszko’s role in the southern campaigns can be traced in Richard K. Showman, ed., The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, vols. 4–7 (1986–1994), and successive volumes. For a bibliography, see Janina W. Hoskins, comp., Tadeusz Kosciuszko 1746–1817, A Selective List of Reading Materials in English (1980). The definitive biography, in two parts, is Miecislaus Haiman, Kosciuszko in the American Revolution (1943) and Kosciuszko: Leader and Exile (1946). The latter contains Kościuszko-Jefferson correspondence, 1798–1817, in full or summarized. A good, popular biography is Monica M. Gardner, Kosciuszko: A Biography, rev. ed. (1942).