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Thaddeus Kosciuszko - One of America's Founding Fathers

Posted on Friday, January 17, 2020

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Birth: February 4, 1746
Death: October 15, 1817 (age 71)
Colony: Pennsylvania
Occupation: Military Engineer, Statesman
Significance: Served as Colonel of Engineers in the Continental Army (1776-1783); and served as Commander in Chief of Polish-Lithuanian forces in the Kosciuszko Uprising (1794)

Tadeusz Kosciuszko Portrait located in the Second Bank of the United States Portrait Gallery

Thaddeus Kosciuszko was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Kosciuszko was born and raised in Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to an upper class military family. Kosciuszko was educated in Poland, and he graduated from what is now Warsaw University in 1766 with a military based education. After completing his degree, Kosciuszko traveled to Paris and continued his education. Kosciuszko studied art and French Enlightenment philosophy. While in Paris in 1775, he heard about the American Revolution and was inspired by the fight for human rights, so he decided to set sail for America. 

Arriving in Philadelphia in August of 1776, Kosciuszko applied to join the Continental Army, and the Second Continental Congress quickly named Kosciuszko a Colonel of Engineers in the Continental Army. After succeeding in his initial assignments, Kosciuszko was sent to serve under General Horatio Gates who commanded the Continental Army in the Northern Theater of the Revolutionary War. After the Continental Army lost Fort Ticonderoga to the British, Gates had Kosciuszko select the most defensible piece of land in the area and fortify it for an armed conflict with the British.

It was Kosciuszko who chose to fight at Saratoga, and Kosciuszko set up the American defenses. The Battles of Saratoga ended up being enormous victories for America since these resulted in the surrender of General Burgoyne and his soldiers. The battle was also a major turning point in the American Revolution since it convinced the French to join the American Revolution as allies of the new United States of America. Kosciuszko, as the military engineer who made many of the key decisions that led to success at Saratoga, could be viewed as one of the men most responsible for one of the most important military victories in American history.

Kosciuszko remained in New York until 1780 when he was transferred to serve under General Nathanael Greene who commanded the Continental Army in the Southern Theater. Under Greene, Kosciuszko continued to display great skill as a military engineer and was also given battlefield command during some conflicts. Following the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, Kosciuszko like many Continental Army soldiers had a lot of difficulty collecting his pay, and he was thus without means to travel back to Poland. Finally, after roughly a year of living in Philadelphia, Kosciuszko received a fraction of the pay he was owed and departed for Poland.

Back home, Kosciuszko found his country in turmoil, since the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was beset by enemies at all sides and a struggling economy. Kosciuszko enlisted in the Polish-Lithuanian Army, where he used his experience in the American Revolution to quickly establish himself as a military leader. Kosciuszko fought against an invading Russian Army, but the Russians were able to take control of Poland in 1792. In 1794, Kosciuszko led an insurrection against the occupying Russian Army known as "Kosciuszko's Uprising" but Kosciuszko was again unable to defeat the much larger Russian Army, and was he injured, captured, and imprisoned by Russia.

When Kosciuszko was freed after the death of Catherine the Great in 1796, Kosciuszko returned to the United States and settled in Philadelphia. Kosciuszko returned to Philadelphia as a hero of the Revolutionary War and rekindled friendships with some of the American Founding Fathers who were living in the Capital city of Philadelphia such as then Vice President Thomas Jefferson who he continued to exchange letters with for the rest of his life. Jefferson called Kosciuszko "as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known." 

Winning his homeland's freedom served as inspiration for Kosciuszko to head back to Europe in 1798. Kosciuszko met with Napoleon Bonaparte in an attempt to reach an agreement with Napoleon that would have France help Poland take back their country in return for Kosciuszko leading Polish soldiers in service of the French. However, an agreement was never reached. Kosciuszko died in Switzerland in 1817 at the age of 71. Poland would not regain its independence until over a century later after World War I. 

Thaddeus Kosciuszko in Philadelphia

Philadelphia was the city that Kosciuszko immigrated to when he came to America to fight in the Revolutionary War. Kosciuszko stayed in Philadelphia for a brief time before he left to fight in the Revolutionary War. Kosciuszko lived in Philadelphia again at the end of the Revolutionary War while he awaited payment for his services so that he could return home to Poland. Kosciuszko again lived in Philadelphia from 1796 to 1798 after he was exiled from his homeland. During this time, Kosciuszko lived in a house that still stands today at 3rd and Pine Streets. Today the house serves as the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Kosciuszko's honor. The Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial is just 0.02 acres, and as such, it has the unique designation as the smallest National Park Service site in the United States. In comparison, the largest National Park Service site is Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska at 13.2 million acres.

There is also a statue of Kosciuszko that stands on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 18th Street. Today in Philadelphia you can visit the New Hall Military Museum and the Museum of the American Revolution, both of which house artifacts from the American Revolutionary War and pay tribute to the soldiers such as Kosciuszko who fought for American independence. Both the New Hall Military Museum and the Museum of the American Revolution are stops on The Constitutional Walking Tour! The Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial is just steps off the tour and can be visited either before or after taking The Constitutional Walking Tour.

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