Caroline is a content, an amateur historian, and a narrative genealogist. She earned her B.A. in Philosophy from Northwestern University.
Casimir Pulaski Day is celebrated in Chicago and throughout Illinois on the first Monday of every March. In our local elementary school district, the day is a non-attendance holiday. Those who live outside of Illinois often ask me the same question you may be asking right now:
Who on earth is Casimir Pulaski and why does he have a special holiday?
Casimir Pulaski (Kazimierz Pułaski) is considered the Father of the American Cavalry and was an American Revolutionary War hero from Poland.
In 2009, President Barack Obama signed a joint resolution of the U.S. House and Senate that made Pulaski an honorary United States citizen. He is one of only seven individuals to receive such an honor. According to the Chicago Tribune, the others are William Penn and his wife Hannah, founders of Pennsylvania; the Marquis de Lafayette; British Prime Minister Winston Churchill; Mother Teresa; and, Raoul Wallenburg, who rescued Jewish people in Europe during WWII.
Pulaski's Early Life
Casimir Pulaski's life was brief. Born in 1745, he was only 34 years old when he was fatally wounded in 1779 in Savannah, Georgia. However, his short life was as action packed as a Hollywood movie.
Pulaski was the son of Marianna Zielinska and Józef Pulaski, the Starost (Polish nobleman) of Warka and Crown Tribunal advocatus. His commonly accepted birthday is March 6, 1745, in the family home in Warsaw. Late 20th-century historians, though, offer re-discovered baptismal records and compelling research that point toward a March 4, 1745, birth date at the family country estate in Winiary, Warka, Poland.1
According to the recovered church records, Pulaski was baptized on March 14, 1745, in the parish church of Grabow, 3.5 miles from Winiary. His many godparents included Princess Maria Zofia Czartoryska, wife of Prince August Alexander Czartoryski (a voivode, or warlord, in Russia); Casimir Rudzinski, castellan (governor) of Czersk; and Princess Eleanora Czartoryska, wife of Prince Michael Czartoryski, deputy chancellor of Lithuania.2
In 1762, at the age of 17, Pulaski was made a page in the court of Carl Christian Joseph of Saxony, the Duke of Courland, in Mitau (now Jelgava, Latvia) at Rastrelli Palace. Soon after, Russian forces held the Duke's court at the palace under siege for six months. The siege ended in 1763 with the abdication of the Duke. When Pulaski returned to Warsaw, his father awarded him the village of Zezulińce, and Pulaski carried the title of Starost of Zezulińce.3
Pulaski's Polish Military Career
The 1760s were chaotic in Poland and Eastern Europe. Pulaski and his father joined the Confederation of Bar, an association of Polish nobles committed to defending the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth against Russian political influence. The Confederation viewed the newly elected Polish monarch, King Stanislaw, as merely a Russian puppet. The Confederation of Bar recruited troops and became militarily active against Russian forces stationed inside Poland. By March 1768, Pulaski was in charge of his own cavalry unit. His corps defended several sieges that year, winning some and losing others.4
At about the time his father Józef Pulaski died in early 1769, Casimir broke a lengthy siege at Okopy Świętej Trójcy and was made a regimental leader. In June 1769, after a criticized defeat at Przemyśl, he led a group of allied officers and 600 troops to Lithuania, where he attempted to create a much larger revolt against Russia. While Pulaski achieved no military successes on the Lithuanian battlefield, he returned to the primary theater of action in Poland with an additional 4,000 troops. This significant achievement became international news.5
In early-1770, Pulaski was operating in Lesser Poland. In June 1770, he and other Confederation leaders convened in Prešovin, where he received a compliment on his military actions from the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. One month later though, Pulaski's camp was captured and he was forced to retreat to Austria, where he made the acquaintance of French emissary Charles François Dumouriez.
In late August 1770, Pulaski cooperated with forces in a raid on Kraków with Michal Walewski. The two then departed for Częstochowa with their troops. On September 10, Pulaski and Walewski captured Jasna Góra monastery, which was and is still considered Poland's spiritual capital and is the location of one of the world's few Black Madonnas. Through January 1771, he and Walewski commanded Polish troops through the successful defense of the monastery during the Siege of Jasna Góra. This achievement further enhanced Pulaski's growing international reputation.6 However, the Confederation of Bar did not succeed in its overall campaign and fell in 1772. Pulaski was forced to seek refuge in France.
Pulaski & the Confederation of Bar Rebelllion
Pulaski in Exile
In addition to the collapse of the Confederation of Bar, part of Pulaski's flight from Poland stemmed from on-going claims that he had participated in an unsuccessful plot to kidnap and kill Polish King Stanislov, which Pulaski continually denied. Because of the regicide charges, only Saxony and France welcomed him. He sought multiple military commissions with France that were continually denied. For someone who had lived on the battlefield for four years, Pulaski's exile in France must have been exceedingly frustrating. On multiple occasions, he attempted to fund excursions to the Ottoman Empire, which was at war with the Russians. By the time he arrived, though, the war was over. He had nothing to do but return to France.7
When Pulaski returned to Marseilles, in 1774, he was a very debt-laden 29 year old. Unable to repay loans, he was sent to debtors' prison. By 1776, French historian Claude Ruhliere was helping Pulaski find a way to clear his debts by serving France's new allies, the American Colonies, in their fight for independence.8
In early 1777, Silas Deane, one of the American representatives in Paris, responded positively to Rhuliere's suggestion of Pulaski serving the American Revolutionary cause. It was Benjamin Franklin, who replaced Deane in May 1777, who negotiated with the French Foreign Ministry to finally allow Pulaski to leave Marseilles. In Strassbourg, Pulaski at last obtained the funds to repay most of his debt. His only problem now was finding the financial resources to pay his passage to the American colonies.
Pulaski & the American Revolution
Late in the Confederation of Bar War, Pulaski fell out of favor with Dumouriez, the French emissary. Pulaski was a loose cannon who favored hit-and-run, insurgent-style fighting, similar to what the American Continental Army would be using. He did not agree with Dumouriez's preferred linear tactics. However, despite their differences, Dumouriez favorably described Pulaski:
"[Pulaski was] a young leader, very brave and very innovative, but liked independence, preferred his own projects, not respecting authority or a set plan . . . elated in the success of his compatriots with grand gestures . . . he was very against the system of regular war because he wasn't but a very small person and delighted in the leadership of a small army, he did not believe in the new system of lines, and didn't submit to the orders of the Regiment General . . . who was a very incapable man." 9
Historian Jędrzej Kitowicz met Pulaski and described him as short, thin, and energetic. Kitowicz stated that Pulaski paced and spoke quickly, and was uninterested in women or drinking. He was committed to, and enjoyed, fighting -- and fighting the Russians above all else.10
Pulaski, Washington & the Continental Army
Enamored with Pulaski’s reputation for bravery and courage, Franklin recommended him directly to General George Washington. Arriving in Massachusetts in July 1777, Pulaski carried letters of recommendation from Franklin and Deane and a letter for the Marquis de Lafayette from the Marquis' wife. Pulaski met Washington at his headquarters near Philadelphia that August, where he famously performed horseback stunts for Washington and, more seriously, argued for the importance of cavalry over infantry. Some historians believe that it was most likely Lafayette who convinced Washington to forward Pulaski's commission to Congress for approval.11
Pulaski first saw action against the British at the Battle of Brandywine before his commission was even approved. He began the battle as an observer until he realized that the British were about to overrun Washington's headquarters. To halt the British advance, Pulaski took charge of the general's personal security unit. At this point, his English was almost non-existent. Legend claims that he yelled "Vorwarts, Bruden, Vorwarts," accompanied with arm signals, and the detachment understood that they were to follow him into the charge. The advancing British were so shocked to be attacked in the middle of a rout, that they had to regroup -- a pause which provided the Continental Army with an opportunity to hastily retreat.12
The first British history of the war with the American colonies notes: "two Polish noblemen [presumably Pulaski and Jan Zielinski], [who] exhibited in the battle of Brandywine, great proofs of bravery and attachment to the cause they had espoused."13
Pulaski's commission was almost immediately approved, and he was appointed a brigadier general and Commander of the Horse in September 1777.
True to his independent, rash nature and due to his European military training, Pulaski was sometimes an irritant to Washington. At one point in late 1777, Washington reprimanded Pulaski for taking horses from local farms, despite the cavalry and the overall army's need for horses. Pulaski was used to helping himself to supplies in European theatres of war.14
During the winter of 1778, Pulaski and his cavalry wintered at Valley Forge. He led cavalry units alongside General Anthony Wayne's infantrymen in foraging missions to help feed soldiers. Some of these missions resulted in skirmishes with the British, and Pulaski received permission to form a unit of lancers.
Frustrated with inactivity, infighting among other cavalry commanders, and the Council of War's overall strategy, Pulaski resigned his post as Commander of Horse in favor of creating a new unit and gained Washington's support for the project. The Board of War and Congress approved Washington's recommendation and formally authorized the formation of a corps of lancers and a light infantry brigade on March 28, 1778:
"That Count Pulaski retain his Brigadier in the army of the United States and that he raise and have command of an independent corps to consist of sixty-eight horse and two hundred foot, the horse to be armed with lances, and the foot equipped in the manner of light infantry; the corps to be raised in such way and composed of such men as General Washington shall think expedient and proper; and if it shall be thought by General Washington that it will not be injurious to the service, that he have the liberty to dispense, in this particular instance, with the resolve of Congress against inlisting (sic) deserters." 15
The unit became known as the Pulaski Legion and was headquartered at Baltimore, where Pulaski trained his men in proven cavalry tactics throughout most of 1778. However, to train his men, first Pulaski needed to recruit men.
As foreign officers, Pulaski, Zielinski, fellow Pole Tedeusz Kosciuszko, and Lafayette all experienced instances of prejudices against them. Serving in a rag-tag, foreign army so distant from Europe presented significant language barriers and a vastly different the military culture. In many ways, the foreign officers had more in common with the Hessian mercenaries and British soldiers than the Colonial officers and soldiers. It is no surprise then, that according to the Journal of the American Revolution, the Legion's recruits included French, Irish, Polish, and Germans, as well as American colonists. The Germans were the "most numerous" and generally deserters from the enemy Hessian mercenary units.16
Following their Baltimore training, Pulaski's Legion traveled to Philadelphia in September 1778 for review and induction into the Continental Army. Red tape held the Legion in Philadelphia as the Board of War peppered Brig. Gen. Count Pulaski with questions regarding "alleged irregularities with the Legion's records and accounts."17
Finally, on Oct. 3, 1778, the Pulaski Legion was ordered to join the regular Continental Army at the defense of Chestnut Neck on the shore of New Jersey but did not arrive until two days after the battle. Thus the Legion camped at Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey, where in the early morning of Oct. 15, the British launched a sneak attack, massacring about 50 of Pulaski's Legion camped at Ridgeway Farm. The event became known as the Affair at Little Egg Harbor, the Massacre at Little Egg Harbor, and Pulaski's Massacre. 18
In November 1778, Washington ordered Pulaski to Minisink, New Jersey, to defend colonists from the Iroquois and to take advantage of the good forage that was supposed to be available for their horses and themselves following the losses at Egg Harbor. Upon arrival, though, the Legion found neither Native Americans nor any forage for their horses.19
"Dear General -
agreeable to your order to me while at Sussex Court house [Newton NJ] - I marched the Legion to this Place & find the Indian Enemy have retired near one hundred miles from this - from which it appears that there will be Nothing for us to do - on examining the Country I find it will be impossible to support the Cavalry with Forage . . . my reason for not marching to Coles Fort the Place pointed out by you are that there is Neither Inhabitants Nor Forage for our subsistence & the gentleman to whom you refer me for assistance in this County live thirty miles below this Post & have not procured one Dock of Nag or bushel of grain - the People from the Back Country having fled to this Settlement among their friends our stay here will greatly distress the whole - I therefore should be glad your Excellency would remove my Corps to some other Post."
Count Casimir Pulaski to George Washington,
Minnesink, November 23, 1778 20
Pulaski & the American Revolution
Following Minisink, Pulaski and his men were sent to Charleston, South Carolina, to support the southern front. Pulaski's Legion arrived in May 1779, in time to help prevent the city from surrounding to the British in the First Siege of Charleston. Pulaski remained in Charleston for the summer, ill with malaria and but fighting continuing guerilla-style warfare against the British alongside his men.
In September 1779, the French fleet arrived. Quickly consolidating French and American troops, the Army set off for British-held Savannah. At Thunderbolt, Pulaski personally greeted the French Vice-Admiral Count Charles-Henri d'Estaing. Pulaski's Legion, along with forces under General Benjamin Lincoln's command, then engaged with the British in skirmishes that successfully cleared a path for the unification of the American and French forces. After a plague of delays, the First Siege of Savannah began on Oct. 4, 1779. Under d'Estaing, Pulaski commanded combined American and French troops, with the cavalry of Pulaski's Legion charging into any breaches that opened.21
While rallying cavalry troops during a charge on October 9, 1779, Pulaski was fatally hit with grapeshot. Eyewitnesses of the fatal blow vary from the highly romantic to the more realistic. Legion member Maciej Rogowski's account stated that the General and Legion members were caught in crossfire. No matter the exact circumstance, Pulaski was carried off the battlefield and to the Wasp, a Continental brigantine off the coast of Savannah. Brigadier General Count Casimir Pulaski died on October 11, 1779 at the young age of 34 years.22
Until 1996, the burial site of Casimir Pulaski was undetermined and subject to debate among scholars. Various articles, in print and online, still outdatedly claim that Pulaski was buried at sea. The Wasp, captained by Samuel Bulfinch, was a private merchant ship owned by Joseph Atkinson of Charleston. At the time of the docked at Bonaventure Plantation (now Bonaventure Cemetery) in Thunderbolt, Georgia, where d’Estaing had organized a field hospital and had headquartered his artillery base. It was employed to transport French artillery guns and the wounded back to Charleston following the unsuccessful siege on Savannah. Pulaski was one of the last wounded to be transported onto the at-capacity Wasp. 23
Bullfinch and other witnesses stated that suffering from gangrene, a mortally wounded Pulaski was transferred from the Wasp to Greenwich Plantation, across the road from Bonaventure. According to them, he died at Greenwich and was buried there. Other accounts say died on board ship before it set sail, with his body being transferred to Greenwich. In any event, ship purser Eleazar Phillips, a carpenter by trade, stated in his personal papers that he built the pine coffin in which Pulaski was buried. 24
Greenwich Plantation was home to Jane Bowen, the widow of Samuel Bowen, as well as their four children, her brother, servants, and slaves. Vice-Admiral D’Estaing preferred her property to that of Bonaventure and personally camped on her land. Two of his officers boarded in her home. Mrs. Bowen directed Pulaski's burial, supposedly at night to deter grave robbers. Successive generations of the Bowen family kept up the grave.25
In 1825, during his acclaimed return to the United States, the Marquis de Lafayette laid the cornerstone to Savannah's Pulaski monument in Chippewa Square. Before his death in 1834, Lafayette told Polish historian Leonard Chodzko the location of Pulaski's grave. In doing so, he confirms the initial burial at Greenwich Plantation: "Pulaski was buried in a garden under a palm tree, on the plantation belonging to the Beecroft family, in the area of Greenwich."26 Beecroft was the married name of Jane Bowen's daughter Elizabeth Ann.
Pulaski's Movable Grave: Reburial & Reburial Again
The First Reburial
In 1853, in preparation for Savannah's new Pulaski monument, this one an obelisk in Monterey Square, Jane Bowen’s grandson, Major William Bowen, opened Pulaski’s grave at Greenwich Plantation. At this time, Bowen had the exhumed remains sent to the Savannah Medical College for examination. At that time, all that the forensics team could do was to confirm that the bones belonged to a "man of medium build who died in the prime of life." The committee for the Pulaski Memorial was sufficiently satisfied, so they approved the remains for re-interment under the Memorial.27 Contents of the grave, including about 80% of Pulaski's skeleton and remnants of the pine coffin and its nails, were transferred to an iron box, onto which was etched Pulaski's name. Bowen arranged for both the iron box and the original 1825 cornerstone to be quietly placed inside the vault of the new Pulaski monument in Monterey Square.28
The Discovery of a Lost Hero
In 1996, more than 140 years later, during a much-needed restoration of the Pulaski Monument, the long-forgotten iron box was discovered. Etched into a plate on the box was the name “Brigadier General Cassimer Pulaski.” Dr. Karen Burns, a forensic anthropologist with the University of Georgia, Chatham County (Georgia) Coroner Dr. James Metts, and James Wermouth, an archaeologist from Newport, Rhode Island, were involved in the exhumation. 29
Among evidence of a coffin burial, an intact skull and skeleton were retrieved. Upon forensic examination, the skull and skeleton proved to be that of a person of Pulaski's size, ethnic background, and showing evidence of Pulaski's known injuries. Bone patterns were consistent with life on a horse.30 Unfortunately, upon exhumation, authorities realized that such relics as Pulaski's uniform buttons and rosary beads had gone missing between the first exhumation and the first reburial. Despite possessing a full set of teeth at the time of death, Pulaski's remains only included molars. Clearly, some souvenir hunters were among Major Bowen's team. After eight years of on-going forensic investigation, DNA information was inconclusive. However, most scholars now believe that Pulaski was originally buried at Greenwich and moved to the Monterey Square monument.27, 28
In a city already known for ghostly presences, poor Pulaski wasn't laid at rest again until 2005. The final touches included a new white marble crypt that was installed in front of the monument. To make up for the nine-year delay in re-interment, the 2005 burial of Pulaski's remains was a Big Deal, including a week's worth of ceremonies leading up to the official Military and Religious Funeral on October 9, exactly 226 years from the day he was mortally wounded. This time, instead of a crude pine casket or an iron box, Pulaski was laid to rest in a white oak casket from donated from families in Poland. The dignitaries in attendance included Poland's Undersecretary of State Andrzej Majkowski, twelve Polish cavalry members of a ceremonial-parade unit on horseback, and several Polish veterans from the September 1939 Defensive Campaign. Bishop General Tadeusz Ploski, chief of the Polish Army Chaplains, joined the delegation. From Washington, D.C., Poland's Ambassador to the U.S., Janusz Reiter, and military attaché General Kazimierz Sikorski, attended the ceremonies. A contingent from Pulaski's birthplace of Warka also joined the week's events, including Iwona Stefaniak, the Pulaski Museum Director; Miroslaw Maliszewski, Grojec County Administrator; Teresa Knyzio, President of Warka City Council; and Jolanta Kazimierska, Director of the Warka Brewery.
American Revolutionary war re-enactors and patriotic groups marched to fife and drum to the nearby battlefield where a replica rampart had been erected. A speaker recounted the course of the battle, and dignitaries placed memorial wreaths. A cannon shot saluted those who, like Pulaski, gave their lives to the cause of American Independence. A memorial Mass at St. John the Baptist Cathedral followed, conducted mainly in Polish by Bishop Ploski.
During the Mass, a number of units assembled on Abercorn Street and on the steps leading to the church, including a US Army color guard, sailors from the USS Roosevelt, the Pulaski Cadets, the Polish cavalry unit (with five on horseback), the September 1939 Polish Defensive Campaign veterans, and a military burial detail in 19th-century uniforms from Arlington National Cemetery. Four white draft horses pulled a caisson holding Pulaski's casket. Per military tradition, a riderless horse symbolized the fallen general. The casket was placed on a catafalque on the steps of the Cathedral where it remained throughout the mass, guarded by sailors from the USS Roosevelt.
Following the funeral Mass, the procession paraded toward Monterey Square. The splendid sight -- with flags, horses, uniforms, and flowers -- wound its way through nearly twenty-two blocks and was a fitting tribute to the fallen 34-year-old (plus 226 years) Polish general.
Upon reaching the monument at Monterey Square, Bishop General Ploski began Pulaski's first (and hopefully final) ceremony of Christian Burial. He was assisted by an Anglican priest, a member of the Savannah Masonic Lodge, and a Rabbi from the nearby synagogue. With the casket in the crypt chamber, the ceremony concluded, a 21-gun salute was fired, and Taps were sounded.
Pulaski's Significance to Chicago
Until the U.S. Census of 2010, the Chicago metropolitan region was home to more Polish people than anywhere else in the world outside of Poland. While the New York metro area now has a slight edge in population figures, the Chicago area continues to recognize the substantial impact the Polish community has long had on local culture. Polish is the third most widely spoken language in Chicago, following English and Spanish. The Dziennik Związkowy (The Zagoda, or the Polish Daily News) is the city’s Polish-language newspaper, the oldest Polish paper in the United States. Polish-language radio is available on channel 1030 AM. Among Chicago's many Polish American organizations are the Polish Museum of America, the Polish American Association, the Polish National Alliance, and the Polish Highlanders Alliance of North America. And the restaurants . . . according to Yelp.com, Chicago is home to nearly 200 Polish eateries serving up everything from pierogis and dumplings to stuffed cabbages and white borscht. Pulaski's name is on a major north-south thoroughfare (Pulaski Avenue), and many Chicago Polish American children attend Polish school on weeknights or weekends.
But why Pulaski Day in Chicago? Casimir Pulaski Day is a chance to remember the role the Polish have played in the development of the United States, all the way back to the founder of our cavalry, a 34-year-old Polish revolutionary who died fighting in the American Revolution. The day also offers us a moment to reflect on the significant contributions of all Polish Americans, from the Polish colonists who arrived in 1609 with Captain John Smith to immigrants and their Polish American descendants who, for generations, have enriched the culture of Chicago and helped make up the backbone of the “City that Works.”
1 Pinkowski, Edward. "General Pulaski's Age: Baptism Record Verifies Historian's Hunch.” Polish American Journal. 1996: February. [PAJ]
3Szczygielski, Waclaw. Pułaski Kazimierz, 1986. [WS]
7 Shores, Douglas. Kazimierz Pulaski: General of Two Nations. 2015: San Diego, CA.[KP]
15 Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed. vol. X, 291, https://archive.org/stream/journalsofcontin. [JCC]
16 Wroblewski, Joseph E. (2017: Aug. 8.) "Casimir Pulaski's Difficulties in Recruiting His Legion." Journal of the American Revolution. Retrieved on 4/29/2021 from https://allthingsliberty.com/2017/08/casimir-pulaskis-difficulties-recruiting-legion/#_ednref12.
18 Revolutionary War New Jersey. (n.d.). "Affair at Little Egg Harbor Monument." Retrieved on 4/29/2021 from https://minisinkvalleygenealogy.blogspot.com/2013/12/george-washingtons-1778-papers-on.html
19 Minisink Valley Genealogy. (n.d.) "George Washington's 1778 Papers on the Minisink." Retrieved 4/29/2021 from https://minisinkvalleygenealogy.blogspot.com/2013/12/george-washingtons-1778-papers-on.html
21 Ebel, Carol. (2007: Oct. 7; rev. 9/19/2018). "Casimir Pulaski in Georgia." New Georgia Encyclopedia. Retrieved 4/29/2021 from https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/casimir-pulaski-georgia.
23 Pinkowski, Edward. “General Pulaski’s Body.” Presented October 1997: Pulaski Museum, Warka, Poland. [GPB]
30 "Pulaski's Grand Burial in Savannah." (2005: Oct. 7 - 10). Retrieved from www.poles.org.
Leon Duffy on June 19, 2016:
I think the picture that is titled Pulaski statue, Chicago is actually a statue of another Polish military person, Tadeusz Kościuszko.
And I think that statue in the picture is on Northerly Island near the Planetarium.