Thaddeus Kosciuszko, born on the 4th February 1746 in Mieračoŭščyna as Andrzej Tadeusz Bonawentura Kościuszko, died on the 15th October 1817 in Solothurn, Switzerland).
The fourth child of an impoverished nobleman, Colonel Ludwik Tadeusz Kosciuszko, he commenced his education in a Piarist school in Lubieszów in 1755. Orphaned, he had to quit school in 1760, but thanks to support from the Czartoryski family, he was able to continue his education in the School of Chivalry. As an extremely talented student, he was awarded a royal scholarship and went on to study fine arts in Paris. However, he was more interested in military engineering which he studied with private tutors (as a foreigner, he could not be admitted to a French military academy).
Upon his return to Poland in 1775, he found himself unemployed. A quarrel over the family inheritance with his brother Józef did not fill him with optimism either. Unhappily in love with a hetman’s daughter, Ludwika Sosnowska, he decided to leave the country. He travelled via Dresden and Paris to North America. It was not an easy journey, since the ship he boarded was shipwrecked. Despite these obstacles, he reached the American coast in 1776.
The well-educated, talented military engineer and gunner applied to the American Congress for a position in the army. Although the Americans lacked men, they lacked money even more. Therefore, they were reluctant to employ professional officers who had to be paid well. Finally, Kosciuszko received his commission (the 18th October 1777) and, as a Lieutenant of the Continental Army, made himself famous for designing and preparing the American fortification at Saratoga in 1777. Thanks to these fortifications, the Americans won their first major battle which resulted in the involvement of European states into the war.
On Washington’s order, he built forts in Philadelphia and West Point. He did an excellent job and, after the war, he was appointed an American general. Washington presented him with a pair of pistols and a sword with an engraving saying: “From America and Washington to their friend Thaddeus Kosciuszko”, which was a great honour. Kosciuszko also received the Badge of the Cincinnati Medal, but was not paid his overdue pay.
He left America after 1784 and returned to Poland to settle on his portion of the family estate in Siechnowicze. Despite a poor financial situation, he lowered his serfdom rates out of libertarian ideals.
As late as in 1789, due to the expansion of the armed forces, he received a General’s patent and an annual salary of 12 thousand zloty. Soon enough, his talents appeared to be indispensable. During the war in defence of the Constitution of 3rd May, he was in charge of the three Crown divisions. During the campaign’s largest battle at Zieleńce, he joined in at almost the last minute. But during the defence battle of Dubienka he exhibited his skills as an engineer and fortification constructor. The war ended in defeat that was blamed on the king. Even a number of medals (the Virtuti Militari and Order of the White Eagle) could not remove the feeling of bitterness. Kosciuszko immediately joined a conspiracy against the Confederation of Targowica. He was on the think tank behind the Insurrection.
On the 24th March 1794, he took a solemn oath to the Nation and launched the uprising. He turned out to be a skilled organiser and a charismatic commander. The first opportunity to confront the enemy soon came. On the 4th of April 1794 at Racławice, 4,000 soldiers and 1,920 scythemen (kosynierzy) faced General Tormasov’s 2,900 Russian soldiers. The time was running out; a larger Russian unit commanded by Denisov was stationed nearby. After a three-hour-long battle, a bold attack of a unit composed of 320 scythemen captured the Russian cannons. The triumph was immense. Kosciuszko donned a peasant coat and made the most of this military success to recruit as many peasant volunteers as possible. The same purpose governed the Declaration of Połaniec of the 7th May 1794, which reduced the extent of serfdom for volunteers and ensured the government’s protection for peasants.
Despite the fact that he could not leave Little Poland along with his troops (due to the lost battle of Szczekociny on the 6th June 1794), he managed to reach Warsaw on his own and lead the defence of the capital city. However, the defeat at Maciejowice on the 10th October 1794 and Kosciuszko being taken captive broke the insurgents’ spirits and their fire ceased in mid-November.
Kosciuszko himself was held captive in Saint Petersburg, despite his battle wounds. Released after Empress Catherine II’s death by Emperor Paul, he left for America to retrieve his overdue pay and estate. Upon recovery from his wounds, he returned to Europe, having commissioned Jefferson to sell his estate. The profits were to be used to buy out and free Negro slaves; however, Jefferson did not keep the promise. Kosciuszko returned to Europe to converse with Napoleon and Emperor Alexander on Poland’s future. He did not enter into cooperation with either of them because he believed that they were treating the Polish issue instrumentally, and was right to do so. He inspired the publication of a crucial pamphlet, ‘How Can Poles Regain Their Independence’ by J. Pawlikowski.
At the end of his life, he left for Switzerland, where he died in Solothurn in 1817. His final home houses a Kosciuszko Museum. This was not, however, the end of this hero’s odyssey. His heart was given to his landlords’ daughter, Emilia Zeltner, who presented it to the Polish Museum in Rapperswil from where, in 1927, it was relocated to the Royal Castle in Warsaw, where it remains to this day miraculously saved from the ravages of war.
In 1818, Kosciuszko’s remains were transported to Krakow, where they were buried in the royal crypts next to Prince Józef Poniatowski.
One of the world’s most renowned heroes, Kosciuszko is commemorated by statues, street names, town names and even a mountain, Mount Kosciusko, Australia’s tallest peak.
The hero was commemorated by the Polish Nation in an exceptional way – with a Mound erected in the years 1820-1823 on top of the Hill of Blessed Bronisława as a statue and a tomb, an eternal monument. The works were supervised by the Committee of Constructing the Monument to T. Kosciuszko, which has been operating ever since until the present day as the Kosciuszko Mound Committee in Krakow.
Throughout the partitions, the mound erected on a ‘single Viennese morgen’ was the only patch of Polish land that belonged to the nation – a destination for pilgrims from all of the three partitions.
He was and still remains a symbol of FREEDOM.