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Tadeusz Kosciuszko (1746 - 1817)
War of Independence 1: The Road to Saratoga (1776 - 1777)

More of this Feature
1: Introduction
2: Early Life
4: West Point & Victory
5: Peace, War & Exile
6: Rebellion & Raclawice
7: Warsaw & Defeat
8: Final Years
9: Timeline

Elsewhere On The Web
Kosciuszko's Campaigns
Wars of the 'Revolution'

Of the many foreign men and women who traveled to assist the American colonists, Kosciuszko was one of the first. Arriving in Philadelphia during the August of 1776, he presented himself, and a letter of recommendation from the Polish Prince Czartoryski, to the Continental government; his application was read in Congress on the 30th of August. The colonists were desperate for engineers, even those who had only just arrived from abroad with no knowledge of America, and on October 18th 1776 Kosciuszko became a Colonel of Engineers.

His first duty was to help fortify Philadelphia from naval attack. Kosciuszko centered the defenses on a new Fort, Mercer, while setting up aquatic blockades designed to force British ships closer to both the shore, and bombardment. This work impressed Congress, and in the first quarter of 1777 he was moved to the key position of Ticonderoga. Intriguingly, when the British captured Philadelphia on the 26th of September 1776, it was the result of a land battle.

Fort Ticonderoga stood at a key point between Lake Champlain and the Hudson River, controlling access to an important strategic area. Kosciuszko arrived on May 12th with a mandate to improve the defences, but his key suggestion was ignored. He wanted to station artillery on the nearby Sugar Loaf Hill, which not only overlooked the surrounding area but the fort itself; however, the Continental commander refused, believing such a feat to be impossible. It was the British who proved Kosciuszko right, placing weaponry on the hill within days of their arrival, and Ticonderoga fell easily on June 27th to troops under the command of Sir John Burgoyne. Although it is debatable what difference Kosciuszko's artillery would have made - the British had over 7,000 troops, the Continentals around 2,500 - the British use of Sugar Loaf Hill was a major vindication for Kosciuszko's ideas.

Burgoyne's victory forced the colonists to retreat, and he pursued them overland - an unusual decision given that they now had access to Lake George and the Hudson. Kosciuszko played a key part in the withdrawal, slowing the British troops by felling trees and diverting rivers, which blocked trails and flooded large areas of land. He was assisted by especially foul weather and the landscape of marshes, ravines and wilderness, as well as by the mass of Burgoyne's ill advised baggage. This combination reduced the British advance to as little as a mile of day, giving the colonists time to regroup.

On August 19th Congress placed General Horatio Gates in charge of the Northern Army, as a replacement for the unpopular and increasingly ineffectual Schuyler. By this time Burgoyne had crossed the Hudson, but his force was running low on supplies and operating without scouts. In view of this, Gates asked Kosciuszko to prepare a defensive position, and the Pole fortified Bemis Heights, a large, and by all accounts quite formidable, piece of high ground overlooking the Hudson. Pushed forward by a lack of food, Burgoyne attacked the Heights on September 19th.

The ensuing conflict, known as the battle of Freemans Farm, caused the British heavy losses, while a counter attack by General Benedict Arnold inflicted even more damage. Burgoyne fell back and dug in for three weeks, before the pressure of deficient supplies and deserting men forced him into another attack on October 7th. The Battle of Bemis Heights was a comprehensive victory for Gates, and the British retreated back from their weakened defensive lines a few days later, settling in Saratoga. Within weeks the colonists encircled this position, eventually forcing Burgoyne, and around 6,000 troops, to surrender on October 17th.

Burgoyne's defeat may have taken place at Saratoga, but it was made possible by the strength of Bemis Heights: Gates had assessed the British situation and opted for a defensive line, while Kosciuszko had provided a perfect position. The importance of this British defeat cannot be over estimated, for it was Saratoga that finally persuaded the French to ally with the Continental government, a full-scale involvement that would prove to be a key factor in the colonist's ultimate victory. At Bemis Heights, Kosciuszko made a tangible contribution to American independence.

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For Citation And Footnotes
Title: Tadeusz Kosciuszko (1746 - 1817)
Author: Robert Wilde
Date: 2001

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