Read CHAPTER V - THE EVE OF THE RISING of Kosciuszko A Biography , free online book, by Monica Mary Gardner, on

In Galicia, Kosciuszko was welcomed by a crowd of sympathizers. The Czartoryskis, then residing on their Galician estates, showed him such marked proofs of their admiration that it was even said, without foundation, that Princess Czartoryska destined Kosciuszko for the husband of one of the princesses. A married daughter drew his portrait, inscribing it, after the taste of the epoch, with the words: “Tadeusz Kosciuszko, good, valiant, but unhappy.” On his feast-day, October 28th, the ladies of the family presented him with a wreath woven of leaves from an oak planted by the Polish hero with whose name Kosciuszko’s is often coupled: Jan Sobieski, the deliverer of Christendom. At the banquet held on this occasion was present, not only Kosciuszko’s friend, Orlowski, like him banished and for the same reason, but a young son of the house who had fought in the recent Russo-Polish war, Adam Czartoryski, soon to be removed by Catherine II’s orders as a hostage to the Russian court, and who in later life was one of the principal and noblest figures in Polish politics of the nineteenth century. We shall see his path again touching Kosciuszko’s at a critical juncture in the history of their nation.

The bitterness of an exile’s wanderings, so familiar to the generations of Poles that followed through the unhappy years of the succeeding century, was now to be tasted by Poland’s national hero. The Austrian Government took alarm at the evidences of popularity that were showered upon him. The Russian Government would not have his presence near the Polish frontiers, and the Russian sentries received orders to be on the look-out not to permit him to enter any Polish town. Legends ran through the ranks of the superstitious Muscovite soldiery that Kosciuszko had, notwithstanding, come up to the sentries, and when fired upon had changed himself into the form of a cat. Such tales apart, on December 5th he was given notice by the Austrian authorities to quit the country within twelve hours.

“I am grieved to leave beloved Poland, my friends and so many hearts that were good to me,” sadly writes Kosciuszko. Spies and secret agents were watching the posts; so he and his fellow-Poles protected themselves and their correspondence by various precautions, fictitious names, confidential messengers. “Bieda” misfortune was the pseudonym by which Kosciuszko, his heart heavy with foreboding for his country and grief at her loss, signed himself, and wished to be known, as he set out for a foreign land. Cracow lay in the route that as a fugitive from the Austrian Government he was obliged to choose. He tarried a few days in the beautiful old city that is the sepulchre of Poland’s kings, and where he was after death to lie in the last resting-place of those whom his nation most honours. Thence he journeyed to Leipzig.

In Leipzig were the men of the nation whose minds and aims were in the closest sympathy with his. Kollontaj, Ignacy and Stanislas Potocki, and the band of Poles who had been responsible for the drawing up of the Constitution of the 3rd of May, had gathered together in the Saxon city out of reach of Russian vengeance, where they could best concert measures for saving Poland. In January 1793 the news reached them that Prussia, whose attitude in regard to scraps of paper is no recent development, had helped herself to that portion of Great Poland which had escaped her at the first partition, and to Thorn and Danzig, which she had so long coveted, while Russia took the southern provinces of Poland and part of Lithuania.

But the camp of Polish patriots in Leipzig would not give Poland up for lost. “She will not remain without assistance and means to save her,” wrote Kollontaj. Let them do what they will; they will not bring about her destruction. Kosciuszko is now in Paris this was early in 1793. He is going to England and Sweden. As a matter of fact he went to neither at that time. That upright man is very useful to his country."

It was to France, which had won Kosciuszko’s heart in his youth, and whose help he had seen given to America in the latter’s struggle for her freedom, that he now made his way to beg a young Republic’s assistance for his country. He was not a diplomat himself; but Kollontaj and Ignacy Potocki were behind him with their instructions. Fortune never favoured Kosciuszko. He arrived in Paris shortly before the execution of Louis XVI. He may even have been in the crowd around the scaffold, the witness of a scene that, however strong his popular sympathies, would have inspired a man of his stamp with nothing but horror and condemnation. The European coalition was formed against France: and Poland was forgotten. The second partition by which Russia and Prussia secured the booty that they had, as we have seen, a few months previously arrogated to themselves, was effected in a Europe convulsed with war, that little noticed and scarcely protested against the dismemberment of a European state and the aggrandizement of two others, with its fatal consequence of Prussia’s rise to power. The tale of the scene in the Diet of Grodno, convoked under the compulsion of the Russian armies to ratify the partition, is well known: how the few deputies who consented to attend sat with Russian cannon turned upon them, while Russian troops barred all the exits of the hall and carried off by night to Siberia those members who protested against the overthrow of their nation: how the group of Poles, deprived of all other means of defending their country, opposed an absolute silence to every proposal of their enemies, till the deed was signed that left only a shred of territory, in its turn doomed to fresh destruction, to the Republic of Poland.

From Lebrun, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kosciuszko succeeded in winning the promise of financial assistance in the war for Polish independence that the national party was projecting; but shortly after his interview with Kosciuszko Lebrun lost liberty and office. With Danton Kosciuszko would have nothing to do, and in the sanguinary scenes of the Terror all public traces of the Pole are lost. It is certain that he had no dealings with Robespierre or with any of the men who then sat in the French revolutionary tribunals. How strongly he abhorred their manner of revolution is proved not only from expressions he let drop during his own dictatorship, but still more by his mode of proceeding when he himself was responsible for a new government of state. He was a democrat always; but in the best sense of the word.

Seeing that there was no prospect of gaining anything for Poland from France, Kosciuszko remained in seclusion during his further stay in Paris, writing in the blood-stained city the record to which we have already alluded of the national war in which he had lately fought. In this work he freely criticizes all the errors on the part of its leaders which he had seen, and in vain pointed out to Poniatowski, during its course; but nothing could shake his conviction that the Polish cause could have triumphed. If, he writes, the whole army had been assembled beyond the Vistula with volunteers and burghers from the cities of Warsaw and Cracow, it would have risen to sixty thousand, and with a king at its head, fighting for its country and independence, what power, I ask, could have conquered it? He refers to the sights he had beheld in the American War as a proof of what soldiers could do without pay, if animated by enthusiasm for a sacred cause. That patriotic fire, says he, burned as brightly in his own country: the Polish soldier, the Polish citizen, were equally ready to sacrifice all. The spirit was everywhere, but no use was made of their enthusiasm and patriotism. ... The weakness of the King without military genius, without character or love of his country, has now plunged our country, perhaps for ever, into anarchy and subjection to Muscovy."

Thus wrote Kosciuszko in the day when a peasant soldiery was unknown in Poland; and a few months later he was leading his regiments of reapers and boatmen to the national Rising.

There was nothing more for him to do in Paris. His intended attempt in England was given up, for Kollontaj received a broad hint from the British representative in Saxony that Kosciuszko’s presence would be both unwelcome to George III and profitless to the Polish cause. Kosciuszko may then have gone on from France to Brussels, but in the summer of 1793 he was back in Leipzig in close consultation with Ignacy Potocki.

The condition of Poland was by now lamentable. Her position was that of a nation at the mercy of a foreign army, ravaged by war, although she was not at war. Russians garrisoned every town. Russian soldiers were systematically pillaging and devastating the country districts, terrorizing village and town alike. Poles were arrested in their own houses at the will of their Russian conquerors, and despatched to Siberia. Hidden confederations, especially among the Polish youth, were being carried on all over Poland, preparing to rise in defence of the national freedom. In the teeth of the Russian garrison and of Catherine II’s plenipotentiary, Igelstrom, Warsaw sent secret emissaries to the scattered remnants of the Polish army; and in the conferences that were held at dead of night the choice of the nation fell upon Kosciuszko as the leader above all others who should avenge the national dishonour and wrest back at the point of the sword the independence of Poland. In the beginning of September 1793 two Polish delegates carried the proposal to him where he still remained in Leipzig.

The great moment in the life of Tadeusz Kosciuszko had now arrived. His fiery and enthusiastic soul leapt to its call; but with none of the headlong precipitance that would have been its ruin. Kosciuszko was too great a patriot to disdain wariness and cool calculation. He never stirred without seeing each step clearly mapped out before him. He took his counsels with Potocki and his other Polish intimates in Saxony; then formulated his plan of the Rising. Each district of Poland and Lithuania was to be under the command of some citizen who would undertake secretly to beat up the inhabitants to arms. The people could choose their own officers according to the general wish. Special insistence was laid on the duties of calling the peasants to fight side by side with the landowners. The Polish peasant had hitherto been counted incapable of bearing arms: Kosciuszko overrode this ancient prejudice with results that have given one of the finest pages to the history of Poland.

He then went alone with his confidant, Zajonczek, to the Polish frontiers to collect information. He sent round messengers to the different provinces of Poland and Lithuania carrying his letters and full instructions, while Zajonczek, under a false name, was despatched to Warsaw. The report the latter gave to Kosciuszko on his return was not satisfactory.

Matters were not as yet ripe for the undertaking. Financial means in the widespread ruin that had come upon Poland through the overrunning of her territories by a hostile soldiery were lacking, in spite of the private generosity of such a donor as the Warsaw banker, Kapostas. The difficulties of getting together a fighting force when Russian soldiers, closely supervising every movement of the Poles, occupied the country and the Polish divisions had been purposely drafted to great distances from each other by the Empress, were almost insuperable. The peasant rising upon which Kosciuszko had built his best hopes was unprepared. But two elements remained that should, as pointed out by Zajonczek, consolidate and ensure a great national Rising: universal detestation of the Russian and limitless confidence in the chosen national leader. Kosciuszko deemed it advisable to wait. “It is impossible,” he said after receiving Zajonczek’s report, “to build on such frail foundations; for it would be a sad thing to begin lightly and without consideration, only to fall.” He himself, recognizable as he was through all Poland, was too well known to act as a secret propagandist in his own country; so in order to throw dust in the eyes of Russia and Prussia he retired to Italy for some months. In Florence he found Niemcewicz. Niemcewicz tells how one night as he sat reading by his lamp the door burst open, the Polish greeting, Praised be Jesus Christ, rang on the exiles ear, and a former colleague of the poets hurried in with the simple words: I have come for Kosciuszko." But the last act was played out in Dresden, that for long after Kosciuszko’s day remained a stronghold of Polish emigration. While Kosciuszko was taking final deliberation there with Kollontaj and Ignacy Potocki, two Poles came straight from Poland, and on their knees besought Kosciuszko to give the word. The moment was now or never. Placards were being fastened mysteriously on the walls of Warsaw, calling to the Poles to rise. Patriotic writings were scattered broadcast, patriotic articles printed, in spite of the rigorous Russian censorship, in the Polish papers. Plays were acted in the theatre whose double meaning, uncomprehended by the Russians who sat in crowds in the audience, were fiery appeals to Polish patriotism. The streets of Warsaw, all Poland and Lithuania, were seething with agitation and secret hope. The suspicions of Igelstrom were aroused. He resolved to take over the arsenal in Warsaw and to disarm and demobilize the Polish army. In this dilemma Kosciuszko was compelled to throw his all on one card or to fail. He therefore decided on the war; and in March 1794 he re-entered Poland as the champion of her freedom.