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  • James Houser

March 24, 1794 - Kosciuszko Uprising

Updated: Jun 4, 2021

March 24, 1794. Tadeusz Kosciuszko stands in the old town square of Krakow, Poland and proclaims a general Polish uprising against the Prussian and Russian forces that occupy his native land. Kosciuszko, Washington's Chief Engineer, designer of West Point and a veteran of the American War of Independence, will lead his country in its final doomed struggle for freedom.

By the early 1700s, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (hereafter referred to for brevity’s sake as Poland) had entered a period of serious decline. Technically an elective monarchy where the king was elected by the Sejm, an ultra-powerful Parliament, the country had fallen deeply into the grip of the politically conservative body. The Sejm blocked almost all reforms, refused any new taxes, denied funds for improvements, and kept the military tiny. This political calcification meant that Poland declined compared to its rapidly strengthening neighbors – Prussia, the Tsarist Russian Empire, and the Habsburgs of Austria.

By the 1780s, Poland was almost a shell of its former self and fully within the Russian sphere of influence. Its tiny army was unable to resist the First Partition in 1772, when Prussia, Austria, and Russia had agreed to split off slices of Poland – if one power got a piece, all would get a piece – and the Polish military was helpless to do anything about it.

The last major effort at reform came in 1788 with the Great Sejm, which was determined to save the dying state while all its major enemies were distracted with foreign affairs. On May 3, 1791, the new Polish Constitution was passed, largely based both on the United States Constitution that had been signed three years beforehand in Philadelphia. This document established a constitutional monarchy, stripping many powers from the nobility but granting rights to the people of Poland – even Jews! – and enfranchising the population to vote for their assembly. It was, at its time, the most radical and democratic document ever passed in Europe.

Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, was infuriated. The Prussians, too, were unhappy, and both determined to invade and overthrow the new constitutional Polish government before they somehow got their act together and managed to challenge the status quo. In this effort they found allies in the Polish nobles, angered at their loss of privilege.

The Russians invaded, and the King and his constitutional government were nearly helpless. In 1793, at the point of Russian bayonets, a new assembly “revoked” the Constitution and agreed to a Second Partition – stripping almost half of Poland’s territory and awarding it to Prussia and Russia. The tiny Polish kingdom left was occupied by Russian troops.

The Partitions of Poland, 1772-1795

It may have seemed hopeless, but one man could not take it lying down.

Tadeusz Kosciuszko was one of the Army’s best generals and an ardent liberal and revolutionary. Kosciuszko had a fascinating history: he had been among a number of Poles exiled after a previous rebellion against the Russians who journeyed to America when its Revolution broke out. Kosciuszko became a vital aid to the Colonies, designing the defenses that beat the British at Saratoga, constructing the fortifications at West Point (where his statue still stands), and serving as Greene’s chief engineer in the Southern Campaign, including the Race to the Dan and Guilford Court House.

Kosciuszko was a born Revolutionary fighter, and one used to being an underdog. Kosciuszko had returned to Poland in 1784, and led troops against the Russians in 1792-93. Although he won every battle, the Russians were too strong and had ultimately overwhelmed the tiny Polish army. Now, Kosciuszko was possibly his country’s last hope.

Tadeusz Kosciuszko, painted c. 1802 by Karl Gottlieb Schweikart

On March 23, 1794, Kosciuszko appeared in Krakow, the second city of Poland after Warsaw, the morning after a diversion had drawn the Russian troops from the city. In the city square, he delivered his famous address to the massed people of the town. He assumed the powers of Commander in Chief of the Polish Army, and promised to “defend the integrity of the borders of Poland, regain the independence of the nation, and to strengthen universal liberties.”

"Tadeusz Kosciuszko Taking the Oath" by Franciszek Smuglewicz, 1797

It was glorious, brave, and noble. But it was sadly doomed. Unlike the American Revolution, where a small island nation had tried to hold down almost half a continent hundreds of miles away, Russia had very large armies right on Poland’s doorstep and they were not messing around. Catherine the Great was a magnificent and ruthless ruler, and Russia had never – maybe has never – been better governed than in the 1780s and 1790s. The Russian overall commander was Alexander Suvorov, who was not an idiot – in fact, he stands a good claim to being one of the best generals of all time and was certainly among the best of his age.

The only real hope was to gain an early victory over the Russians in order to rouse the population to general resistance – and to pray the Prussians and Austrians stayed out of the conflict, especially since they were at war with the French Revolution and this might distract them. The Kosciuszko Uprising, as it came to be known, had a very narrow window of opportunity. Suvorov was off in Moldavia fighting the Turks, and they could possibly win victories before he arrived.

Kosciuszko gathered a small army of 4,000 soldiers and 2,000 recruits and marched on Warsaw. A Russian army gathered to confront him, but somehow Kosciuszko’s volunteers overwhelmed the tough Russians at Raclawice on April 4. Kosciusko personally led an infantry charge by peasants armed with nothing but scythes against Russian cannon that carried the day. This enabled him to capture Warsaw, but now the real struggle was to defend what he had.

"Battle of Raclawice" by Jan Matejko, 1888

For most of the summer and into autumn, Kosciuszko barely held on to his little strip of Poland, defending Warsaw from both Prussian troops coming from Berlin and the growing numbers of Russians. He encouraged uprisings across the nation to try and scatter the enemy forces – a guerrilla campaign to wear his opponents down so his main force could gain strength to win another major victory. But time was running out. The Prussians were pulling troops from their war against France to suppress the Poles, and Suvorov was coming in from the east like a buzzsaw.

On October 10, while forcing back another Russian sally, the Uprising lost its leader. Kosciuszko was wounded and captured by Russian forces at the Battle of Maciejowice. A bounty had been placed on his head, “dead or alive,” and it was only through sheer luck that he had not been murdered on the spot.

Imprisoned in Saint Petersburg, Kosciuszko could only hear of the fate of his doomed and heroic struggle secondhand. Suvorov stormed Warsaw, and his Russian troops massacred as many as 20,000 civilians in the sack of the city. The subsequent Third Partition of Poland erased Poland from the map, splitting it between the victorious Great Powers and ending the existence of an independent Poland until the conclusion of World War I.

"Slaughter of Praga" by Alexander Orkowski, 1810

Tadeusz Kosciuszko was eventually released by the Russian government, and made his way to America. Throughout the 1790s and 1800s, he bounced America and Europe; he spent a great deal of time with his friend Thomas Jefferson. In 1798, Kosciuszko went to Revolutionary France and remained active in Polish émigré circles there during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods. He refused offers from both Napoleon and Russian Tsar Alexander I to place him at the head of a revived Poland, perceiving that any such nation would be, in his words, “a joke” and a puppet of its imperial overlords – which turned out to be the case.

Kosciuszko died in 1817 in Switzerland, and was placed in the crypt of Wawel Cathedral in Poland, a resting place for Polish kings and national heroes. In his will, he left a great sum of money to be dedicated to buying and freeing American slaves. Due to the legal complications of American slavery, none of the money was ever used for this purpose, but ended up well nevertheless: it was used to set up an educational institute in Newark for the schooling of free blacks in the United States. Kosciuszko, a lifelong advocate of abolition, had freed all the serfs on his own lands years before.

Kosciuszko has the strange honor to be a national independence hero in both the United States and Poland, and was arguably more critical to America’s independence than his own. There are monuments to him around the world, including many cities in America (DC, Chicago, West Point, Boston, Philly, etc.), Poland, and Belarus. The tallest mountain in Australia is Mount Kosciuszko, there is a Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial at his temporary residence in Philadelphia, and two bridges at Albany and New York to remember him by. He may be the most popular foreigner in America after the Marquis de Lafayette.

Kosciuszko’s Uprising had only served to bring about the premature end of Poland – but most Poles to this day believe that it was better to go out swinging than slowly fall under German or Russian domination. Do not go gentle into that good night.

Book Recommendation: For a truly epic history of Poland, see Norman Davies, God's Playground: A History of Poland in Two Volumes (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

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