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Casimir Pulaski

[kas' u mEr pu las' kE] "Father of the United States Cavalry"

Casimir Pulaski

Casimir Pulaski was born in Warka Winiary (Warsaw), Poland, on March 4, 1745, one of three sons and five daughters of Count Jozef Pulaski, a lawyer, and Marianna Zielinska. When he was eight, his father bought him a pony, and he quickly became a very able rider. In 1762, he became a page of Carl Christian Joseph of Saxony, Duke of Courland, and a vassal of the Polish king. Soon after his arrival, however, the ducal court was expelled from its palace by Russian forces occupying the area. Returning to Warsaw, Pulaski took part in the 1764 election of Stanislaw II August as the new Polish king, and soon after became part of the Polish resistance to Russian rule.

In 1768, Casimir joined his father and other nobles in the establishment of the Bar Confederation, which aimed to wrest Poland from Russian control. He quickly established himself as a very able cavalry commander, and became the Confederation's Commander-in-Chief in 1771. That same year, however, he was implicated in a plot to kidnap the Polish king and was sentenced to death. Pulaski escaped custody and fled the country, first to Turkey and then to France.

By 1777, Pulaski was in Paris, where Benjamin Franklin was engaged in recruiting European military leaders to help America gain its freedom from Great Britain. Sympathetic to America's cause, Pulaski agreed to help. Franklin wrote him a letter of introduction describing him as "...the young Pole as an officer, renowned throughout Europe for the courage and bravery he displayed in defense of his country's freedom." He arrived in Philadelphia on July 23, 1777, and his offer of service was quickly accepted by the Continental Congress.

Pulaski's first American action came on September 11, 1777, when he saved General George Washington and his army at Brandywine. Pulaski was the leader of the scouting party that discovered the British flanking movement, and a viable escape route for the Americans. He gathered all available cavalry to cover the Americans' retreat, and led a dashing charge that took the British completely by surprise and allowed the Americans to escape. Washington thanked Pulaski by having Congress appoint him Brigadier General of the Cavalry. Pulaski subsequently saved the army from a surprise at Warren Tavern, near Philadelphia, took part in the Battle of Germantown, and in the winter of 1777/78 engaged in the operations of General Anthony Wayne.

On March 28, 1778, Pulaski received permission from Congress to form a special infantry and cavalry unit capable of independent action. He spent five months assembling and training the Pulaski Legion at his headquarters in Baltimore, and even spent his own money to insure that it was equipped with the best horses and equipment. That autumn he was ordered to Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey. A Hessian deserter betrayed Pulaski's location to the British, who staged a night raid. Pulaski was able to repel the attack, but his legion suffered the loss of forty men. He spent that winter at Minisink, at that time in New Jersey. In February of 1779, the Pulaski Legion was sent to reinforce American forces at Charleston, South Carolina. The Legion arrived there on May 8, and then helped successfully defend the town against a much larger force.

On October 9, 1779, the Pulaski Legion was engaging the British at Savannah when Pulaski fell wounded from his horse. The British, who had gained much respect for the Polish officer, allowed his men to carry him from the field before resuming their attack. Contemporary accounts say that Pulaski was taken to a ship in Savannah Harbor called The Wasp, where he died two days later and was buried at sea. There is some evidence, however, that Pulaski was taken into Savannah for treatment and that he lingered until October 15, when he succumbed to gangrene. It is likewise unclear exactly how Pulaski was wounded, but it is widely believed that he was struck in the thigh by British grapeshot.

the felling of Casimir Pulaski
the felling of Casimir Pulaski

Regardless of the exact circumstances, Pulaski's death was deeply mourned. A solemn memorial was held in Charleston soon after his death, and Congress resolved that a monument to him should be erected. Monuments to Pulaski were subsequently erected in many communities, including Savannah; a statue of him on horseback was finally placed in Washington, D.C., in 1910. In addition to monuments, a number of towns and counties were named in his honor, and he has been formally titled "Father of the United States Cavalry." On November 6, 2009, President Barack Obama signed a bill granting U.S. citizenship to Pulaski, making him only the sixth person in U.S. history to be granted posthumous citizenship.

Pulaski Monument in Washington, D.C.
Pulaski Monument in Washington, D.C.


Polish American Center

See Also

Benjamin Franklin
George Washington
Anthony Wayne
Charleston, South Carolina

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The Robinson Library >> The Revolution, 1775-1783 >> Biography, A-Z

This page was last updated on October 09, 2018.