America's Revolutionary 'Peasant Prince'

Tadeusz Kosciuszko's name can be found on bridges, roads and statues all over the country, but very few people know why. Guy Raz talks to author Alex Storozynski, who has written a new book about the relatively unknown Revolutionary War hero. Kosciuszko's engineering know-how helped win the Battle of Saratoga.

GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Have you ever driven over one of the Kosciuszko bridges in New York, or through one of the many towns and streets in America named Kosciuszko? Perhaps you've sampled the glories of Kosciuszko mustard. No? Well, even if you have, many of us know little or nothing about the Polish nobleman behind the name.

Tadeusz Kosciuszko was one of the quiet heroes of the American Revolution. He arrived at the Port of Philadelphia in August 1776, seeking to join the American cause. Kosciuszko spoke just a smattering of English but he was determined to seek out and meet the legendary Benjamin Franklin.

Mr. ALEX STOROZYNSKI (Author, "The Peasant Prince"): (Reading) When Kosciuszko walked through the door, the old sage of Philadelphia peered through the top half of his bifocals at the unannounced visitor.

RAZ: That's Alex Storozynski reading from his new biography on Kosciuszko, "The Peasant Prince."

Here's the rest of that first encounter with Ben Franklin.

Mr. STOROZYNSKI: (Reading) Thinking that America's armed forces were as structured as those in Europe, Kosciuszko asked to take the officer's placement exam so that he could enlist in the Continental Army. Franklin was well-attuned to the political situation in Poland and understood that the Poles were more radical about democratic principles than their neighbors.

He asked, do you have any letters of recommendation?

Kosciuszko replied, I don't have any. The talented person should be able to show his worth and not letters of recommendation. I want to show my confidence by taking your placement exam.

RAZ: Alex Storozynski, today, Kosciuszko was fresh off the boat, literally, from Europe. He was this Polish radical and something, I guess, of a thrill seeker. How in 1776 had he even heard of Benjamin Franklin?

Mr. STOROZYNSKI: Well, he had studied at military schools in Warsaw and Paris. He lived in Paris for five years and by that point, news of the shot heard around the world was known to everyone in Paris. So he knew about the rebels in the United States and that the revolution was brewing. And Benjamin Franklin was the most famous American at that point.

RAZ: He impressed Benjamin Franklin, right? I mean, he essentially was given a task and he passed the test.

Mr. STOROZYNSKI: That's right. He came in. he asked to take the military engineering test. And Ben Franklin told him we don't have such a test, but we do have a guy who knows a lot about geometry. So come back and we'll give you a geometry test. And when he aced the test, Ben Franklin said, good. You're in charge of building forts.

RAZ: And it was successful enough. Essentially, he was sent off to work with the famed General Horatio Gates in the Hudson Valley. Tell us about what happened.

Mr. STOROZYNSKI: Well, Gates sent him to Fort Ticonderoga, which was a massive stone fort right where Lake Champlain and Lake George meet. And it was pretty hard to attack this fort. But Kosciuszko pointed out that there was a nearby hill, called Sugarloaf Hill, which was overlooking the fort. And he explained to them that we need to put cannons up there because if the British come down from Canada and put cannons up there, we'll be sitting ducks.

Well, the Americans didn't do it. And sure enough, when the British arrived on July 4th, 1777, they put cannons on that very spot and started shooting into the fort. And as a result, the Americans had to evacuate Fort Ticonderoga.

RAZ: And eventually, of course, they did listen to Kosciuszko a few months later at Saratoga.

Mr. STOROZYNSKI: That's right, because the Americans were setting up camp at the lowland next to the Hudson. And Kosciuszko said no, no. We need to set up here on Bemis Heights and shoot down at the British as they're marching uphill at us. And later on, Horatio Gates attributed this choice of Bemis Heights as the reason for the victory at the Battle of Saratoga.

RAZ: In October, 1777.

Mr. STOROZYNSKI: Yes.

RAZ: And there's a twist to this story about the Battle of Saratoga because it involves the most famous traitor to the American cause, Benedict Arnold.

Mr. STOROZYNSKI: Since Kosciuszko was the best engineer that the Americans had, George Washington put him in charge of what he called the key to America, a bend in the river on the Hudson. And he said we're going to build a giant fortress here. And Kosciuszko spent two and a half years building 13 different forts and redoubts, which became so impressive that the British were even afraid to try and attack it.

Now, eventually after two and a half years, Kosciuszko wanted to get back into battle, so Washington sent him to the South. And when he sent him to the South, he put Benedict Arnold in charge of that fort and Arnold tried to sell Kosciuszko's plans for West Point to the British.

RAZ: And it's not just Benedict Arnold that he crosses paths with and Benjamin Franklin, but people like George Washington, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson.

Talk to us a little bit about his encounters with some of these men.

Mr. STOROZYNSKI: Well, George Washington initially spelled his name 11 different ways.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STOROZYNSKI: And, eventually, once he realized that he was the best engineer in the Army, he made it a point to spell his name correctly. Now, because Washington owned slaves, there was little bit of distance between the two men because Kosciuszko was an abolitionist and already had a free black man who worked with him, named Agrippa Hull. And he had an incredible rapport with black people in the South towards the end of the revolution.

RAZ: He developed a particularly close relationship with Thomas Jefferson. Is that right?

Mr. STOROZYNSKI: That's right. After the Revolution, Kosciuszko went back to Poland and staged a revolution there, where he tried to free the serfs. And when that failed, Catherine the Great, the czarina put him in prison for two years. And then after she died, her son, Czar Paul, gave Kosciuszko a fur coat and told him, you can leave. I'm going to let you out of prison but you can never come back.

And Kosciuszko came back to Philadelphia and he gave that fur coat to Thomas Jefferson. And if you look at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C., he's portrayed standing in this giant fur coat. And that's the fur coat that Kosciuszko gave him.

And the two men often got together and talked in Kosciuszko's room at Philadelphia and they discussed slavery. And Kosciuszko pointed out to Jefferson that he was a hypocrite, because he wrote all men are created equal, yet he owned slaves.

RAZ: Now, here's this guy, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who was of Polish nobility. I mean, he wasn't obviously British or American. And yet, here he was helping American revolutionaries overthrow British colonialism. I mean, he didn't really have a dog in the fight. So why did he join this cause?

Mr. STOROZYNSKI: Well, his motto was, For your freedom and ours, and he genuinely believed that everyone should have freedom. There were revolutions brewing in France at the time and in Poland. Poland passed the first written democratic constitution in Europe, it was second in the world only to that of the United States. And he believed that these winds of change would be contagious and they would spread throughout the world.

RAZ: Alex Storozynski is the author of a new biography on Revolutionary War hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko, "The Peasant Prince." He joined us from New York.

Mr. Storozynski, thanks so much.

Mr. STOROZYNSKI: Thank you.

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The Peasant Prince

Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Revolution

by Alex Storozynski

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