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Among the remarkable men of modern times there is perhaps none whose fame is purer from reproach than that of Thaddeus Kosciusko. His name is enshrined in the ruins of his unhappy country, which, with heroic bravery and devotion, he sought to defend against foreign oppression and foreign domination. Kosciusko was born at Warsaw about the year 1746. He was educated at the School of Cadets, in that city, where he distinguished himself so much in scientific studies as well as in drawing, that he was selected as one of four students of that institution who were sent to travel at the expense of the state, with a view of perfecting their talents. In this capacity he visited France, where he remained for several years, devoting himself to studies of various kinds. On his return to his own country he entered the army, and obtained the command of a company. But he was soon obliged to expatriate himself again, in order to fly from a violent but unrequited passion for the daughter of the Marshal of Lithuania, one of the first officers of state of the Polish court.
He bent his steps to that part of North America which was then waging its war of independence against England. Here he entered the army, and served with distinction as one of the adjutants of General Washington. While thus employed, he became acquainted with Lafayette, Lameth, and other distinguished Frenchmen serving in the same cause, and was honored by receiving the most flattering praises from Franklin, as well as the public thanks of the Congress of the United Provinces. He was also decorated with the new American order of Cincinnatus, being the only European, except Lafayette, to whom it was given.
At the termination of the war he returned to his own country, where he lived in retirement till the year 1789, at which period he was promoted by the Diet to the rank of major-general. That body was at this time endeavoring to place its military force upon a respectable footing, in the vain hope of restraining and diminishing the domineering influence of foreign powers in what still remained of Poland. It also occupied itself in changing the vicious constitution of that unfortunate and ill-governed country--in rendering the monarchy hereditary, in declaring universal toleration, and in preserving the privileges of the nobility, while at the same time it ameliorated the condition of the lower orders. In all these improvements Stanislas Poniatowski, the reigning king, readily concurred; though the avowed intention of the Diet was to render the crown hereditary in the Saxon family. The King of Prussia (Frederick William II.), who, from the time of the treaty of Cherson, in 1787, between Russia and Austria, had become hostile to the former power, also encouraged the Poles in their proceedings; and even gave them the most positive assurances of assisting them, in case the changes they were effecting occasioned any attacks from other sovereigns.
Russia at length, having made peace with the Turks, prepared to throw her sword into the scale. A formidable opposition to the measures of the Diet had arisen, even among the Poles themselves, and occasioned what was called the confederation of Targowicz, to which the Empress of Russia promised her assistance. The feeble Stanislas, who had proclaimed the new constitution in 1791, bound himself in 1792 to sanction the Diet of Grodno, which restored the ancient constitution, with all its vices and all its abuses. In the meanwhile Frederick William, King of Prussia, who had so mainly contributed to excite the Poles to their enterprises, basely deserted them, and refused to give them any assistance. On the contrary, he stood aloof from the contest, waiting for that share of the spoil which the haughty empress of the north might think proper to allot to him, as a reward of his non-interference.
But though thus betrayed on all sides, the Poles were not disposed to submit without a struggle. They flew to arms, and found in the nephew of their king, the Prince Joseph Poniatowski, a general worthy to conduct so glorious a cause. Under his command Kosciusko first became known in European warfare. He distinguished himself in the battle of Zielenec, and still more in that of Dubienska, which took place on June 18, 1792. Upon this latter occasion he defended for six hours, with only 4,000 men, against 15,000 Russians, a post which had been slightly fortified in twenty-four hours, and at last retired with inconsiderable loss.
But the contest was too unequal to last; the patriots were overwhelmed by enemies from without, and betrayed by traitors within, at the head of whom was their own sovereign. The Russians took possession of the country, and proceeded to appropriate those portions of Lithuania and Volhynia which suited their convenience; while Prussia, the friendly Prussia, invaded another part of the kingdom.
Under these circumstances the most distinguished officers in the Polish army retired from the service, and of this number was Kosciusko. Miserable at the fate of his unhappy country, and at the same time an object of suspicion to the ruling powers, he left his native land and retired to Leipsic, where he received intelligence of the honor which had been conferred upon him by the Legislative Assembly of France, who had invested him with the quality of a French citizen.
But his fellow-countrymen were still anxious to make another struggle for independence, and they unanimously selected Kosciusko as their chief and generalissimo. He obeyed the call, and found the patriots eager to combat under his orders. Even the noble Joseph Poniatowski, who had previously commanded in chief, returned from France, whither he had retired, and received from the hands of Kosciusko the charge of a portion of his army.
The patriots had risen in the north of Poland, to which part Kosciusko first directed his steps. Anxious to begin his campaign with an action of vigor, he marched rapidly toward Cracow, which town he entered triumphantly on March 24, 1794. He forthwith published a manifesto against the Russians; and then, at the head of only 5,000 men, he marched to meet their army. He encountered, on April 4th, 10,000 Russians at a place called Wraclawic, and entirely defeated them after a combat of four hours. He returned in triumph to Cracow, and shortly afterward marched along the left bank of the Vistula to Polaniec, where he established his head-quarters.
Meanwhile the inhabitants of Warsaw, animated by the recital of the heroic deeds of their countrymen, had also raised the standard of independence, and were successful in driving the Russians from the city, after a murderous conflict of three days. In Lithuania and Samogitia an equally successful revolution was effected before the end of April, while the Polish troops stationed in Volhynia and Podolia marched to the reinforcement of Kosciusko.
Thus far fortune seemed to smile upon the cause of Polish freedom--the scene was, however, about to change. The undaunted Kosciusko, having first organized a national council to conduct the affairs of government, once more advanced against the Russians. On his march he met a new enemy in the person of the faithless Frederick William, of Prussia, who, without having even gone through the preliminary of declaring war, had advanced into Poland at the head of 40,000 men.
Kosciusko, with but 13,000 men, attacked the Prussian army on June 8th, at Szcekociny. The battle was long and bloody; at length, overwhelmed by numbers, he was obliged to retreat toward Warsaw. This he effected in so able a manner that his enemies did not dare to harass him in his march; and he effectually covered the capital and maintained his position for two months against vigorous and continued attacks. Immediately after this reverse the Polish general, Zaionczeck, lost the battle of Chelm, and the Governor of Cracow had the baseness to deliver the town to the Prussians without attempting a defence.
These disasters occasioned disturbances among the disaffected at Warsaw, which, however, were put down by the vigor and firmness of Kosciusko. On July 13th the forces of the Prussians and Russians, amounting to 50,000 men, assembled under the walls of Warsaw, and commenced the siege of that city. After six weeks spent before the place, and a succession of bloody conflicts, the confederates were obliged to raise the siege; but this respite to the Poles was but of short duration.
Their enemies increased fearfully in number, while their own resources diminished. Austria now determined to assist in the annihilation of Poland, and caused a body of her troops to enter that kingdom. Nearly at the same moment the Russians ravaged Lithuania; and the two corps of the Russian army commanded by Suwarof and Fersen, effected their junction in spite of the battle of Krupezyce, which the Poles had ventured upon, with doubtful issue, against the first of these commanders, on September 16th.
Upon receiving intelligence of these events Kosciusko left Warsaw, and placed himself at the head of the Polish army. He was attacked by the very superior forces of the confederates on October 10, 1794, at a place called Macieiowice, and for many hours supported the combat against overwhelming odds. At length he was severely wounded, and as he fell, he uttered the prophetic words "Finis Poloniae." It is asserted that he had exacted from his followers an oath, not to suffer him to fall alive into the hands of the Russians, and that in consequence the Polish cavalry, being unable to carry him off, inflicted some severe sabre wounds on him and left him for dead on the field; a savage fidelity, which we half admire even in condemning it. Be this as it may, he was recognized and delivered from the plunderers by some Cossack chiefs; and thus was saved from death to meet a scarcely less harsh fate--imprisonment in a Russian dungeon.
Thomas Wawrzecki became the successor of Kosciusko in the command of the army; but with the loss of their heroic leader all hope had deserted the breasts of the Poles. They still, however, fought with all the obstinacy of despair, and defended the suburb of Warsaw, called Praga, with great gallantry. At length this post was wrested from them. Warsaw itself capitulated on November 9, 1794; and this calamity was followed by the entire dissolution of the Polish army on the 18th of the same month.
During this time, Kosciusko remained in prison at St. Petersburg; but, at the end of two years, the death of his persecutress, the Empress Catharine, released him. One of the first acts of the Emperor Paul was to restore him to liberty, and to load him with various marks of his favor. Among other gifts of the autocrat was a pension, by which, however, the high-spirited patriot would never consent to profit. No sooner was he beyond the reach of Russian influence than he returned to the donor the instrument by which this humiliating favor was conferred. From this period the life of Kosciusko was passed in retirement. He went first to England, and then to the United States of America. He returned to the Old World in 1798, and took up his abode in France, where he divided his time between Paris and a country-house he had bought near Fontainebleau. While here he received the appropriate present of the sword of John Sobieski, which was sent to him by some of his countrymen serving in the French armies in Italy, who had found it in the shrine at Loretto.
Napoleon, when about to invade Poland in 1807, wished to use the name of Kosciusko in order to rally the people of the country round his standard. The patriot, aware that no real freedom was to be hoped for under such auspices, at once refused to lend himself to his wishes. Upon this the emperor forged Kosciusko's signature to an address to the Poles, which was distributed throughout the country. Nor would he permit the injured person to deny the authenticity of this act in any public manner. The real state of the case was, however, made known to many through the private representations of Kosciusko; but he was never able to publish a formal denial of the transaction till after the fall of Napoleon.
When the Russians, in 1814, had penetrated into Champagne, and were advancing toward Paris, they were astonished to hear that their former adversary was living in retirement in that part of the country. The circumstances of this discovery were striking. The commune in which Kosciusko lived was subjected to plunder, and among the troops thus engaged he observed a Polish regiment. Transported with anger, he rushed among them, and thus addressed the officers: "When I commanded brave soldiers they never pillaged; and I should have punished severely subalterns who allowed of disorders such as those which we see around. Still more severely should I have punished older officers, who authorized such conduct by their culpable neglect." "And who are you," was the general cry, "that you dare to speak with such boldness to us?" "I am Kosciusko." The effect was electric: the soldiery cast down their arms, prostrated themselves at his feet, and cast dust upon their heads according to a national usage, supplicating his forgiveness for the fault which they had committed. For twenty years the name of Kosciusko had not been heard in Poland save as that of an exile; yet it still retained its ancient power over Polish hearts; a power never used but for some good and generous end.
The Emperor Alexander honored him with a long interview, and offered him an asylum in his own country. But nothing could induce Kosciusko again to see his unfortunate native land. In 1815 he retired to Soleure, in Switzerland; where he died, October 16, 1817, in consequence of an injury received by a fall from his horse. Not long before he had abolished slavery upon his Polish estate, and declared all his serfs entirely free, by a deed registered and executed with every formality that could insure the full performance of his intention. The mortal remains of Kosciusko were removed to Poland at the expense of Alexander, and have found a fitting place of rest in the cathedral of Cracow, between those of his companions in arms, Joseph Poniatowski, and the greatest of Polish warriors, John Sobieski.