Poland's Count Casimir Pulaski and His Role in the American Revolution

Brigadier General Casimir Pulaski
Photograph Source: Public Domain

Count Casimir Pulaski was a noted Polish cavalry commander who saw action during conflicts in Poland and later served in the American Revolution.

Early Life

Born March 6, 1745, in 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.

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 and achieved another triumph at Starokostiantyniv three days later. Despite these initial successes, he was beaten on April 28 at Kaczanówka. Moving to Chmielnik in May, Pulaski garrisoned the town but was later compelled to withdraw when reinforcements for his command were beaten. 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 forcing 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 made under duress and therefore was not binding. Despite this, the fact that he had made the pledge reduced his popularity and led some to question whether he should be court-martialed. 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 a campaign in Lithuania in the hopes of inciting a larger rebellion against the Russians. Though these efforts proved ineffective, he 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. Continuing to campaign, he suffered a defeat at the Battle of Wlodawa on Sept. 15, 1769, and fell back to Podkarpacie to rest and refit his men. As a result of his achievements, Pulaski 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 was not harmed.

Fall from Power

Moving forward, the plot failed and those involved were discredited and the Confederation saw its international reputation damaged. 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. Arriving in the Ottoman Empire, Pulaski made little progress before the Turks were defeated. Forced to flee, he departed for Marseilles.  Crossing the Mediterranean, Pulaski arrived in France where he was imprisoned for debts in 1775. After six weeks in prison, his friends secured his release.

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 stating that the count "was renowned throughout Europe for the courage and bravery he displayed in defense of his country's freedom." 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."

Joining the Continental Army

Riding south, Pulaski met Washington at the army's headquarters at Neshaminy Falls just 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 Sept. 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 of his efforts, Pulaski was made brigadier general of cavalry on Sept. 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 alerted Washington to the British movements that resulted in the abortive Battle of the Clouds on Sept. 15. This saw Washington and Howe briefly meet near Malvern, PA before torrential rains halted the fighting. The following month, Pulaski played a role at the Battle of Germantown on Oct. 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, his men were largely based around Trenton, NJ. While there, 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.

Pulaski Cavalry Legion

Later in the month, Pulaski met with Major General Horatio Gates in Yorktown, VA and shared his idea of creating an independent cavalry and light infantry unit. With Gates' aid, his concept was approved by Congress and he was permitted to raise a force of 68 lancers and 200 light infantry. 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 Oct. 15. This saw the Pole's men surprised as they suffered more than 30 killed before rallying. 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.

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 Oct. 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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Hickman, Kennedy. "Poland's Count Casimir Pulaski and His Role in the American Revolution." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/count-casimir-pulaski-2360607. Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). Poland's Count Casimir Pulaski and His Role in the American Revolution. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/count-casimir-pulaski-2360607 Hickman, Kennedy. "Poland's Count Casimir Pulaski and His Role in the American Revolution." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/count-casimir-pulaski-2360607 (accessed March 31, 2023).