Casimir Pulaski was a Polish nobleman who became a brigadier general in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. One of the United States’ first cavalry commanders, Pulaski brought organization and proper training to the Continentals, securing the titles of “The Father of American Cavalry” and “Soldier of Liberty.”
Pulaski was born in Poland in 1745. His father, Jozef Pulaski, was one of the founders of the Confederation of Bar, a Catholic organization dedicated to ridding Poland of an encroaching Russian influence. Jozef raised his son as a staunch nationalist and Casimir’s skill with cavalry and command were honed early as he fought against the Russians with his father, establishing a reputation as a defender of liberty.
In 1771, Pulaski attempted an ill-advised plot to kidnap the Polish king and was falsely accused of trying to assassinate him. By the next year, the anti-Russian Polish forces had fallen apart and Pulaski had to flee from Poland. He spent the next four years in Europe and Turkey, unsuccessfully attempting to rally forces to help him free Poland and accruing large personal debts. His debt became so severe he was eventually thrown in debtors’ prison.
After his friends were able to free him, Pulaski was fortunate enough to meet the American envoys to France, Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane, in 1776. Recognizing the value of Pulaski’s military experience, they offered him an opportunity to fight for liberty across the Atlantic with the Americans. Both wrote on Pulaski’s behalf, with Franklin even describing Pulaski to George Washington as “an Officer famous throughout all of Europe for his Bravery and Conduct in Defense of the Liberties of his Country."1
Pulaski promptly left for the new United States, hoping to be made an officer. Based on Pulaski’s reputation and recommendations Washington wanted Pulaski to take command of the cavalry, but was delayed by Congress’s refusal to grant Pulaski a commission. Pulaski chose to follow Washington and the Continental Army anyway to seek an opportunity to prove himself.
That opportunity came at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777. The British caught Washington in a precarious position with a clever flanking maneuver. It appeared that the Americans might be routed and Washington captured, but Pulaski--possessing no rank--asked Washington to give him temporary command of some cavalry. Washington assented and Pulaski skillfully led a counterattack, helping delay the British enough for the Continental Army to retreat and regroup.
Shortly after Brandywine, Pulaski’s wishes were granted when he was promoted to brigadier general and given “chief command of the American light dragoons."2 Pulaski was a talented general--and more than able to effectively train horseman--but struggled with his first American command. His inability to speak English and conflicting views regarding the cavalry’s importance in the military eventually led to his resignation from the post.
Far from discouraged, Pulaski, with Washington and Congress’s approval, raised a new regiment of cavalry, along with a few regiments of infantry, which came to be known as Pulaski’s Legion. Pulaski chose many of his officers and was able to train his legion as he saw fit. They rapidly became a dangerous force as Pulaski capitalized on his experience, creating some of America’s first effective cavalry. After months of training and fighting in the northern theater, Washington sent Pulaski’s Legion to the Carolinas to help the war’s struggling southern front.
Stationed in Charleston, SC, Pulaski became one of the leading commanders in the South. Upon his arrival in May 1779, Pulaski and Colonel John Laurens talked the terrified city leader back from the brink of surrender. Though Pulaski’s legion suffered heavy losses over the course of the war, they remained essential to the military in the South.
Pulaski’s last engagement was during the Second Battle of Savannah on October 9, 1779. Notified of the American plans by an informant, the British were prepared for the attack. As the tide quickly turned against the Americans, Pulaski led an assault against the British position hoping to drive a wedge between the British troops to regain the advantage. He was wounded during the attack and, though his troops secured his body during the retreat, he died some days later. The exact location, date, and time of his death remain unclear.
Charleston held a public funeral in honor of Pulaski’s achievements and Savannah has since built a monument for him. October 11--one of the possible days of his death--has been designated General Pulaski Memorial Day in the United States. Pulaski is widely recognized for bringing order to American cavalry, using modern training methods, and establishing the necessity of an independent cavalry, which remained essential to the U.S. Army well into the twentieth century.
The George Washington University
1“From Benjamin Franklin to George Washington, 29 May 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-24-02-0072. [Original source: The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 24, May 1 through September 30, 1777, ed. William B. Willcox. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984, p. 98.]
2“General Orders, 21 September 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-11-02-0285. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 11, 19 August 1777?–?25 October 1777, ed. Philander D. Chase and Edward G. Lengel. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001, pp. 279–280.]
Kajencki, Francis. Casimir Pulaski: Cavalry Commander of the American Revolution. Texas: Polonia Press, 2001.
Kajencki, Francis. The Pulaski Legion in the American Revolution. Texas: Polonia Press, 2004.
Pienkos, Angela. “A Bicentennial Look at Casimir Pulaski: Polish, American and Ethnic Folk Hero.” Polish American Studies 33, no. 1 (1976): 5-17.
Rafuse, Ethan. “The Two Horseman of the Revolution.” Quarterly Journal of Military History 30, no. 1 (2017): 40-47.