The Influence of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, Marquis de Lafayette, and Friedrich Von Steuben

Young Europeans helped their pal George Washington win the War for Independence


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thaddeus kosciuszko
Kosciuszko was a revolutionary at heart

“Schweikart Tadeusz Kosciuszko” by Karl Gottlieb Schweikart - www.wilanow-palac.art.pl licensed under public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Their names are well known to anyone who remembers seventh grade Social Studies — or drives over the bridges or past the monuments dedicated in their honor. But the reasons we know the unpronounceable name of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, as well as the Marquis de Lafayette, might need a little refresher. How, and why, could a 20-something from Poland and a French teenager become so important to the American War of Independence against Great Britain? 

Kos and effect 

Tadeusz (Anglicized to Thaddeus) Kosciuszko was born in 1746 in what was then known as the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, in a village now located in Belarus. He was educated at Poland’s military academy and continued his studies, including architecture, in France. He was also a revolutionary at heart, and when he learned of the uprising in the British Colonies, he set sail for the New World in 1776 and joined the war effort as a colonel of engineers in the Continental Army. 

His first job was building fortifications in Philadelphia, along the Delaware River. The next spring, he joined the Northern Army and recommended adding fortifications to Fort Ticonderoga. His commander ignored him; the British army soon thereafter took the fort without much trouble. Kosciuszko, ordered to slow the British pursuit of the escaping Colonials, blocked their progress by cutting trees, damming streams, and destroying roads and bridges.  

He then selected a strong position near Saratoga and built defenses that were instrumental in winning the famous battle, the first major victory for the Colonies in the war. Kosciuszko’s defenses earned high praise from General Henry Gates, who later told his friend “[T]he great tacticians of the campaign were hills and forests, which a young Polish engineer was skillful enough to select for my encampment.”

In March 1778, Kosciuszko was assigned to West Point. He worked for the next two years strengthening the fort. Much of his legend was built there — a legend that Paul Ackermann, museum specialist with the U.S. Military Academy Museum, thinks is “extremely overrated.” Ackermann says Kosciuszko essentially learned on the job, but was not a highly skilled engineer. “His work in Saratoga is quite worthy of praise, as is his allegiance to the cause, to Gates, and to America,” Ackermann says. “His work was real and very valuable. But what he did at West Point laid the groundwork for the middle phase of development, which is important but not how West Point reached its final extent of defenses.” 

Their names are well known to anyone who remembers seventh grade Social Studies

He says Kosciuszko’s work was “adequate but poorly thought out,” and one redoubt was overdesigned and later amended. It was during this time that West Point was commanded by Benedict Arnold. “[Kosciuszko’s] allegiance was with Gates, not with Arnold, and he didn’t want to work for Arnold,” says Ackermann. “To be polite, he tried to abandon his job and quit.” George Washington assigned him to the Southern Army in 1780. 

 The third and final phase of West Point’s design was done by his successor. “His window at West Point is shorter than what most people think,” Ackermann says. In the South, though, he aided the Continental Army through campaigns in the Carolinas, as an engineer and a fighter. (His only wound in seven years of service was a bayonet in the buttocks while leading an unsuccessful siege.) At the end of the war, he was among the troops that reoccupied Charleston after the British left. He left the Army as a brigadier general, and returned to his homeland — where he became an even bigger hero. 

He fought in his country’s wars against Russia and Prussia and, as commander of the Polish National Armed Forces, he led a fight known as the Kosciuszko Uprising in 1794, which was defeated. He was imprisoned, later pardoned, immigrated to the United States for a time, and eventually returned to Europe and settled in Switzerland, where he died in 1817. 

His accomplishments here, if not quite heroic, as Ackermann believes, were still commendable, especially considering his age and nationality. “Kosciuszko worship, in my estimation, is a bit overplayed,” Ackermann says. “He made mistakes. But he was loyal and followed through. He did make great contributions in all theaters of the Revolutionary War.”

marquis de lafayette
The French-born Marquis de Lafayette came to America at age 19 to join the fight for independence

“Gilbert du Motier Marquis de Lafayette” by Joseph-Désiré Court licensed under public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Noblesse oblige

With a name like Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier, it’s clear that blue blood ran in the veins of the Marquis de Lafayette. He could have sat in his French chateau drinking fine French wine his whole life (at least until the French Revolution rocked the nation). Instead, he supported revolutions against his own class on two continents and became known as “the Hero of Two Worlds.”

Born into a noble military family in Chavaniac, France, in 1757, his parents and grandmother all died by the time he was 13, leaving him a large inheritance. He joined the French Army at 14 and got married at 15, to a 14-year-old of similar nobility. At age 19, he set sail to the nascent United States of America to join the fight. 

The young man wasted no time rising to prominence. He was commissioned a major general and was shot in the leg in his first fight, the Battle of Brandywine. General George Washington took a liking to the teenage rebel and asked doctors to take good care of Lafayette. The fondness was mutual, and lasted throughout their lifetimes. “They had more like a father-son kind of relationship, which you don’t see with Kosciuszko,” Ackermann says. “Washington had more of a business relationship with Kosciuszko, and a more personal relationship with Lafayette.”

Lafayette’s imprint was felt nearly everywhere during the war. In 1778, he escaped British capture at Bunker Hill — now called Lafayette Hill. He led the Continental attack at Monmouth Courthouse and served in the Battle of Rhode Island. He also returned to France to lobby King Louis XVI for the support that helped the Colonials win the war. Before he got there, though, he fell gravely ill and spent several weeks in Fishkill recovering. 

He returned to fight in 1780, and led the forces that held off the British until the American and French armies were well positioned to win the Battle of Yorktown and, effectively, independence.  

“Washington had great pride in Lafayette,” Ackermann says. “For Washington to give him command showed great trust and confidence. He commanded a valuable elite force in the Continental Army, considered the Special Forces of its day. He was a critical element of Washington’s army.”

At age 24 he returned to France. When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, he sided with the underclass and helped draft the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. But as a nobleman, he was ordered arrested, and fled. Caught by Austrian troops, he spent more than five years in prison. After Napoleon Bonaparte ordered his release in 1797, he lay low, but returned to government after Bonaparte was deposed and remained active in French politics for most of the rest of his life.

He was not forgotten in the States, and in 1824 President James Monroe invited him back as the nation’s guest. He visited all 24 states, including a triumphal ride up the Hudson River from New York to Albany. ““He was the living embodiment of the Revolution,”  says Ackermann. 

He died in 1834, leaving behind two daughters and a son, named George Washington. He is buried in Paris, covered in part from soil from Bunker Hill, befitting his position as a hero of two worlds.

friedrich von steuben
Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben, aka Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand Steuben (for short) 

And then there’s Von Steuben

Another foreign-born supporter also helped win American independence. Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand Steuben, which morphed from his birth name, Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben — names were names back then — was born in Prussia in 1730 but earned eternal fame as a major general of the Continental Army. He was a low-level aristocrat but a true military man, and helped teach the rag-tag army how to drill, how to plan, and how to fight. 

In fact, he wrote “Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States,” which became the standard drill manual of the U.S. Army until the War of 1812, some drills remaining in effect until the Mexican War in 1846. Prior to that, his bayonet tactics training played a major role in the American victory at the Battle of Stony Point. He served with Washington at Valley Forge and with General Nathanael Greene in Yorktown, and was Washington’s chief of staff in the final years of the war, even though his English was poor. (He reportedly often yelled for his translator to swear at men in English for him.)

Known here as Baron Von Steuben, he also sat on the court-martial of John André, the British officer who plotted with Benedict Arnold, which was held in Tappan. He made Mount Gulian in Beacon his headquarters, and became one of the founders of the Society of the Cincinnati, the nation’s first fraternal veterans organization. Given American citizenship by the Pennsylvania legislature in 1784 (and by New York in 1786), he lived after the war in Manhattan and New Jersey before settling near Rome, New York, on land given to him for his military service. He died in 1794 and is buried at what is now the Steuben Memorial Historic Site in Steuben, New York — one of scores of towns, counties, bridges, boats, festival days, buildings, football fields, and whatnot named in his honor.

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