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Tadeusz Kosciuszko (1746 - 1817)
The Kosciuszko Uprising 1 - Rebellion and Raclawice (1792 - 1794)

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

Elsewhere On The Web
Belarusian Perspective
Decline and Partition
Kosciuszko's Campaigns

On the 23rd January 1793 Poland-Lithuania suffered the second partition: Prussia and Russia occupied a further 42% of the Commonwealth's territory, and Russian soldiers remained in the rest. Coupled with an economic crisis, this was too much for even for the confederate magnates who had invited the Russian invasion of 1792, and massive anti-foreign sentiment grew. Over the winter of 1793 an uprising was planned, and messages were sent to Kosciuszko, asking him to be the leader.

For the divided Polish-Lithuanian nobility, Kosciuszko must have been a simple choice: he had proven experience, a strong reputation, and firm ideals of Polish freedom; equally, they would have been unable to agree on one of their own number. Although Kosciuszko did return to Poland in the winter of 1793/4, he soon left, having decided that the preparations were incomplete. Modern commentators have used hindsight to criticize this decision, because in the March of 1774 Russian forces discovered the plans and made major arrests, weakening the rebels. It is, most probably, a mistake to fault Kosciuszko for this; nevertheless, the Russian action triggered an uprising, and Tadeusz hurried back.

Kosciousko was given total command of the rebellion, and on March 24th 1794 he swore an oath in Krakow Market Square amidst a large gathering, in which he promised to recover the Commonwealth's borders, sovereignty and freedom, while not abusing his new powers. Whereas in America, where he had served in a revolution, Kosciuszko was now in charge of one.

He quickly set about improving the scattered Polish army, which consisted of between ten to fifteen thousand trained men, fewer than the Russians had stationed in the Commonwealth. Kosciuszko introduced conscription, using peasants to bolster existing regiments and form new units. Whereas the actual troops had weapons and equipment, the peasants were both untrained and unarmed, and Poland had no military industry to supply them. Kosciuszko's solution was both practical and ingenious. The conscripted serfs where to transform their scythes into pikes and spears by converting the angled blade into a straight point. These crude, but wholly effective, weapons could be coupled with the peasant's years of reaping to create an interesting, and rather effective, unit - the Kosinierzy, 'scythe-bearers'.

After his declaration in Krakow, Kosciuszko marched towards Warsaw. Although he had mustered 4000 regular troops and 2000 Kosinierzy, the Russian force that stood in his way still outnumbered him. They came together at Raclawice, where General Tormasow of the Russian army attacked. Kosciuszko eschewed the conventional tactics of forming up in clear units, instead adopting techniques he had learnt in the American war for independence: with the regular troops as a distraction, the Kosinierzy advanced stealthily through cover, breaking when they were within a few hundred yards of the enemy artillery. Their victory, supposedly led by Kosciouszko himself, was swift and clear - they captured the cannons, and pushed the Russians into retreat.

Although Raclawice was a relatively minor military victory - the Russian force remained intact - the effect on the Polish-Lithuanian consciousness was immense. Kosciuszko was an even greater hero than before, and thousands more peasants rose up to join the rebellion; in the last weeks of April there were large rebellions in Warsaw, Wilno and other important towns. These were initially effective, expelling Russian garrisons and capturing their supplies, as well as bloody: 'traitors', Poles who had favoured the Russian occupation, were killed. Kosciuszko fed the impetus on May 7th when he announced the Manifesto of Polaniec, a policy which cut back vastly on both serfdom and the service owed by peasants.

Modern commentaries on the rebellion tend to attribute the Manifesto of Polaniec to either Kosciuszko's ideals, a belief that all serfdom should end, or his military need: freeing the peasants would prompt many of them to fight. The reality was probably a mixture of these two factors, as both were driving Kosciuszko. It is also important to remember that, contrary to the impression given by some modern accounts, the uprising included other commanders and groups. In the Lithuanian areas of the Commonwealth Colonel Jakub Jasinski took control of rebellious forces, while negotiation was needed before the Council of Vilnia (located in the same region) would cooperate; they agreed to follow only Kosciuszko, and not the insurrectionary government he led.

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

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