Read CHAPTER IV - THE FIRST FIGHT FOR POLAND of Kosciuszko A Biography , free online book, by Monica Mary Gardner, on

In 1791, amidst an outburst of national rejoicing, was passed the Polish Constitution of the 3rd of May. Polish music and song have commemorated the day to this hour the Polish nation dedicates each recurrent anniversary to its memory when Poland triumphantly burst the shackles that were sapping her life and stood forth in the van of European states with a legislation that evoked the admiration of Burke, Walpole, and the foremost thinkers of the age. The old abuses were swept away. A constitutional and hereditary monarchy was established. Burghers were granted equal civic rights with the nobility, the condition of the peasants was ameliorated. Freedom was proclaimed to all who set foot upon the soil of Poland.

New life now lay before the transfigured Polish state. But an internally strong and politically reformed Poland would have dealt the death-blow to Russia’s designs of conquest. Catherine II’s policy was therefore to force back internal anarchy upon the nation that had abjured it, and to prevent the new Constitution from being carried into effect. She had in her hand a minority of Polish nobles who had no mind to part with their inordinate privileges that the new laws had abolished, and who regarded a liberal constitution with distrust and disfavour. At the Empress’s instigation the chief of the malcontents, Felix Potocki, Xavery Branicki, and Severin Rzewuski, went to Petersburg to lay their grievances before her. Out of this handful of Polish traitors Catherine formed a confederation, supported by Russia; and in the spring of 1792 she formally declared war upon Poland. Such is the tragic story of the Confederation of Targowica, the name that has gone down to odium in the history of Poland, its members held as traitors by Polish posterity and by the majority of their contemporaries.

While events were thus hurrying on in his country Kosciuszko, himself ready to strain every nerve in her cause, wrote in the April of 1792 to Michal Zaleski:

“Having heard that you are staying in the Brzesc palatinate and are my near neighbour, and always my partisan and friend, I cannot refrain from sending you the expression of esteem which is due to you, as well as one of astonishment that you have sacrificed this time to domestic tranquillity and to your own happiness, living with the lady admired by all and most especially beloved by me for her character and most beautiful soul, and that you have abandoned your country, to which you could have been of great assistance. This is the time when even where there is diversity of opinions there ought to be one unity of aim for her happiness, for leading her to importance in Europe, to internally good government. I well know and am convinced of your character, heart and patriotism; but, as your talents, judgment, wit, and general knowledge of law are well known, so I should wish that you would be of assistance to your country. It is a sure fact that every citizen, even the most unimportant and least instructed, can contribute to the universal good, but he to whom the Almighty has given understanding of affairs greater than that of others sins when he ceases to be active. We must all unite in one aim: to release our land from the domination of foreigners, from the abasement and destruction of the very name of Pole. On ourselves depends the amendment of the government, on our morals; and if we are base, covetous, interested, careless of our country, it is just that we shall have chains on our necks, and we shall be worthy of them."

Through the spring of 1792 Kosciuszko was preparing the division of the army under his command for the war with Russia. His were still the heart-burnings that he was to experience whenever he was at the head of men, those of a commander who had neither sufficient soldiers, ammunition, nor provisions. On the 21st of May the King delivered a stirring speech to the Diet. “You behold deeds,” he said, alluding to the Confederation of Targowica, “that aim at the destruction of the authority and existence of the present Diet and of the restoration of our entire independence. You behold the open support of those compatriots who are committing violence against the welfare and will of our country. You behold, therefore, the indispensable necessity that we should adopt as best we can every measure to defend and save our country. Whatever, honourable Estates, you resolve I will not only accede to, but I hereby declare that I will take my place in person wheresoever my presence shall be called for.” Probably those of his audience who knew the King best took his words at their true value.

On May 22nd the Russian army crossed the frontier. Poland appealed to the terms of her treaty with Prussia, and requested the Prussian state to come to her assistance. Prussia threw off the mask and disavowed her treaty obligations; and the Poles were left to their own resources. Their numbers equalled, according to Kosciuszko’s computation, one single column of the Russian army. An empty treasury, an empty arsenal, were behind them; they were pitted against seasoned soldiers, trained in successful war; but the fire of patriotism ran high through their ranks. Many of the nobles, following the old traditions of Polish history, raised regiments in their own provinces, armed them at their own cost, and in person led them to the field. The commander-in-chief was young Jozef Poniatowski, the nephew of the King. He was to become one of the most popular of Poland’s heroes, as the brilliant leader of a Polish army during the Napoleonic wars; but at this moment he was a youth of twenty-eight, whose military knowledge was wholly negligible, and who owed his high position to his family connections. The only Polish general who had practical experience of war was Kosciuszko; and with him, for all Poniatowski’s devoted service of his country, rests the chief fame of the Ukraine campaign.

The story of that three months’ campaign is one of a gallant struggle of a little army, now winning, now losing, inflicting heavy loss upon a superior enemy, but gradually driven back by overwhelming numbers through Volhynia and Podoha. During all these weeks of desperate fighting Kosciuszko figures as the man whose bravery and skill again and again saved the critical moment. In his dispatches to the King, whose arrival in the Polish camp was daily looked for, and who never came, Poniatowski praises Kosciuszko as “doing great service, not only by his courage, but also by his singular prudence.” At Wlodzimierz, when the Polish army was in the utmost danger of annihilation, Kosciuszko thrust back the attack of “the whole Russian army” the quotation is his with heavy; loss to the Russians and little to the Poles. It was, thus Poniatowski declares in his report to the King, thanks “to the good and circumspect dispositions of General Kosciuszko that our retreat was continued in unbroken order.” The subsequent safe passage of the army over the river is again ascribed to Kosciuszko. And so we arrive at the famous day of Dubienka, fought on the banks of the Bug between the marshes of Polesie and Galicia, which covered Kosciuszko’s name with glory, and which by tragic paradox saw the end of that stage of his nation’s hope for freedom.

Kosciuszko has left a manuscript account, written in the nature of a rough sketch, of the Ukraine campaign. It passed into the keeping of Stanislas Potocki, one of the great pioneers of educational reform in Poland, not to be confounded with his ill-famed namesake, Felix Potocki. In it Kosciuszko gives with brevity and characteristic modesty the account of the battle: how, with Poniatowski too far off to render assistance, and the safety of the whole Polish army depending upon Kosciuszko, “left to himself,” to cite his own words he invariably employs the third person he threw up defences and prepared for the Russian attack. Through the day of July 18th he stood with five thousand Poles and eight cannon against a Russian army of twenty thousand soldiers and forty cannon, repelling the enemy with sanguinary loss to the latter. One of his officers who fought by his side told afterwards how he had seen Kosciuszko in the hottest fire calm and collected as though taking a stroll. The battle that has been called the Polish Thermopylae only closed when towards evening the Russian commander, Kachowski, violated neutral territory and fell upon the Poles from the side of Galicia, so that, hopelessly outnumbered, they were compelled to retreat. The retreat through the forest on a pitch-dark night was led by Kosciuszko, says an eyewitness, “with the utmost coolness and in the greatest order,” directing an incessant fire on the pursuing Russians that told heavily upon them. Kniaziewicz, whom we last saw in a less stern moment of Kosciuszko’s life, here played a gallant part.

It has been pointed out that the honours of the day fell, not to the winner of the field of Dubienka, but to the vanquished: to Kosciuszko, not to the Russian general, Kachowski. Pole and Russian alike speak of the high military talent that Kosciuszko displayed, no less than of the valour that fought on, refusing defeat till hope was no more. The immediate result so far as Kosciuszko was personally concerned was the acknowledgment of his services by the King in the shape of promotion and the nomination he greatly desired to the command of one of the chief regiments in the Polish army, with all the affluence that these rewards bestowed upon a man who had never hitherto enjoyed wealth. His fame, too, travelled beyond the confines of his country, and the Legislative Assembly in Paris conferred upon him the title of Citizen of France.

But the battle of Dubienka was not a week old, and the army was eager for fresh action, when the King gave in his adherence to the Confederation of Targowica; in other words, sold himself and his nation to Russia. The echoes of his speech to the Diet, calling upon the nation to fight till death, vowing that he was ready to make the sacrifice of his own life should his country need it, were still in the ears of those who had heard it. The army had waited in vain for him to place himself at its head; then Catherine II threatened him, and as usual he dared not disobey. “Yielding to the desire of the Empress,” he told his subjects, “and to the necessities of the country,” he condemned the proceedings of the long Diet in which he had recognized the salvation of Poland at that one great moment of his life when he had thrown in his lot with the noble party of patriotic reform; and now, as the mouthpiece of Catherine II, he pronounced the nation’s only safety to be with the promoters of Targowica. The most favourable view of Stanislas Augustus’s conduct has little more to urge in his favour than that he was neither a fool nor a hero, saw no hope of success in the national movement, and preferred to throw in his lot with the other side. It was on the 23rd of July that the King signed the Confederation of Targowica. The news fell as the sentence of death upon the Polish camp that was palpitating with patriotic ardour. In the presence of all his officers Poniatowski wrote to the King as plainly as he dared: News is here going through the camp which surely must be spread by ill-disposed men who wish evil to Your Majesty, as though Your Majesty would treat with the betrayers of our country. The degradation of cringing to the betrayers of our country would be our grave."

The army, was, however, bidden by the King to lay down arms, and was recalled to Warsaw. “It is impossible to express the grief, despair, and anger of the army against the King,” wrote Kosciuszko several months later as he collected his memories of the campaign in the manuscript notes referred to above. “The Prince-General himself gave proof of the greatest attachment to the country. All recognized the King’s bad will, since there was still the possibility of defeating the Russian army.” Kosciuszko was present at one of the conferences held after the arrival of the Royal mandate between the Polish commander and Kachowski; and he could not restrain tears of wrath as he took stock of the Russian officers whom he was convinced that, were it not for treachery at headquarters, Poland could have overcome. Honour forbade the Polish officers to retain their commissions any longer in a service that was no more national, but that was in the domination of Russia and of those who were playing into her hands. On the march back to Warsaw, Poniatowski sent in his resignation to the King, and on another page of The same document Kosciuszko followed by hundreds of others in a few laconic words laid down his tardily and hardly won command.

“Since,” his note runs, “the change in the national conditions are contrary to my original oath and internal convictions, I have the honour to request Your Royal Majesty for the favour of signing my resignation.


“We have sent our notes to the King,” writes Kosciuszko to his warm friend, Adam Czartoryski’s wife, to whom he poured out the wounds of his heart, bleeding at the sight of the terrible danger under which his country was being submerged, “requesting for our resignations, and for this reason, that in time we may not be drawn into an oath against our convictions, that we may not be colleagues of those three [Branicki, Felix Potocki, and Rzewuski], and for fear that the King, if we requested later on for our resignations, will by that time not have the power to grant them to us. Therefore, we wish to secure ourselves, declaring to the King that if there is nothing against the country in these negotiations [with Russia], and if those personages will not be in the army, then we will serve, and withdraw our resignations. I expect to be in Warsaw this week, where I shall assuredly find out something more certain about this change. Oh, my God! why wilt Thou not give us the means of rooting out the brood of the adversaries of the nations happiness? I feel unceasing wrath against them. Day and night that one thought is forced upon me, and I shudder at the recollection of what end may befall our country."

He reached Warsaw, and was summoned by the King to an audience. Then a dramatic scene took place. The plain, reserved soldier, the Puritan patriot as a Polish historian calls him, was confronted with the monarch who was a trained orator, to whom elegance of dress and manner were a study of moment, whose handsome face and captivating address had won him the favour a fatal gift for Poland of the Semiramis of the North. Against every cajolement of one who was an adept in the arts of blandishment, promise and flattery, Kosciuszko had but one argument: that of the straight-forward devotion that saw his country outraged, and that would accept no compromise where duty to that country and to his own honour were concerned. In his boyhood Kosciuszko had been in marked manner dependent on the King’s favour. Now as at a later crisis in their mutual relations it is clear that, however outspoken his language to his sovereign, Kosciuszko never forgot a subject’s respect. Let him tell what passed in his own words:

“The King strongly urged me, sought to persuade, to convince me, finally sent me ladies known as being in relations with him, if only we would not abandon him and would not insist on our resignations. I always gave him the same answer, shattering all his arguments, so that he was often embarrassed what to answer me. At last with tears I told him that we had deserved some consideration, fighting for our country, for the state, for Your Royal Majesty, and that we will never act against our convictions and honour. No one has yet chosen publicly to proclaim those scoundrels as infamous traitors. I alone have said this openly in the presence of the King, to which he answered: Leave them to their shame."

Kosciuszko thus remained master of the situation. Stanislas Augustus was silenced before an integrity that would not bend before him. On August 17th the Russian army entered Warsaw as conquerors. The King was virtually a prisoner, for whom neither side felt compassion or respect, in the hands of Russia. By a rescript of Catherine II the Polish army was drafted into small divisions and scattered through the country, thus rendered powerless. The reforms of the Constitution were set aside. Russia ruled the country behind her puppets, the leaders of Targowica. The second partition was only a question of time.

Radom was designated to Kosciuszko as his head-quarters; but his determination to serve no more under the betrayers of his country held firm. He remained two months longer in Warsaw in the seclusion of an abandonment of grief, choosing to stay within walls rather than see the streets of the capital of Poland under the Russian heel. The last piece of business with which he concerned himself in the official capacity he was surrendering for honour’s sake was to recommend to the King’s notice several officers, including Kniaziewicz, for their gallantry in the late war. Amidst his heavy anxieties he made time to write to a friend, whose name we do not know, but who, to judge from the letters closing words I bid you farewell, embracing you a thousand times with the most tender affection for ever was one very dear to Kosciuszko, begging him to relieve the necessities of some individual whose position in Warsaw without means had aroused the writers pity.

“Watering my native soil with my tears,” thus he writes to Felix Potocki, in an outburst of the patriotic indignation that even his enemies respected I am going to the New World, to my second country to which I have acquired a right by fighting for her independence. Once there, I shall beseech Providence for a stable, free, and good government in Poland, for the independence of our nation, for virtuous, enlightened, and free inhabitants therein."

He fell sick for sorrow at the thought of his nation’s future. From his bed of convalescence in the famous Blue Palace of the Czartoryskis in Warsaw he wrote to Michal Zaleski, acquainting him with his intention to repair as soon as the fever left him to Galicia, thence:

“... possibly to Switzerland or England, whence I shall watch the course of events in our country. If they make for the happiness of the country, I shall return; if not, I shall move on further. I I shall enter no foreign service, and if I am forced to it by my poverty then I shall enter a service where there is a free state but with an unchanging attachment to my country which I might serve no longer, as I saw nothing to convince me of the amelioration of the government or that gave any hope for the future happiness of our country in the measures at present taken” meaning, of course, under the rule of the Confederation of Targowica. “I would not enter into undertakings of which the end is unknown: I feared lest, if only indirectly, they should contribute to the unhappiness of the nation. I do not doubt that there are men even among the Targowicians who are trying to serve their country, but I know not if they can, and if they are in the way of doing it. With my whole heart and soul I long that some one experienced in affairs could enlighten me, for I am in the darkness of night."

Told in the light of subsequent events, from standing ground removed from the passion and confusion of a present strife, with, moreover, the diplomatic intrigues of Russia and Prussia laid open before our eyes by modern research, the issues of this period of Poland’s history are intelligible enough; but to the combatants in the arena the line was not so defined. Some among the Poles of the period, even including men of no mean capacity, wavered as to whether Catherine II were not genuinely prepared to guarantee a free Poland under Russian protection. The leaders of Targowica have been branded with the name of traitors, and justly; but it seems as though they proceeded rather as hotheaded and unpatriotic malcontents than with the deliberate intention of betraying their country. Kosciuszko was ill-versed, either by nature, training, or inclination in the art of politics; but through this tangled web of perplexity and uncertainty, when present and future were equally enveloped in obscurity, his singleness of aim supplied him with the unerring instinct with which through the whole of his life he met and unmasked the pitfalls that were spread before the unhappiest and the most cruelly betrayed of nations. Under the dictates of this pure patriotism he directed himself unfalteringly through the most difficult and involved hours of his nation’s history, allowing neither friendship, tradition, nor personal advantage to obscure for one moment the great object he had at stake his country’s good. He now laid down high rank, parted with fortune upon which his hand had barely had time to close, and prepared to face an uncertain future in a foreign land. On the eve of his departure from Poland he wrote to Princess Czartoryska:

I was faithful to my country; I fought for her and would have offered myself a hundred times to death for her. Now it seems as if the end of my services for her is at hand; perhaps this uniform which I am wearing will be the badge of shame. I will cast it off betimes, and lay my sword in the grave till future better times. ... I will once more bid farewell to you. Princess, whom all adore for your virtues and devotion. I kiss the hands which have often dried tears shed for our country."

Before leaving his native land, as far as he knew for ever, he sent, together with his farewell to the sister whom he never saw again, his last disposition of the home to which his heart clung with deep affection, and which was to be his no more.

“Permit me, my sister, to embrace you, and because this may be the last time I shall be given that happiness I desire that you should know my will, that I bequeath to you my estate of Siechnowicze, and that you have the right to bequeath it either to one of your sons or to any one, but under one condition: that Susanna and Faustin shall be kept in every comfort until their death; that the peasants from every house in the whole estate shall not do more than two days of forced labour for the men, and for the women none at all. If it were another country where the government could ensure my will, I would free them entirely; but in this country we must do what we are certain of being able to do to relieve humanity in any way, and always remember that by nature we are all equals, that riches and education constitute the only difference; that we aught to have consideration for the poor and instruct ignorance, thus bringing about good morals. I am sending you my signature so that you can act legally according to my wish, so that later no disputes shall arise against you or your sons. Farewell! I embrace you with the tenderest heart.

“Embrace Susanna for me,” he adds in a postscript. “Thank her for the friendship she has shown me. Remember me to Faustin and to your son Stanislas. Let him give his children a good republican education with the virtues of justice, honesty, and honour."

The letter has come down to us with its small clear handwriting, a few words in the postscript erased with the scrupulous neatness of the whole document. We can best realize how near the condition of the peasants lay to Kosciuszko’s heart when we reflect that it filled his parting communication to his sister, written at the moment when, full of sorrow and anxiety, he was going into the unknown road of exile. He left Poland in the early days of October, having won, says Korzon, the esteem of friend and foe alike. Before crossing the frontier into what was Polish soil, but since Austria had taken possession of it at the first partition was politically recognized as Poland no longer, he unbuckled his sword and, lifting his hands to heaven, prayed that he might be given once again to draw it in the defence of his dearly loved land.