Who Is Casimir Pulaski?

On the first Monday of every March (this year March 5) the state of Illinois celebrates Casimir Pulaski Day. The celebration is particularly prevalent in the city of Chicago, with school and government offices closed, speeches by politicians and other dignitaries at the Polish-American Museum in the city, and a major parade downtown.

When I mentioned this in the Pulse office the other day I was greeted (after some chuckling) with the question, “And who is Casimir Pulaski?” Well, folks, what if I told you that Pulaski, in terms of places and events named in his honor, is one of the most honored individuals in American history? And consider this: Casimir Pulaski is one of only seven people – in the entire history of this country – to receive honorary American citizenship? [Note the other six, for you curious readers, are: Sir Winston Churchill, William Penn and his wife Hannah Callowhill Penn, Mother Teresa, the Marquis de LaFayette, and Raoul Wallenberg.]

So, now that I have your interest peaked, here is a quick overview of Casimir Pulaski.

Pulaski was born in Warka, Poland, on March 4, 1747. In 1768, he became one of the organizers of the Bar Confederation and fought against the Russian forces stationed in Poland-Lithuania. A skilled military commander, he quickly achieved fame among the Polish citizenry, but in 1771 he was accused of being a participant in a plot to overthrow the Polish King. Pulaski fled to Turkey (he was sentenced to death in absentia in Poland) and later smuggled himself into France.

After meeting Pulaski in France, Benjamin Franklin urged George Washington to accept Pulaski as a volunteer. When he arrived in America, Pulaski wrote Washington saying, “I came here, where freedom is being defended, to serve it, and to live or die for it.”

From this point, Pulaski’s exploits become legendary. At the Battle of Brandywine (September 1, 1777), in his first action in the American Revolution, Pulaski was able to cover the retreat of American forces and is credited with saving Washington’s life in the process. Two weeks later, in acknowledgment of this accomplishment, Washington promoted him to Brigadier General of the American Cavalry.

Pulaski continued to have considerable success in the following months, but communication difficulties (his command of English was limited) and his European style of military discipline led to dissatisfaction among his men and he resigned his post in March of 1778.

Not long after, he petitioned Washington to form a corps of lancers and light infantry, which was approved, and they quickly became famous as the Pulaski Cavalry Legion and led to Pulaski being called “the father of the American Cavalry.”

During the siege of Savannah (on October 9, 1779), while he was commanding both the French and American cavalry units, Pulaski was mortally wounded by grapeshot from British canons. He died two days later.

So this is why, Casimir Pulaski is celebrated. But, celebrations are not limited to Illinois. Indeed, the American landscape is filled with tributes to this Polish immigrant. Seven states have counties named for him. Numerous cities, towns, and villages bear his name, including Pulaski, Wisconsin. There are parks and statues throughout the eastern United States honoring him. And, there are quite a few places/states besides Illinois that celebrate a Casimir Pulaski Day.

For instance, did you know that Wisconsin recognizes a Casimir Pulaski Day? Well, to be honest, I didn’t either until I researched this column. Section 118.02 of the Wisconsin statutes provide for days of “special observance” in public schools and section 118.02(5) provides for special observance of Casimir Pulaski on March 4 each year. If March 4 falls on a Saturday or Sunday the special observance is to occur on the school day nearest March 4. Thus, this year – because March 4 is a Sunday – Wisconsin schools will have their special observance of Casimir Pulaski on Monday, March 5, which coincides with Illinois’ celebration.

Other celebrations include Pulaski Days, an annual celebration during the first full weekend in October in Grand Rapids, Michigan and (curiously) a Pulaski Day celebration in Buffalo, New York in mid-July each year.

As a final note, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wrote a poem entitled “Hymn to the Moravian Nuns of Bethlehem” that was inspired by Pulaski’s Legion. Apparently, Longfellow was inspired by reports that the Pulaski Legion rode into battle carrying a silk banner that was embroidered by Moravians from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Whether such a banner actually existed or not, I am uncertain, but it does make for another interesting story about a fascinating man.