For eight long and brutal years, from 1775-1783, the Continental Army fought to liberate the United States from British oppression. During the conflict, fifty thousand Continental troops were killed, wounded, died of disease or perished as prisoners of war. Not all the casualties were native-born Americans, however. Numerous European officers crossed the Atlantic and pledged fidelity to the “glorious cause.” Most famous were France’s Marquis de Lafayette and Prussia’s Baron von Steuben, both of whom remained by George Washington’s side until the final victory was won. Both men displayed military prowess on battlefields across the country, and by war’s end, they were two of Washington’s most trusted subordinates. Other foreign patriots similarly fought tenaciously against the British, and several laid down their lives on the altar of freedom. Among them was a Polish nobleman who had championed, and fought for, liberty in his native land. Though forced to flee, his ardor still burned bright. His name was Casimir Pulaski. This is the story of his faithful service to the United States as a ferocious cavalry officer.
Having entered the world at a time when most of Europe’s monarchs ruled with an iron fist, Casimir Pulaski devoted his life to freedom’s crusade. He was born in Warsaw, Poland in March 1747 to a wealthy and respected magistrate and came of age during the rule of Stanislaw Augustus, lover and puppet of Russian Empress Catherine the Great. Like his father, Casimir vehemently opposed Russian interference in Polish affairs. In 1768 he, along with the rest of the revolutionary Confederation of Bar, took up arms to drive Russian forces out of Poland. Though only twenty-one, Pulaski quickly rose to prominence among the rebellion’s leaders, often leading four thousand men at a time into battle. As fighting raged from western Poland to the Carpathian Mountains on the southern border, the zealous young officer won renown for his daring military operations against the hated enemy. In addition to guerrilla attacks on Russian supply depots, he showed no hesitation in assaulting superior forces. At the fortress of Okope, for example, he led two hundred horsemen down a rocky precipice and, screaming like the proverbial Turks, charged the Russians below. On another occasion, he lured a body of Russian soldiers into a swamp and overwhelmed them. Even when Russia drove his rebels into Hungary, Pulaski refused to surrender. Rather, he marshaled his troops, and in late 1770 he marched back into Poland, intent on capturing Warsaw. In January 1771 he achieved a stunning victory at Czenstokow where his men repulsed waves of Russians using fireballs and rocks. In the battle’s aftermath, he resumed his guerrilla attacks on the enemy before supporting a plot to abduct King Stanislaw, who had assisted the Russian war effort. The attempt failed due to the incompetence of Polish troops, and, with the aid of Austria and Prussia, Russian forces quickly crushed the rebellion. Labeled a regicide and condemned to death, Pulaski had no choice but to flee Poland in disgrace.
With nowhere to go, Casimir escaped south to Turkey, then part of the Ottoman Empire, where he pressed the country’s rulers to declare war on Russia. When his petition was rejected, he headed west. By 1776 he was in France, and it was there he first heard of the fight for liberty raging across the Atlantic. Heartened to hear of another people resisting oppression, Pulaski saw a chance for redemption. In America, he could strike the blow for freedom that had been denied him in Poland. Determined to see America victorious, Count Pulaski, as he now styled himself, met with U.S. representative Benjamin Franklin and pledged his undying fidelity to the “glorious cause.” Franklin readily accepted Pulaski and penned a glowing endorsement, calling Pulaski an “officer famous throughout Europe for his bravery and conduct in defense of the liberties of his country.” Within days, Casimir boarded a ship bound for the United States and arrived in the nascent republic in late summer 1777.
Stepping foot on American soil, Pulaski immediately travelled to George Washington’s headquarters where he so impressed the commanding general that Washington encouraged the Continental Congress to commission the Count a Continental cavalry officer. Before Congress could act, however, British General William Howe appeared outside Philadelphia, then the U.S. capital. Though without a command, Pulaski still determined to fight the British. On September 11, 1777, he watched as Hessian General Wilhelm von Knyphausen stormed across Brandywine Creek. Almost simultaneously, gunfire was heard from further north where Howe and the main army had crossed the creek and struck the American right flank. American soldiers ran in terror. Seizing the initiative, Pulaski rode to the front of the thirty horsemen comprising Washington’s personal guard, and as the general himself watched, the gallant officer charged forward. As he had in Poland, Pulaski swept into the British ranks with such ferocity the enemy was caught by complete surprise. Slashing his saber first to the right, then the left, he engaged his adversaries in hand-to-hand combat. Taking advantage of the Pole’s daring assault, Washington evacuated the army to safety. As Pulaski prepared to follow, he observed British troops closing in on the road to Chester, Pennsylvania, the Continental Army’s main supply route. Wasting no time, he assumed command of nearby Continental troops and led them against the front and flank of the British column. Once again, he stopped the advance, not only saving the army but much-needed supplies as well.
In recognition of his courageous actions, the Continental Congress commissioned Pulaski a brigadier general and gave him command of the Continental Army’s 539-man cavalry division. He first led his new command into action at the October 4th Battle of Germantown when General Washington attacked British forces outside Philadelphia. After initially driving the British back, American troops were repulsed by an enemy counter attack. As the Continental Army fell back, Pulaski, once again, held the rear guard and was the last officer to leave the field. Soon after, he took up winter quarters at Trenton, New Jersey where he ensured the region was free of Loyalist raids. He also skirmished with British forces, such as at Chestnut Hill where he killed five men and took two prisoners. At another skirmish at Haddonfield, New Jersey, in late February 1778, Pulaski audaciously led fifty horsemen in striking a 2,000-man British column, which threatened American foraging parties. During the fighting, he had five horses shot out from under him, but he refused to quit the field. When not actively engaged, he lobbied Washington and Congress to consolidate the disparate cavalry units into a unified command and use it as a mobile strike force. When such hopes proved futile, he raised his own legion, comprising over three hundred cavalry and infantry. In October he led the command against British raiders at Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey and sent them fleeing. Four months later, in February 1779, he received orders to march to South Carolina where his legion was desperately needed.
Unable to achieve a decisive victory against American forces in the northern U.S., British forces had invaded the American South and quickly captured Savannah, Georgia. Dispatched to Charleston to join General Benjamin Lincoln, Pulaski reached the city on May 11th, the same day as British forces. Without stopping to rest, the general led his troopers along the road leading out of Charleston and met the advancing British in open battle. Twice, he charged British lines, and despite heavy casualties, he so overawed the British they halted their advance, allowing Lincoln time to bring in additional reinforcements and save the city. As the townspeople breathed a sigh of relief, they hailed Casimir Pulaski as a national hero. While he welcomed such acclaim, the Count recognized British forces still menaced Charleston from their base at Savannah. Along with General Lincoln, Pulaski determined the best way to keep Charleston safe was by driving into Georgia and recapturing the British bastion.
Along with General Lincoln, Pulaski advanced south and arrived outside Savannah in late September where they were joined by French Admiral Comte d’Estaing. The two armies quickly surrounded the five British redoubts protecting the city, and on October 9, 1779 the attack began. D’Estaing led four thousand French and American troops against the redoubt at Spring Hill. As the Allies pressed forward, British artillery opened fire. D’Estaing himself fell with wounds to the arm and leg. Seeing their commander struck down, the assault began to falter. It was at this critical moment that General Casimir Pulaski appeared on the scene. He galloped to the front of the charge and attempted to rally the retreating soldiers. Seeing the enemy defenses just a few yards ahead, he determined to push into the British works. Shouting for two hundred horsemen to follow him, he ploughed forward. Suddenly, a British artillery round struck him in the groin and upper right thigh. He was carried to the brig Wasp where surgeons worked diligently to save this remarkable warrior. Sadly, gangrene set in, and the man who opposed tyranny on two continents died of his wounds on October 11th. Accounts vary as to Pulaski’s final resting place, but it is known that upon the Wasp’s arrival in Charleston, South Carolina, the city held a grand procession commemorating all Casimir Pulaski had done for the cause of freedom.
Although not born in the United States, Casimir Pulaski embraced the highest ideals that Americans have always held dear. He sought to bring liberty and justice to his native Poland and risked death to defy tyrannical Russia. He enthusiastically battled freedom’s enemies, and even when he was driven out of his homeland, he refused to forsake the cause. Instead, he found a land that loved liberty as much as he did. To this new country, he gave what Abraham Lincoln later called the “last full measure of devotion.” America so valued his heroic service that in 2009 he was made an honorary citizen of the United States — only the seventh person ever to receive the honor. Today, America fondly refers to Lafayette as “the Marquis” and to von Steuben as “the Baron.” In the same spirit, Casimir Pulaski deserves remembrance as “the Count.”