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Wlodzimierz Krzyzanowski: Polonia’s Forgotten Hero

by James S. Pula.

Most Polish Americans are familiar with the services of Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Kazimierz Pulaski in the service of American independence, but few remember the contribution of another Pole of a later generation to the preservation of the union made possible by Kościuszko and Pulaski. The third military officer of note was Brigadier General Wlodzimierz Krzyzanowski. Born in Roznowo, Poland, in 1824, he grew up in a family deeply ingrained in the ideals of Polish patriotism. His first cousin was the Polish national composer Fryderyk Chopin, his father and both uncles fought for Polish independence under the banners of Napoleon, his brother fought in the November Uprising in 1830, and eventually he also took up the cause. Becoming involved in the conspiratorial movement led by Ludwik Mieroslawski, Krzyzanowski was forced to flee in the wake of that unsuccessful uprising. Tried in absentia by the Prussian authorities, he traveled to Hamburg where he boarded a ship for the New World to escape his Old World pursuers.

Arriving in New York unable to speak English, he found a room with a Polish livery driver, studied the new language, and gradually began to adapt to his new surroundings. After finding employment on the expanding railroads in the Midwest, he finally moved to Washington, D.C., where he married Caroline Burnett and settled into running a family pottery business. When the Civil War erupted at Ft. Sumter in April, 1861, Krzyzanowski joined the District of Columbia militia as a private soldier. When his ninety-day enlistment expired, he used his connections in the Washington immigrant community to raise a company of militia, of which he was named captain. From this beginning, he applied to the War Department and received permission to raise a regiment of infantry.

Recognizing that the population of Washington was not sufficient for his purposes, Krzyzanowski set up his headquarters in New York City, appealing to the large immigrant communities there, in Philadelphia, and throughout the eastern seaboard. Eventually, the men he raised were mustered into service as the 58th New York Volunteer Infantry, later known as the “Polish Legion.” Comprised of a mixture of German, Polish, and other immigrant men, the regiment began mustering in on October 27, 1861.

Assigned to a division of immigrant troops commanded by Gen. Ludwig Blenker, Krzyzanowski first saw combat at the Battle of Cross Keys in the Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. There, on June 8, 1862, the Union troops met a portion of Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson’s force. In the ensuing engagement, rebel troops attacked the left flank of the Union position, drove it back, and threatened to encircle Blenker’s division. In the time of crisis, Krzyzanowski led his regiment forward in a counterattack that blunted the Confederate assault and saved the Union flank from collapse.

Because of his performance at Cross Keys, when the army was reorganized later that summer Krzyzanowski found himself appointed to command of an entire brigade of four regiments assigned to the army commanded by Gen. John Pope. He led his brigade with great gallantry at the Second Battle of Bull Run, winning praise from his division commander, Gen. Karl Schurz.

On May 2, 1863, the Northern army under Gen. Joseph Hooker and Southern army under Gen. Robert E. Lee met at Chancellorsville, Virginia. After a successful march that placed the Union forces behind the Confederates, Southern General “Stonewall” Jackson secretly brought his rebel troops around the flank of the Northern army where he launched a surprise attack.

Caught unprepared, the Northern army was on the verge of a complete defeat as victorious rebels drove in the flank and threatened to capture the Union artillery and its supply wagons. One regiment after another collapsed under the onslaught. In the midst of the maelstrom of flying metal, Krzyzanowski aligned two small regiments of immigrants, his own 58th New York and the 26th Wisconsin, to meet the Confederate attack. Outnumbered by more than seven to one, the two regiments under Krzyzanowski’s personal command held fast against repeated attacks from three sides, gaining twenty minutes of valuable time during which the artillery and supply wagons were saved.

Although the battle ended in defeat for the North, Krzyzanowski won praise from his superiors for his steadfast leadership and courage.

From Chancellorsville, the armies moved north with the Union troops chasing the invading Confederates through Maryland and on north into Pennsylvania. On July 1, 1863, the two antagonists met on the fields and hills surrounding Gettysburg in the largest battle ever fought on the North American continent. Arrayed north of town, Krzyzanowski’s brigade was thrown into the middle of a raging battle when the right flank of the Union army collapsed and Confederate troops stormed toward town in an attempt to cut off the entire Northern force from its escape route. Once again outnumbered, with no defensive cover, his ranks torn by a crossfire of Confederate artillery from the flanks and savaged by rebel rifle fire from front and right, Krzyzanowski’s brigade fought desperately for its survival. All five regimental commanders were killed or wounded, casualties surpassed 50%, and Krzyzanowski himself suffered a serious injury when his horse fell on him during the conflagration. Forced to retire, the men fought grudgingly, keeping the escape route open until the rest of the army escaped and then serving as rear guard as the retreating federal forces regrouped on Cemetery Hill.

Only July 2, Krzyzanowski’s decimated force found itself in reserve near the Evergreen Cemetery near the spot where some four months later President Lincoln would deliver his famous Gettysburg Address. In the fading twilight of that evening, Confederate forces launched a surprise attack that broke through the Union lines, scaled the hill and took possession of the Northern artillery positions posted there. In those crucial few minutes, the fate of the Union truly lay in the balance. As soon as the firing began, Krzyzanowski ordered his men into line, personally leading them in an counterattack aimed at the heart of the Confederate advance. Rushing into the gun emplacements, Krzyzanowski’s men fought hand-to-hand with the enemy, gradually reclaiming the artillery and forcing the Confederates back down the hill. Southern historian Douglas Southall Freeman cited it as the closest the South came to victory at Gettysburg, but it was frustrated by the Polish colonel and his immigrant soldiers, preserving the Union victory and reversing the course of the war.

From Gettysburg, Krzyzanowski was transferred to the west where he participated in the rescuing Union forces in Chattanooga from besieging Confederates, then helped to end a similar siege at Knoxville. In the spring of 1864 he was placed in charge of a vital federal supply base and spent the rest of the war guarding railroads and Union supply lines.

Following the war, Krzyzanowski served as a military administrator in the Reconstruction government in Georgia, then accepted various positions in the federal service as a treasury agent in Louisiana, the Washington Territory, Panama, and New York City. While assigned to the Washington Territory, he became the first U.S. government official to send in a detailed report on the newly purchased area of Alaska. Krzyzanowski’s report detailed the mining and commercial activities of the area, made recommendations for administering the area, and formed the basis for the first American policies developed for the newly acquired area.

In a brief retirement in San Francisco during the 1870s, Krzyzanowski operated a tavern where he hosted meetings of Union army veterans and the local Polish immigrant community. While there, he was instrumental in arranging the American debut of the noted Polish Shakespearean actress Helena Modjeska (Helena Modrzejewska), while his tavern served as a place of relaxation where a young novelist studied the various personalities that frequented the establishment to converse and play cards with “the general.”

In time, these personality sketches would be immortalized as Zagloba and other characters in the writings of Nobel Prize-winning author Henryk Sienkiewicz.

A man who fought, as he himself said, “for liberty and justice” in Poland and America, Krzyzanowski answered the call of both his native and his adopted lands. During the Civil War he risked his life in defense of American unity, during his career in the federal treasury service he struggled to eliminate smuggling and tax evasion, and in his private life he supported Polish patriotic causes and his fellow immigrants. A strong supporter of Polish American unity, he participated in early efforts to establish a national Polonia umbrella organization and spoke to meetings of his fellow Poles whenever possible. He was, and deserves to be remembered as a military hero and visionary Polonia activist who helped shape the early history of the nation and Polonia.


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