In 1776, when America was poised on the brink of war with the British, a Pole named Thaddeus Kosciuszko sailed to America and happened to become a prominent figure in the successful American revolution. Kosciuszko had attended the royal military academy in Warsaw, and then took engineering and drafting classes at military academies located in Paris. He wanted to marry Louise Sosnowska, who was the daughter of a prominent, very rich noble lord in Poland. But her father staunchly opposed the marriage, saying that Kosciuszko was only common gentry, and not good enough to marry his daughter. Ignoring the father's protests, Kosciuszko attempted to elope with Louise, but they were caught and her father wanted to prosecute Kosciuszko for kidnapping his daughter. However, he didn't get a chance to because Kosciuszko and Louise sailed to America in search of freedom to live their lives as they wished.
Upon arriving in Philadelphia, Kosciuszko met Benjamin Franklin, who learned about his engineering background and put him to work building forts. He supervised the construction of fortifications on the Delaware River that incorporated underwater barricades known as chevaux de fries, wooden beams with sharp tips that would rip open the bottom of British ships as they sailed toward Philadelphia. He did such a good job with his projects that John Hancock promoted him to an Army Colonel and named him the military's chief engineer. Kosciuszko was sent to Fort Ticonderoga, where he cautioned the officers at the fort that they should send armies to Sugar Loaf Hill, a nearby bluff that overlooked the fort.
But the Americans ignored Kosciuszko's warning, and on July 4, 1777 the army awoke to the sight of Redcoats setting up cannons on Sugar Loaf Hill. When the British began to fire on the fort, the Continental Army was forced to evacuate. Kosciuszko singlehandedly rescued the army by having his men chop down trees and blocking the roads to the fort once the soldiers had fled. The British couldn't move their supply wagons and cannons with the roads blocked. Kosciuszko also had his crews roll boulders into streams to reroute the flow of water to flood roads. As a result of Kosciuszko's efforts at diversion, the British advance slowed to a snail's pace, taking them 22 days for traveling only 20 miles.
Later, when the army was setting up camp along the bank of the Hudson River, Kosciuszko warned them that it was a mistake. This time they listened, and Kosciuszko instructed them to move to Bernis Heights, where he laid out a map of the strategy he proposed for the upcoming battle. His suggested plan of attack was a success, and the British were unable to outflank the Americans.
Many historians and journalists have given much credit to Benedict Arnold for leading the charge that won the Battle of Saratoga. However, from reading memoirs written by soldiers who actually took part in the battle, it is clear that Kosciuszko's military acumen and strategy was responsible for the Americans winning the battle. But strategy was not as colorful as Benedict Arnold's much-publicized escapades, so for the most part history has ignored the contributions of a young Polish engineer.
After the revolution, George Washington asked Kosciuszko to design blueprints for West Point, and he made sure the buildings would be an impenetrable fortification that the British could not attack - and it was these plans that Benedict Arnold attempted to sell to the British. During the Revolution, the Polish engineer had developed a solid rapport with free black people and slaves, and he became friends with Thomas Jefferson. In his will, he left instructions for his Jefferson to use his estate of $17,000 to buy slaves and then free them. Jefferson took the money - but he did not do as Kosciuszko had asked. Yet biographers of Jefferson have routinely omitted this fact from biographies.
Kosciuszko's accomplishments in the United States were not his only acts of honor; he helped to fuel a revolution in Europe. French Revolutionaries made Kosciuszko an honorary French citizen, and the Polish citizens made him their Commander in Chief after he began a revolution in his own country to set free the serfs who had been made slaves by feudalism. Although U.S. Military Academy cadets raised enough money to erect a statue honoring Kosciuszko on the most prominent piece of land on the West Point campus, most Americans have dismissed the tall monument overlooking the Hudson. But hopefully one day Thomas Jefferson's hero will finally find his own special place among the other American history lessons of valor and courage that have made this country the land of the free and the home of the brave.