|Tadeusz Kosciuszko (1746 - 1817)|
Part 5: Peace, War and Exile (1784 - 1792)
Kosciuszko's association with the Czartoryski's effectively barred him from the army, and he returned to a small family estate where he lived in relative poverty, a situation exacerbated by his liberal attitude to serfdom. Around 90% of Poland's population were serfs, tied to their land and magnate by debts of service; Kosciuszko freed many of his own from much of their dues, costing himself greatly in the process.
The history of Poland in the second half of the eighteenth century is characterized as constant change, and by 1789 the situation had altered in Kosciuszko's favour. A combination of liberal reforms, support from the local nobility and the influence of Ludwika Lubomirski - the woman Tadeusz had tried to elope with fourteen years earlier, and who was now married to a Prince - led to Kosciuszko's commission as a Major General. However, this process of reform also brought Poland into conflict with Russia.
In 1791 the Polish Diet (Parliament) passed a new constitution, replacing the older system which Russia had dictated in 1775. The monarchy became hereditary, government was strengthened, and the liberum veto, a system whereby a single dissenting member could veto any decision, was scrapped. The result was a reduction in Russian influence and a more effective, and centralised, Poland. These changes upset both the Russians and some of the, now much weaker, Polish magnates, and in early 1792 the former invaded, joining with the Confederacy of Targowica, a group of the latter.
Two large Russian armies seized the initiative, one marching through the Polish area of the Commonwealth and the second through the Lithuanian, both making large gains. When the army of Prince Louis of Wurttemburg collapsed, mainly through his switch to the confederacy, the remaining Polish forces were forced onto the defensive, retreating in the face of overwhelming odds. It was in this situation that Kosciuszko was asked to defend an area between the Wisla and Bug Rivers.
He established a position at Dubienka: a defensive line situated between two villages - one located near the Austrian border - with a swamp between him and the Russians. The Poles had 5,000 soldiers, and the Russians four times as many. The battle of Dubienka began on the 18th of July when Russian troops, under the command of General Kochowski, mounted several frontal assaults, all of which were off beaten by Kosciuszko's defences. It ended when the Russians marched round and through the Austrian territory, enabling an attack from the rear that finally forced the Poles to withdraw. Kosciuszko was considered a hero despite the retreat - not only was his force intact and able to continue fighting, but the Polish forces had inflicted thousands of casualties on the Russians, while their own dead was estimated in the low hundreds.
It may have re-established his reputation within Poland, but Kosciuszko's defence of Dubienka did not halt the Russian invasion, and within days King Poniatowski had ceded to both the Russians and the confederacy, revoking the constitution of 1791. Many narratives are quick to accuse the King of surrendering too early, citing the growing resilience, and strength, of the Polish army as it fell back and gathered; conversely, others stress the wisdom of avoiding inevitable bloodshed. Many of the generals, including Kosciuszko, were dismayed, and at the end of July, despite a promotion to Lieutenant General and the entreaties of Poniatowski himself, Tadeusz resigned.
The Confederacy of Targowica was quick to consolidate its power, expelling many of the liberal politicians and landowners from the Commonwealth, and Kosciuszko again left Poland. Traveling through Europe, he returned to France with the intention of campaigning for support; the Revolutionary government there made him an honorary French citizen. Although it's unclear what effect this period had on Kosciuszko - how he interpreted these fallow years followed by defeat - the battle of Dubienka left a lasting impression on the Polish people. Kosciuszko was associated with patriotism, valour and success, qualities which they would call on within only two years.
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