Read CHAPTER I - THE YOUTH OF KOSCIUSZKO of Kosciuszko A Biography , free online book, by Monica Mary Gardner, on

The great national uprisings of history have for the most part gone down to time identified with the figure of a people’s hero: with some personality which may be said in a certain manner to epitomize and symbolize the character of a race. “I and my nation are one”: thus Poland’s greatest poet, Adam Mickiewicz, sums up the devotion that will not shrink before the highest tests of sacrifice for a native country. “My name is Million, because I love millions and for millions suffer torment.” If to this patriotism oblivious of self may be added an unstained moral integrity, the magnetism of an extraordinary personal charm, the glamour of a romantic setting, we have the pure type of a national champion. Representative, therefore, in every sense is the man with whose name is immortally associated the struggle of the Polish nation for her life Tadeusz Kosciuszko.

Kosciuszko was born on February 12, 1746, during Poland’s long stagnation under her Saxon kings. The nation was exhausted by wars forced upon her by her alien sovereigns. Her territories were the passage for Prussian, Russian, and Austrian armies, traversing them at their will. With no natural boundaries to defend her, she was surrounded by the three most powerful states in Eastern Europe who were steadily working for her destruction. In part through her own impracticable constitution, but in greater measure from the deliberate machinations of her foreign enemies, whether carried on by secret intrigues or by the armed violence of superior force, Poland’s political life was at a standstill, her parliament obstructed, her army reduced. Yet at the same time the undercurrent of a strong movement to regeneration was striving to make itself felt. Far-seeing men were busying themselves with problems of reform; voices were raised in warning against the perils by which the commonwealth was beset. New ideas were pouring in from France. Efforts were being made by devoted individuals, often at the cost of great personal self-sacrifice, to ameliorate the state of the peasantry, to raise the standard of education and of culture in the country. Under these conditions, in the last years of the independence of Poland, passed the childhood and youth of her future liberator.

Kosciuszko came of a class for which we have no precise equivalent, that ranked as noble in a country where at that time the middle classes were unknown, and where the ordinary gentry, so long as they had nothing to do with trade, showed patents of nobility, irrespective of means and standing. His father, who held a post of notary in his Lithuanian district and who owned more than one somewhat modest estate, was universally respected for his upright character, which, together with his aptitude for affairs, caused his advice and assistance to be widely sought through the countryside. Kosciuszko spent his boyhood in the tranquil, wholesome, out-of-door life of a remote spot in Lithuania. The home was the wooden one-storied dwelling with thatched, sloping roof and rustic veranda, in aspect resembling a sort of glorified cottage, that long after Kosciuszko’s day remained the type of a Polish country house. Kosciuszko’s upbringing was of the simplest and most salutary description. There was neither show nor luxury in his home. The family fortune had been left to his father in an embarrassed condition: his father’s care and diligence had for the time saved it. The atmosphere that surrounded the young Kosciuszko was that of domestic virtue, strict probity. He had before his eyes the example of the devoted married life of his parents. He went freely and intimately among the peasants on his father’s property, and thus learnt the strong love for the people that dictated the laws he urged upon his country when he became her ruler.

Unpretending as was his father’s household, its practice was the patriarchal hospitality that marked the manners of the Poland of a century and a half ago, as it does to-day. Friends and relations came and went, always welcome, whether expected or unbidden. We have a delicious letter from Kosciuszko’s mother, Tekla, to her husband on one of the numerous occasions when he was away from home on business, in which, fondly calling him “my heart, the most beloved little dear Ludwik and benefactor of my life,” she begs him to send her wine, for her house is filled with “perpetual guests,” and will he try and procure her some fish, if there is any to be had, “because I am ashamed to have only barley bread on my table." When accommodation failed in the overcrowded house, the men slept in the barn. In the day they hunted, shot, rode, or went off in parties, mushroom hunting. If to the pure and unspoiled influence of his home Kosciuszko owes something at least of the moral rectitude and devotion to duty from which he never swerved, the country life of Lithuania, with its freedom and its strange charm, the life that he loved above all others, has probably a good deal to say to the simplicity of nature and the straightness of outlook that are such strongly marked characteristics in this son of the Lithuanian forests.

His early education was given him by his mother, a woman of remarkable force of character and practical capacity. Left a widow with four children under age, of whom Tadeusz was the youngest, she, with her clear head and untiring energy, managed several farms and skilfully conducted the highly complicated money matters of the family. Tadeusz’s home schooling ended with his father’s death when the child was twelve years old. He then attended the Jesuit college at the chief town in his district, Brzesc. He was a diligent and clever boy who loved his book and who showed a good deal of talent for drawing. He left school with a sound classical training and with an early developed passion for his country. Already Timoleon was his favourite hero of antiquity because, so he told a friend fifty years later, “he was able to restore his nation’s freedom, taking nothing for himself.”

In 1763 the long and dreary reign of Augustus III, the last Saxon king of Poland, came to an end. Russian diplomacy, supported by Russian cannon, placed Stanislas Augustus Poniatowski, the lover of Catherine II, upon the Polish throne in 1764. The year following, Kosciuszko, an unknown boy of nineteen years of age whose destiny was strangely to collide with that of the newly elected and last sovereign of independent Poland, was entered in the Corps of Cadets, otherwise called the Royal School, in Warsaw. Prince Adam Czartoryski, a leading member of the great family, so predominant then in Polish politics that it was given the name of “The Family” par excellence, frequently visited Lithuania, where he held high military command and possessed immense estates. Young Tadeusz attracted his interest, and it was through his influence that the boy was placed in an establishment of which he was the commandant and which, founded by the King, who was related to the Czartoryskis, was under immediate Royal patronage. Technically speaking, the school was not a military academy, but the education was largely military and the discipline was on military lines. Above all, it was a school for patriotism.

The admission of the candidate was in the nature of a semi-chivalrous and national function, bearing the stamp of the knightly and romantic traditions of Poland. On the first day Kosciuszko was formally presented to the commandant, to the officers and to the brigade to which he was to belong. He embraced his new comrades, was initiated into the regulations and duties of the life before him and examined upon his capabilities. On the following day he gave in his promise to observe the rules, and with a good deal of ceremony was invested with the deep blue uniform of the cadet. But this was merely the probation of the “novice,” as the aspirant was termed. A year’s test followed, and then if judged worthy the youth received in the chapel his final enrolment. All his colleagues were present in full dress carrying their swords. High Mass was sung, which the “novice” heard kneeling and unarmed. The chaplain then laid before him his high obligation to his country; subsequently the proceedings were adjourned to the hall or square, where the brigadier proffered the neophyte’s request for his sword. With the brigadier’s hand on his left arm, on his right that of the sub-brigadier the sub-brigadiers being the senior students the candidate was put through a string of questions, reminiscent of those administered to a probationer taking the religious vows. One is typical: “Hast thou the sincere resolve always to use this weapon which thou art about to receive in defence of thy country and thy honour?” On the youth’s reply, “I have no other resolve,” arms were presented, drums rolled, and the senior officer girded the new soldier with his sword, and placed his musket in his hand to the accompaniment of moral formulas. The young man then made a solemn promise not to disgrace his comrades by any crime or want of application to his duties. Led to his place in the ranks, he presented arms, each brigade marched away, led by its brigadier, and the day concluded with a festive evening.

The catechism that the cadet learnt by heart and repeated every Saturday to his sub-brigadier it was written by Adam Czartoryski was of the same patriotic description. Next to the love of God it placed the love of country. “Can the cadet fear or be a coward?” was one of its questions, with the response, “I know not how to answer, for both the word and the thing for which it stands are unknown to me.” This was no mere ornamental flourish: for a dauntless courage is one of the most distinctive characteristics of the Polish race, whether of its sons or daughters. No opportunity was lost, even in the textbooks of the school, to impress upon the students’ minds that above all their lives belonged to Poland. Let them apply themselves to history, said the foreword of an encyclopaedia that Adam Czartoryski wrote expressly for them, so that they shall learn how to rule their own nation; to the study of law, that they may correct the errors of those lawgivers gone before them. “You who have found your country in this most lamentable condition must people her with citizens ardent for her glory, the increase of her internal strength, her reputation among foreigners, the reformation of what is most evil in her government. May you, the new seed, change the face of your country.”

In this environment Kosciuszko spent the most impressionable period of his youth. Early portraits show us the winning, eager, mobile young face before life moulded it into the rugged countenance of the Polish patriot, with its stern purpose and melancholy enthusiasm, that lives as the likeness of Tadeusz Kosciuszko. Even as a cadet Kosciuszko was distinguished not merely for his ability, but still more for his dogged perseverance and fidelity to duty. Tradition say that, determined to put in all the study that he could, he persuaded the night watchman to wake him on his way to light the staves at three in the morning by pulling a cord that Kosciuszko tied to his left hand. His colleagues thought that his character in its firmness and resolution resembled that of Charles XII of Sweden, and nicknamed him “Swede.” Truth and sincerity breathed in his every act and word. What he said he meant. What he professed he did. The strength that was in him was tempered by that peculiar sweetness which was native to him all his life, and which in later manhood drew men as by magic to his banners, even as in his school-days it won the respect and love of his young comrades. The esteem in which his fellow-cadets held him is illustrated by the fact that on an occasion when they were mortally offended by some slight put upon them at a ball in the town they chose Kosciuszko as their spokesman to present their grievances to the King, who took a personal interest in the school. Something about the youth attracted the brilliant, highly cultured sovereign, the man who wavered according to the emotion or fear of the moment between the standpoint of a patriot or of a traitor. After that interview he often sent for Tadeusz; and when Kosciuszko passed out of the school as one of its head scholars or officers, he was recommended to Stanislas Augustus as a recipient of what we should call a State travelling scholarship.

In 1768 Kosciuszko’s mother died, leaving her two daughters married, the eldest, spendthrift, and most beloved son out on his own, and Tadeusz still a cadet. With his mother’s death Kosciuszko’s financial troubles began. For the greater part of his life he never knew what it was to have a sufficiency of means. His brother held the estate and apparently the control of the family money, that was no considerable sum and had in latter years diminished. Public affairs, moreover, were now assuming an aspect that threatened the very existence of Kosciuszko’s country. Catherine II’s minister, Repnin, with Russian armies at his back, ruled the land. The Poles who stood forward in a last despairing attempt to deliver their country were removed by Russian troops to exile and Siberia. Then in 1768 rose under the Pulaski father and sons that gallant movement to save a nation’s honour that is known as the Confederation of Bar. For four years the confederates fought in guerilla warfare all over Poland, in forest, marsh, hamlet, against the forces of Russia which held every town and fortress in the country. These things were the last that Kosciuszko saw of the old Republic of Poland. In the company of his friend Orlowski, who had been one of four cadets to receive the King’s stipend, he departed from his country in 1769 or 1770 with the intention of pursuing his studies abroad.

Five years passed before Kosciuszko saw his native land again. Very little is known to us of that stage of his history. It is certain that he studied in the school of engineering and artillery in Mezières and conceivably in the Ecole Militaire of Paris. He took private lessons in architecture from Perronet, and followed up his strong taste for drawing and painting. Sketches from his hand still remain, guarded as treasures in Polish national museums. French fortifications engaged his close attention, and by the time he left France he had acquired the skill in military engineering that saved a campaign in the New World and that defended Warsaw in the Old.

It is said that Kosciuszko prolonged his absence abroad rather than return to see the enslavement of his country without being able to raise a hand in her defence. For in 1772 Russia, Austria, and Prussia signed an agreement to partition Poland between them, which, after a desperate resistance on the part of the Polish Diet, was carried out in 1775. Austria secured Galicia, Prussia a part of Great Poland and, with the exception of Thorn and Danzig, what has since been known as “Prussian” Poland, while to Russia fell the whole of Lithuania.

All this Kosciuszko watched from afar in helpless rage and bitterness of soul. His peace of mind was further destroyed by his increasing financial difficulties. Little enough of his share of his father’s fortune could have remained to him, and he was in debt. The Royal subsidy had ceased when the treasury was ruined by reason of the partition of Poland. Moreover, Stanislas Augustus was never a sure source on which to rely when it came to the question of keeping a promise or paying his dues. The greater part of Kosciuszko’s career is that of a man pitted against the weight of adverse circumstance. It was inevitable that he who threw in his lot with an unhappy country could have no easy passage through life. In this he resembles more than one of the national heroes of history; but unlike many another, he never reached the desired goal. His is the tragedy of a splendid and forlorn hope. Even apart from the story of his public service his life was dogged by disappointment and harassing care.

Somewhere in the year 1774 he at last returned home. A youth of twenty-eight, possessed of striking talent and freshly acquired science, he now, with his fiery patriotism and character as resolute as ardent, found himself in the country that he panted to serve condemned to inaction of the most galling description. The King who had been his patron was the tool of Catherine II and through her of Russia. Russian soldiers and officials overran even that part of Poland which still remained nominally independent, but of which they were virtual masters. There was no employment open to Kosciuszko. A commission in the minute army that survived the partition was only to be had by purchase, and he had no money forthcoming. All that he could do was to retire into the country, while he devoted his energies to the thankless task of disentangling the finances that the elder brother, Jozef Kosciuszko, was squandering right and left in debts and dissipation. The relations between this riotous brother and Tadeusz, himself the most frugal and upright of youths, were so painful that the latter refused to remain in the old home that had not yet gone, as it did later, to Jozef’s creditors. He therefore in true Polish fashion took up his abode in the houses of different kinsfolk, often staying with his married sisters, and especially with that best beloved sister, Anna Estkowa. Between him and her there was always the bond of a most tender and intimate affection, to which their letters, still preserved in Polish archives, bear eloquent testimony.

At this time occurred the first love affair of the hero, who never married. Among the manor-houses that Kosciuszko visited was that of Jozef Sosnowski. He was Kosciuszko’s kinsman and had been his father’s friend. Tadeusz was a constant guest at his house, giving lessons in drawing, mathematics, and history, his favourite subjects, to the daughters of the house by way of return for their father’s hospitality. With one of these girls, Ludwika, Kosciuszko fell in love. Various tender passages passed between them, without the knowledge of the parents but aided and abetted by the young people of the family, in an arbour in the garden. But another destiny was preparing for the lady. The young and poor engineer’s aspirations to her hand were not tolerated by the father whose ambition had already led him into dealings that throw no very creditable light on his patriotism, and that had Kosciuszko known he would certainly never have frequented his house. Over the gaming tables Sosnowski had made a bargain with his opponent, a palatine of the Lubomirski family, in which it was arranged that the latter’s son should marry Ludwika Sosnowska. Getting wind of the Kosciuszko romance, he privately bade the girl’s mother remove her from the scenes; and when one day Kosciuszko arrived at the manor he found the ladies gone.

The bitter affront and the disappointment to his affections were accepted by Kosciuszko with the silent dignity that belonged to his character; but they played their part in driving him out of Poland. Whether the story that Ludwika really fled to take refuge from the detested marriage imposed upon her in a convent, whence she was dragged by a ruse and forced to the bridal altar, as long afterwards she told Kosciuszko, was a romantic invention of her own or an embroidery, after the fashion of her century, on some foundation of fact, it is impossible to say; but it is certain that through her unhappy married life she clung fondly to the memory of her first and young lover. So long after the rupture as fourteen years his name was a forbidden topic between herself and her mother, and at a critical moment in Kosciuszko’s career we shall find her stepping in to use her rank and position with Stanislas Augustus on his behalf.

With home, fortune, hopes of domestic happiness, all chance of serving his country, gone, Kosciuszko determined to seek another sphere. He left Poland in the autumn of 1775.

Poverty constrained him to make the journey in the cheapest manner possible. He therefore went down the Vistula in a barge, one of the picturesque flat-bottomed craft that still ply on Poland’s greatest river the river which flows through two of her capitals and was, it is well said, partitioned with the land it waters from the Carpathians to the Baltic, On his way down the river he would, observes his chief Polish biographer, have seen for the first time, and not the last, the evidence before his eyes that his country lay conquered as his boat passed the Prussian cordon over waters that once were Polish. Thus he came down to the quaint old port of Danzig, with its stately old-world burgher palaces and heavily carved street doors, then still Poland’s, but which Prussia was only biding her time to seize in a fresh dismemberment of Polish territory.

Dead silence surrounds the following six months of Kosciuszko’s life. Every probability points to the fact that he would have gone to Paris, where he had studied so long and where he had many friends and interests. The envoys from America were there on the mission of enlisting the help of France in the conflict of the States with Great Britain. We do not know whether Kosciuszko became personally acquainted with any of them. At all events the air was full of the story of a young country striving for her independence; and it is not surprising that when next the figure of Kosciuszko stands out clearly in the face of history it is as a volunteer offering his sword to the United States to fight in the cause of freedom.