Here’s the last Polish joke ever: How many Poles does it take to build a proper for­ti­fi­cation of the Hudson Valley? Answer: Only one if his name is Thaddeus Kosciuszko. Thaddeus who? Kosciuszko. Pho­net­i­cally pro­nounced, “Kos-​​chews-​​ko.”

Pulitzer Prize wining jour­nalist Alex Storozynski has written a com­pelling biog­raphy of this important Polish freedom fighter who lent his mil­itary, engi­neering and philo­sophic prowess to the American Rev­o­lution. Unless you are a Cal­i­fornia trans­plant from New York or maybe east of Ohio, where there are any number of mon­u­ments hon­oring him, you’ve probably never heard of Kosciuszko. After reading this amazing biog­raphy, I started pulling down my own books to see how I could have missed him.

Not a word of him in my college text; only a short note under Foreign Vol­un­teers and Mer­ce­naries in Schlesinger’s Almanac of American History; then name only under Aid From Dis­tin­guished For­eigners in Bear and Bagley’s 1934 edition of The History of the American People; but at least a picture of Kosciuszko’s memorial pedestal at West Point was included with his name in the 1883 edition of Lothrop’s Library of Enter­taining History/​History American People.

Storozynski’s writing is not the dry stuff of mil­itary history remem­bered from high school. He has given us the full coun­te­nance of this remarkable Polish nobleman who was drawn to the rev­o­lution in America by his desire to free his own beloved Poland from the tyranny of Russia. Earnest and ide­al­istic, Kosciuszko arrived in Philadelphia in August 1776, pre­sented himself without letters of intro­duction to Ben­jamin Franklin, and offered his mil­itary and engi­neering ser­vices to the new Con­ti­nental Army.

Kosciuszko’s romantic back­ground includes a thwarted love, an immense appre­ci­ation of women, and a strong sense of loyalty and devotion to his country and ours. Kosciuszko stead­fastly believed that all people, European serfs, American slaves, American Indians, Chris­tians of all ilks, Jews, Muslims, all had a right to live as free cit­izens in a republic world.

Storozynski’s description of mil­itary life in the Con­ti­nental army was par­tic­u­larly enlight­ening. Take away the heroic officers’ swords, pistols and rifles, and what remained was their back­stabbing, lying, and slan­derous efforts to improve their mil­itary standing over each other. But it was the modest and almost unas­suming Kosciuszko whose engi­neering skills, talent for knowing just where to build redoubts, those out­works pro­tecting the larger, per­manent for­ti­fi­ca­tions, that gave the Con­ti­nental sol­diers a critical edge in spite of being out­num­bered by the more heavily armed British. We can thank Kosciuszko for our success at Saratoga and West Point and in securing the war effort in the south. Benedict Arnold’s downfall was his trai­torous attempt to sell Kosciouszko’s West Point plans to the British.

Kosciuszko returned to Poland at the end the American Rev­o­lu­tionary War, more certain than ever that European feu­dalism must come to an end. He left without being paid, but asked Jef­ferson to use that money to free and educate Jefferson’s slaves.

Kosciuszko’s return to Poland, and his lead­ership in two failed attempts to drive out the Rus­sians, Prus­sians, Aus­trians, and everyone else staking a claim to what was once Poland, is as stir­ringly and com­pellingly told as his involvement in the American Rev­o­lution. He returned to America once before his death in Switzerland. It would be another 100 years before Poland was returned to nationhood.

Storozynski’s book pulls the American Rev­o­lution and it’s death knell of aris­tocracy into the machi­na­tions of similar bell ringing in Europe. His ren­dering of a world more than 200 years ago has an eerie imme­diacy in light of today’s glob­al­ization. Read this book. Learn how to say Kosciusko. It is a name you will not soon forget.


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