West Point’s existence is owed in great part to the Polish freedom fighter. .
Ironically, its role as a military academy is the result of several soldiers and legislators—including George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and John Adams—desiring to
eliminate America’s wartime reliance on foreign artillerists and engineers like Kosciuszko. While holding Kosciuszko and other foreigners who came to fight in the Continental Army in the highest regard,
they nonetheless urged for the creation of an institution devoted to the arts and sciences of warfare that would draw from a pool of colonists, thus lessening their dependence on foreign experts.
This is not to say Kosciuszko’s contributions to the cause of American freedom were overlooked. It is quite the opposite. For decades, West Point has been
the setting for countless tributes to Kosciuszko and his role in the American Revolutionary War. In 1828, cadets raised funds to erect a state to the Polish engineer’s memory. It was placed in what had
been known as Kosciuszko’s Garden, a shady spot overlooking the Hudson River, where the Revolutionary War hero took moments of infrequent rest while building the fortress.
Now, as the Military Academy at West Point celebrates its bicentennial, Kosciuszko’s contributions serve as a reminder of just how important Poles have been
in the history of this nation.
Tadeusz Andrzej Bonawentura Kosciuszko was the first distinguished military man to
come from Europe to aid the Colonists in their fight against Britain, arriving in August 1776. On October 18, 1776, Kosciuszko was offered the rank of Colonel of Engineers. He designed a system of fortifications
situated three miles downstream from Philadelphia, to protect from any possible attack by the British fleet. Kosciuszko worked on his fortifications at Billingsport and Red Bank on the Delaware River until April
1777, at which time he followed his commander General Horatio Gates northward to defend the boundaries of the Canadian Frontier.
Gates ordered him to analyze the reinforcement of defenses at Fort Ticonderoga. Kosciuszko familiarized himself with the local topography,
and decided that Sugar Loaf Hill would be the ideal spot for a battery of cannons that would defend at long range. General Gates approved this idea, but soon afterwards command changed, and the new chief of the
northern army decided that this endeavor was not necessary. Imagine his chagrin when the British approached Ticonderoga and moved their artillery into place atop Sugar Loaf Hill. Kosciuszko utilized his skills
instead by fortifying successive retreat camps in the wake of British pursuit.
When General Gates was restored to command of the northern army, he allowed Kosciuszko to select a site to station the army for what was felt to be a decisive confrontation with
the British. Kosciuszko chose Bemis Heights along the Hudson River, and fortified it with five kilometers of earthenworks. From this vantage point the Colonists defended themselves in what came to be the turning point battle in the Revolution, the Battle of Saratoga. Six months afterwards, due in large part to the acclamation of General Gates, George Washington assigned
Kosciuszko to the fortification of the fortress at West Point on the Hudson.
West Point was Kosciuszko’s greatest engineering achievement. The
fortress itself was a polygonal citadel atop a rock face 60 meters above the river. Four additional forts were situated around it, three on nearby hills
and the fourth on the river bank itself featuring a 60-ton chain with two-foot-long links meant as a barrier against British ships. Seven redoubts took
shape between the forts, and the complex design held 2,500 soldiers. The entire project took two and a half years to complete. Kosciuszko considered it a triumph greater
than his victory at Saratoga; he did it with a work force of eighty-two laborers, three masons, and one stone cutter.
In 1778, West Point served briefly as headquarters for General Washington. For years West Point remained the largest fort in America.
Many stories surround Kosciuszko’s time at West Point. He is supposed to have been given a
slave, Agrippa Hull, whom he freed immediately, and to have shared his rations with some of the captured British troops. Kosciuszko is also supposed to have laid out a garden that still remains. It
is also said that Kosciuszko had not drawn one dollar of pay for his engineering skills, and owned only the one uniform coat that a Philadelphia tailor had sewn for him in 1776.
Kosciuszko went on to fight in the partisan battles of the south as Chief Engineer under General
Nathaniel Greene. He orchestrated a series of river crossings as frontline commander, and several engineering projects during the siege of Fort Ninety-six. On December 14, 1782,
Kosciuszko rode at the head of General Greene’s units in triumph into Charleston, where he had organized a blockade, the last holdout of the war.
It wasn’t until October 1783 that Kosciuszko received the commendations he so richly deserved.
Congress promoted him to the rank of Brigadier General and granted him citizenship; he also was admitted to the Order of Cincinnati, one of only three foreigners cited as outstanding veterans of the Revolution.
After the Battle of Saratoga, Washington wrote a letter to Congress, in which he referred to
Kosciuszko as “a gentleman of science and merit” who very much deserved to be remembered. General Nathanial Greene called his chief engineer “one of the most helpful and congenial
companions,” stressing his “perseverance, determination, indefatigable efforts” as well as his
“incomparable modesty,” “From one man we can have but one life,” President Thomas Jefferson
wrote about Kosciuszko, “and you gave us the most valuable and active part of yours, and we are now enjoying and improving its effects. Every sound American, sincere votary of freedom loves
and honors you ...”
Jefferson is also credited as saying of Kosciuszko “He was as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known.”
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