When discussing the history of cavalry in the United States, the American Civil War and the battles against Native American tribes in the Old West are always the first to come to mind. Names like Phil Sheridan, John Buford, Judson “Kill Cavalry” Kilpatrick, and George Armstrong Custer from the Union while, J.E.B. Stuart, Wade Hampton, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and “Rooney” Lee from the Confederacy excite the popular imagination. Custer and Sheridan would figure in the wars out west, and Custer would die at the Little Big Horn with most of the U.S 7th Cavalry.
However, the name of Casimir Pulaski is rarely mention. Yet, Pulaski created some of the very first and very effective cavalry forces for the United States during the Revolutionary War.
After creating a name for himself in Europe, he came to America and joined the 13 colonies in their war of independence against the British thank to the efforts of Benjamin Franklin.
Pulaski served in the Continental Army under General George Washington. He was killed fighting against the British Army on October 11, 1779.
Pulaski was born in Poland in March of 1745. Like his father, he developed an interest in military affairs and politics at a very young age. In the early 1760s, he and his father came out against the puppet King Stanislaw who had been installed by the Russians. He was given the rank of Colonel and command of a cavalry unit that fought with distinction against King Stanislaw. He was captured by the Russians in 1768 and was returned to Poland in a prisoner exchange with the express vow not to take up arms again against the king.
Nevertheless, he returned to the fight until 1773 when he was forced into exile in France. Although considered a very accomplished commander, many in Poland also believed that Pulaski was somewhat of a loose cannon. The courts in Poland had declared that all of his assets be seized and sentenced him to death in absentia.
In 1775, the Marquis de Lafayette became acquainted with Pulaski and introduced him to Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was impressed with the young Polish officer and wrote about him in glowing terms:
“Count Pulaski of Poland, an officer famous throughout Europe for his bravery and conduct in defense of the liberties of his country against the three great invading powers of Russia, Austria, and Prussia… may be highly useful to our service.”
Franklin wrote to General Washington to recommend that he bring in Pulaski to work with the nascent American cavalry. He wrote that Pulaski “was renowned throughout Europe for the courage and bravery he displayed in defense of his country’s freedom.”
Pulaski arrived in Marblehead, Massachusetts, a few miles north of Boston, on July 23, 1777. After his arrival, Pulaski wrote to Washington, “I came here, where freedom is being defended, to serve it, and to live or die for it.”
Washington couldn’t give Pulaski a commission, it had to come from Congress. Therefore, several months were wasted with Pulaski riding back and forth between Washington’s headquarters and Philadelphia awaiting his official commissioning.
His first military engagement against the British occurred while Pulaski was still, in effect, a civilian. During the Battle of Brandywine, on September 1, 1777, the British were forcing the Continental Army back. Pulaski rode out into the battle with Washington’s 30-man security detachment.
Pulaski’s reconnaissance had shown that the British were trying to cut off the Colonials avenue of retreat. Washington, disregarding the regulations, told Pulaski to gather as many stragglers as possible, and allowing him absolute discretion in employing those troops, ordered him to cover the army’s retreat.
Due to his actions on the field, a potentially disastrous defeat was avoided and the life of General Washington was saved. Now, everyone knew who this Polish officer was. Finally on September 15, 1777, on the orders of Congress, Washington made Pulaski a brigadier general in the Continental Army cavalry.
The cavalry was tiny at the time but Pulaski and a few other Polish officers grew the unit and published the first regulations. During the winter at Valley Forge, Pulaski drilled the men and had them prepared to go. On operations in New Jersey at the request of General Anthony Wayne, Pulaski’s cavalry had the British convinced that the Continental cavalry was a much larger unit.
But many of the American officers greatly resented taking orders from a Polish officer who could barely speak their language. Despite being commended by Wayne, Pulaski resigned his commission.
Following his resignation, he went to Yorktown and met with General Horatio Gates. He proposed to him the creation of a unit that would be a mixture of Lancers and light infantry troops. Gates seconded his proposal to Congress which approved it. The unit would be called “Pulaski’s Cavalry Legion.” Pulaski was also reinstated as a brigadier general.
Pulaski often spent his own funds when money from Congress was late or not coming at all. However, some officers claimed that he had played loose with unit funds, a charge that would follow him to his death.
Pulaski considered resigning his commission and returning to Europe, but he decided to stay and was transferred to the Southern front by Washington.
In early May 1779, Pulaski arrived in Charleston just as the British were driving the militia back into the city. He led his men on what was later described as an ill-advised attack. His Legion suffered horrendous casualties and his infantry troops were nearly wiped out.
In September, he was ordered to Augusta and there he combined his forces with those of General Lachlan McIntosh. Pulaski’s troops captured the British fort near the Ogeechee River. His units then acted as a screening force for the allied French units under Admiral Charles Hector, Comte d’Estaing. He served with distinction during the siege of Savannah, and in the assault of October 9 commanded the whole cavalry, both French and American.
On October 9, 1779, Pulaski, while attempting to rally retreating French cavalry troops, was hit by grapeshot. He was evacuated to the ship USS Wasp where he died on October 11.
He was originally buried in an unmarked grave on the former plantation of William Bowen. In 1854, his bones were reinterred inside a marble monument. But nearly 200 years later, Pulaski was finally given the burial he deserved: In 1996, on the 226th anniversary of the battle that cost him his life, Pulaski was buried with full military honors under a 54-foot marble statue in Monterey Square in Savannah.
On that day, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist held more than 700 people for a memorial Mass. Among them was Polish Undersecretary of State Andrzej Majkowski and Janusz Reiter, Poland’s ambassador to the U.S. A regiment of Polish cavalrymen on horseback escorted Pulaski’s casket in a procession through the streets of Savannah, followed by a riderless horse with empty boots in the stirrups.
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