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American Revolution: Count Casimir Pulaski

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American Revolution: Count Casimir Pulaski

Count Casimir Pulaski

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Casimir Pulaski - Early Life & Career:

Born March 6, 1745 at Warsaw, Poland, Casimir Pulaski was the son of Jozef and Marianna Pulaski. Schooled locally, Pulaski attended the college of Theatines in Warsaw but did not complete his education. The Advocatus of the Crown Tribunal and the Starosta of Warka, Pulaski's father was a man of influence and was able to obtain for his son the position of page to Carl Christian Joseph of Saxony, Duke of Courland in 1762. Living in the duke's household in Mitau, Pulaski and the remainder of the court were effectively kept captive by the Russians who held hegemony over the region. Returning home the following year, he received the title of starost of Zezulińce. In 1764, Pulaski and his family supported the election of Stanisław August Poniatowski as King and Grand Duke of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Casimir Pulaski - War of the Bar Confederation:

By late 1767, the Pulaskis had become dissatisfied with Poniatowski who proved unable to curb Russian influence in the Commonwealth. Feeling that their rights were being threatened, they joined with other nobles in early 1768 and formed a confederation against the government. Meeting at Bar, Podolia, they formed the Bar Confederation and began military operations. Appointed as a cavalry commander, Pulaski began agitating among government forces and was able to secure some defections. On April 20, he won his first battle when he clashed with the enemy near Pohorełe. Despite this initial success, he was beaten eight days later. On June 16, Pulaski was captured after attempting to hold the monastery in Berdyczów. Taken by the Russians, they freed him on June 28 after compelling him to pledge that he would not play any further role in the war and that he would work to end the conflict.

Returning to the Confederation's army, Pulaski promptly renounced the pledge stating that it had been make under duress and therefore was not binding. Resuming active duty in September 1768, he was able to escape the siege of Okopy Świętej Trójcy early the following year. As 1768 progressed, Pulaski conducted an ineffective campaign in Lithuania but succeeded in bringing 4,000 recruits back for the Confederation. Over the next year, Pulaski developed a reputation as one of the Confederation's best field commanders. As a result, he received an appointment to the War Council in March 1771. Despite his skill, he proved difficult to work with and often preferred to operate independently rather than in concert with his allies. That fall, the Confederation commenced a plan to kidnap the king. Though initially resistant, Pulaski later agreed to the plan on the condition that Poniatowski not be harmed.

Casimir Pulaski - Fall from Power:

Moving forward, the plot failed and those involved were discredited. Increasingly distancing himself from his allies, Pulaski spent the winter and spring of 1772 operating around Częstochowa. In May, he departed the Commonwealth and traveled to Silesia. While in Prussian territory, the Bar Confederation was finally defeated. Tried in absentia, Pulaski was later stripped of his titles and sentenced to death should he ever return to Poland. Seeking employment, he unsuccessfully attempted to obtain a commission in the French Army and later sought to create a Confederation unit during the Russo-Turkish War. With the failure of this scheme, Pulaski returned to France where he was imprisoned for debts in 1775. After six weeks in prison, his friends secured his release.

Casimir Pulaski - Coming to America:

In late summer 1776, Pulaski wrote to the leadership Poland and asked to be allowed to return home. Not receiving a reply, he began to discuss the possibility of serving in the American Revolution with his friend Claude-Carloman de Rulhière. Connected to the Marquis de Lafayette and Benjamin Franklin, Rulhière was able to arrange a meeting. This gathering went well and Franklin was highly impressed with the Polish cavalryman. As a result, the American envoy recommended Pulaski to General George Washington and provided a letter of introduction. Traveling to Nantes, Pulaski embarked aboard Massachusetts and sailed for America. Arriving at Marblehead, MA on July 23, 1777, he wrote to Washington and informed the American commander that "I came here, where freedom is being defended, to serve it, and to live or die for it."

Casimir Pulaski - Joining the Continental Army:

Riding south, Pulaski met Washington at the army's headquarters north of Philadelphia, PA. Demonstrating his riding ability, he also argued the merits of a strong cavalry wing for the army. Though impressed, Washington lacked the power to give the Pole a commission and a result, Pulaski was forced to spend the next several weeks communicating with the Continental Congress as he worked to secure an official rank. During this time, he traveled with the army and on September 11 was present for the Battle of Brandywine. As the engagement unfolded, he requested permission to take Washington's bodyguard detachment to scout the American right. In doing so, he found that General Sir William Howe was attempting to flank Washington's position. Later in the day, with the battle going poorly, Washington empowered Pulaski to gather available forces to cover the American retreat. Effective in this role, the Pole mounted a key charge which aided in holding back the British.

In recognition for his efforts, Pulaski was made brigadier general of cavalry on September 15. The first officer to oversee the Continental Army's horse, he became the "Father of the American Cavalry." Though only consisting of four regiments, he immediately began devising a new set of regulations and training for his men. As the Philadelphia Campaign continued, he aided Washington at the abortive Battle of the Clouds on September 15, before playing a role at the Battle of Germantown on October 4. In the wake of the defeat, Washington withdrew to winter quarters at Valley Forge. As the army encamped, Pulaski unsuccessfully argued in favor of extending the campaign into the winter months. Continuing his work to reform the cavalry, he aided Brigadier General Anthony Wayne in a successful engagement against the British at Haddonfield, NJ in February 1778. Despite Pulaski's performance and a commendation from Washington, the Pole's imperious personality and poor command of English led to tensions with his American subordinates. This was reciprocated due to late wages and Washington's denial of Pulaski's request to create a unit of lancers. As a result, Pulaski asked to be relieved of his post in March 1778.

Casimir Pulaski - Pulaski Cavalry Legion:

Later in the month, Pulaski met with Major General Horatio Gates and shared his idea of creating an independent cavalry and light infantry unit. With Gates' aid, his concept was approved by Congress. Establishing his headquarters at Baltimore, MD, Pulaski began recruiting men for his Cavalry Legion. Conducting rigorous training through the summer, the unit was plagued by a lack of financial support from Congress. As a result, Pulaski spent his own money when necessary to outfit and equip his men. Ordered to southern New Jersey that fall, part of Pulaski's command was badly defeated by Captain Patrick Ferguson at Little Egg Harbor on October 15. Riding north, the Legion wintered at Minisink. Increasingly unhappy, Pulaski indicated to Washington that he planned to return to Europe. Interceding, the American commander convinced him to stay and in February 1779 the Legion received orders to move to Charleston, SC.

Casimir Pulaski - In the South:

Arriving later that spring, Pulaski and his men were active in the defense of the city until receiving orders to march to Augusta, GA in early September. Rendezvousing with Brigadier General Lachlan McIntosh, the two commanders led their forces towards Savannah in advance of the main American army led by Major General Benjamin Lincoln. Reaching the city, Pulaski won several skirmishes and established contact with Vice Admiral Comte d'Estaing's French fleet which was operating offshore. Commencing the Siege of Savannah on September 16, the combined Franco-American forces assaulted the British lines on October 9. In the course of the fighting, Pulaski was mortally wounded by grapeshot while leading a charge forward. Removed from the field, he was taken aboard the privateer Wasp which then sailed for Charleston. Two days later Pulaski died while at sea. Pulaski's heroic death made him a national hero and a large monument was later erected in his memory in Savannah's Monterey Square.

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