October 13, 2023 at 12:45 a.m.

Cashmir Pulaski: the Father of American Cavalry

A 55-foot-tall marble Casimir Pulaski Monument was erected in Savannah’s Monterey Square in 1854.  This photo from the National Park Service is one of a statue in Washington, DC, honoring him.
A 55-foot-tall marble Casimir Pulaski Monument was erected in Savannah’s Monterey Square in 1854. This photo from the National Park Service is one of a statue in Washington, DC, honoring him.

Jennifer Baker, DAR Vesuvius Furnace Chapter | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

Casimir Pulaski

Compiled by Jennifer Baker, DAR Vesuvius Furnace Chapter

Casimir Pulaski was born on March 6, 1747, in Warsaw, Poland into nobility. Why is a series dedicated to America’s 250th anniversary featuring a Polish nobleman? He was called the father of American cavalry, along with Hungarian nobleman Michael Kovats, Pulaski became a general in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. In this position, he formed the Pulaski Cavalry Legion and reformed the American cavalry system.

Casimir was the second eldest son of Marianna Zielińska and Józef Pułaski, who was an advocatus at the Crown Tribunal, the Starost of Warka, and one of the town's most notable inhabitants. Following in his father's footsteps, he became interested in politics at an early age. In 1762, Pulaski started his military career as a page of Carl Christian Joseph of Saxony, Duke of Courland, and the Polish king's vassal. He spent six months at the ducal court in Mitau, during which the court was interned in the palaces by the Russian forces occupying the area.

He furthered his military career joining the Bar Confederation to defend the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth against Russian influence in 1768. On March 6, he received a pułkownik (colonel) rank and commanded a choragiew (division) of cavalry. After a storied military career battling the Confederate Bar, this uprising failed, he was driven into exile.

He retreated to a monastery in Berdyczów, which he defended during a siege by royalist forces for over two weeks until June 16. Eventually, he was forced to surrender and was taken captive by the Russians. On June 28, he was released in exchange for a pledge that he would not again take up arms with the Confederates, and that he would lobby the Confederates to end hostilities.

Despite no decisive military successes, he was able to assemble a 4,000-strong army and deliver it back to a Confederate staging point. This excursion received international notice and gained him a reputation as the most effective military leader in the Bar Confederation. On May 31, 1772, Pulaski, increasingly distanced from other leaders of the Confederation, left the monastery, and went to Prussia. In the meantime, the Bar Confederation was defeated, with most fighting ending around the summer. Overall, Pulaski was seen as one of the most famous and accomplished Confederate leaders. At the same time, he often acted independently, disobeying orders from Confederate command, and among his detractors, which included Dumouriez, had a reputation as a "loose cannon".

Leaving Prussia, Pulaski sought refuge in France, where he unsuccessfully attempted to join the French Army. He found himself in debt and unable to find an army that would enlist him. He spent the year of 1775 in France, imprisoned at times for debts, until his allies gathered enough funds to arrange for his release. Around that time, due to the efforts of his friend Claude-Carloman de Rulhière, he was recruited by the Marquis de Lafayette and Benjamin Franklin, whom he met in spring 1777, for service in the American Revolutionary War.

Following a recommendation by Franklin, Pulaski traveled to North America to help in the American Revolutionary War. Pulaski arrived in Marblehead, Massachusetts, to volunteer in the Continental Army cavalry in July of 1777. Franklin was impressed by Pulaski and wrote of him: "Count Pulaski of Poland, an officer famous throughout Europe for his bravery and conduct in defence of the liberties of his country against the three great invading powers of Russia, Austria and Prussia may be highly useful to our service." He subsequently recommended that General George Washington accept Pulaski as a volunteer in the Continental Army cavalry.  Pulaski departed France from Nantes in June, and arrived in Marblehead, Massachusetts, near Boston, on July 23, 1777. After his arrival, Pulaski wrote to Washington, "I came here, where freedom is being defended, to serve it, and to live or die for it."

Not even 60 days later  the Battle of Brandywine was fought in Pennsylvania. Though the Americans lost to the British, Pulaski saved the life of General George Washington. Four days later, Washington, on authorization of Congress, appointed Casimir Pulaski as brigadier general in the Continental Army cavalry.

Image Source: Casmir Pulaski portrait by Jan Styka, Public Domain 

On September 16, while on patrol west of Philadelphia, Pulaski spotted significant British forces moving toward the Continental position. Upon being informed by Pulaski, Washington prepared for a battle, but the encounter was interrupted by a major storm before either side was organized. On October 4, Pulaski took part in the Battle of Germantown. He spent the winter of 1777 with most of the army at Valley Forge. Pulaski argued that the military operations should continue through the winter, but this idea was rejected by the general staff, and he directed his efforts towards reorganizing the cavalry force, mostly stationed in Trenton.

While at Trenton his assistance was requested by General Anthony Wayne, whom Washington had dispatched on a foraging expedition into southern New Jersey. Wayne was in danger of encountering a much larger British force sent to oppose his movements. Pulaski and 50 cavalry soldiers rode south to Burlington, where they skirmished with British sentries on February 28. After this minor encounter the British commander, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Stirling, was apparently convinced that he was facing a much larger force than expected and prepared to withdraw his troops across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania at Cooper's Ferry. Pulaski and Wayne joined forces to attack Stirling's position on February 29 while he awaited suitable weather conditions to cross. In the resulting skirmish, which only involved a few hundred men out of the larger forces on either side, Pulaski's horse was shot out from under him and a few of his cavalry soldiers were wounded.

American officers serving under Pulaski had difficulty taking orders from a foreigner who could scarcely speak English and whose ideas of discipline and tactics differed enormously from those to which they were accustomed. This resulted in friction between the Americans and Pulaski and his fellow Polish officers. There was also discontent in the unit over delays in pay, and Pulaski's imperious personality was a regular source of discontent among his peers, superiors, and subordinates. Pulaski was also unhappy that his suggestion to create a lancer unit was denied. Despite a commendation from Wayne, Pulaski resigned his general command in March 1778, and returned to Valley Forge.

Pulaski went to Yorktown, where he met with General Horatio Gates and suggested the creation of a new unit. At Gates' recommendation, Congress confirmed his previous appointment to the rank of brigadier general, with a special title of "Commander of the Horse” and authorized the formation of a corps of 68 lancers and 200 light infantry soldiers. This corps, which became known as the Pulaski Cavalry Legion, was recruited mainly in Baltimore, where it was headquartered. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow would later commemorate in verse the consecration of the Legion's banner. By August 1778, it numbered about 330 men, both Americans and foreigners. British major general Charles Lee commented on the high standards of the Legion's training.

The "father of the American cavalry" demanded much of his men and trained them in tested cavalry tactics. He used his own personal finances when money from Congress was scarce, in order to assure his forces of the finest equipment and personal safety. However, later that year a controversy arose related to the Legion's finances, and its requisitions from the local populace. His troubles with the auditors continued until his death. Pulaski complained that he received inadequate funds, was obstructed by locals and officials, and was forced to spend his own money. He was not cleared of these charges until after his death.

Pulaski arrived in Charleston on May 8, 1779, finding the city in crisis. General Benjamin Lincoln, commander of the southern army, had led most of the army toward Augusta, Georgia, in a bid to recapture Savannah, which had been captured by the British in late 1778. The British commander, Brigadier General Augustine Prevost, responded to Lincoln's move by launching a raiding expedition from Savannah across the Savannah River. The South Carolina militia fell back before the British advance, and Prevost's force followed them all the way to Charleston. Pulaski arrived just as military leaders were establishing the city's defenses.

When the British advanced on May 11, Pulaski's Legion engaged forward elements of the British force, and was badly mauled in the encounter. The Legion infantry, numbering only about 60 men before the skirmish, was virtually wiped out, and Pulaski was forced to retreat to the safety of the city's guns. Although some historians credit this action with Prevost's decision to withdraw back toward Savannah the next day, despite ongoing negotiations of a possible surrender of Charleston, that decision is more likely based on news Prevost received that Lincoln's larger force was returning to Charleston to face him, and that Prevost's troops had gone further than he had originally intended. One early historian criticized Pulaski's actions during that engagement as "ill-judged, ill-conducted, disgraceful and disastrous." The episode was of minor strategic consequence and did little to enhance the reputation of Pulaski's unit.

Although Pulaski frequently suffered from malaria while stationed in Charleston, he remained in active service. At the beginning of September, Lincoln prepared to launch an attempt to retake Savannah with French assistance. Pulaski was ordered to Augusta, where he was to join forces with General Lachlan McIntosh. Their combined forces were to serve as the forward elements of Lincoln's army. Pulaski captured a British outpost near Ogeechee River. His units then acted as an advance guard for the allied French units under Admiral Charles Hector, Comte d'Estaing. He rendered great services during the siege of Savannah, and in the assault of October 9 commanded the whole cavalry, both French and American

During the Siege of Savannah in 1779, he was killed in action when he was mortally wounded by grapeshot in an attempt to rally fleeing French forces during a cavalry charge on October 11, 1779. He was only 32 years old. The Charleston Museum also has a grapeshot reported to be from Pulaski's wound. Pulaski was carried from the field of battle and taken aboard the South Carolina merchant brig privateer Wasp, under the command of Captain Samuel Bulfinch, where he died two days later, having never regained consciousness. His heroic death, admired by American Patriot supporters, further boosted his reputation in America.

Pulaski never married and had no descendants. Despite his fame, there have long been uncertainties and controversies surrounding both his place and date of birth, and his burial. The historical accounts for Pulaski's time and place of burial vary considerably. Many primary sources record a burial at sea. According to several contemporary accounts there were witnesses, including Pulaski's aide-de-camp, that Pulaski received a symbolic burial in Charleston on October 21, sometime after he was buried at sea. Other witnesses, including Captain Samuel Bulfinch, claimed that the wounded Pulaski was actually later removed from the ship and taken to the Greenwich Plantation in the town of Thunderbolt, near Savannah, where he died and was buried.

There is some circumstantial evidence that Pulaski was a Freemason. When Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette laid the cornerstone of the monument erected in Pulaski's honor in Monterey Square in Savannah in 1824, a full Masonic ceremony took place with Richard T. Turner, High Priest of the Georgia chapter, conducting the service. Other sources claim Pulaski was a member of the Masonic Army Lodge in Maryland. A Masonic Lodge in Chicago is named Casimir Pulaski Lodge, No.1167, and a brochure issued by the lodge claims he obtained the degree of Master Mason on June 19, 1779, and was buried with full Masonic honors. To date, no surviving documents of Pulaski's actual membership have been found.

In 1853, remains found on a bluff above Augustine Creek on Greenwich Plantation were believed to be the general. These bones are interred at the Casimir Pulaski Monument in Savannah, Georgia. They were exhumed in 1996 and examined during a forensic study. The eight-year examination, including DNA analysis, ended inconclusively, although the skeleton was consistent with Pulaski's age and occupation. A healed wound on the skull's forehead was consistent with historical records of an injury Pulaski sustained in battle, as was a bone defect on the left cheekbone, believed to have been caused by a benign tumor. In 2005, the remains were reinterred in a public ceremony with full military honors, including Pulaski's induction into the Georgia Military Hall of Fame. A later study funded by the Smithsonian Institution, the results of which were released in 2019, concluded from the mitochondrial DNA of his grandniece, known injuries, and physical characteristics, that the skeleton was likely Pulaski.

On November 6, 2009, President Barack Obama signed a congressional resolution conferring honorary U.S. citizenship to Revolutionary War hero Casimir Pulaski. He is one of only eight people in the history of the United States to be awarded honorary American citizenship.


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