By Henry L. Gaidis
“What am I if not a Lithuanian, one of your chosen countrymen?… Whom should I defend if not you and myself?… It angers me to be away from Lithuania and serving in Poland…” –Thaddeus Kosciusko
I RECENTLY ATTENDED A SEMINAR AT THE U.S. Military Academy in honor of General Thaddeus Kosciusko, the officer who George Washington personally selected to design its fortifications and the Father of the American Artillery. While in America, Kosciusko became close friends with many of our nation’s founders. Thomas Jefferson was one who became a lifelong friend and described Kosciusko as pure a son of liberty as he had ever known.
While attending this seminar at this venerable institution, I was again reminded of the ongoing dispute about Kosciusko’s nationality as this great American Revolutionary War hero is claimed by Poles, Lithuanians, and Ruthenians (Belarusians) alike. Some have even argued that Kosciusko was an American; he was made a naturalized U.S. citizen for his contributions during the War of Independence.
The dispute is so heated that many involved in it cannot even agree upon the proper spelling of his name. I have entered into the fray and present the following dissertation hoping to provide some insight into the Kosciusko nationality question. In the interest of objectivity, let me state that I am a Lithuanian American and raised in the belief that Kosciusko was a Lithuanian, and to this day have no doubt to the certainty of that fact. Although I can see the validity of contentions made by Poles and Belarusians that he was one of their own. I hope that the presented material will convince the reader that Kosciusko actually considered himself to have been a Lithuanian.
For the purpose of this article, I have chosen to use the commonly accepted Anglicized spelling of Kosciusko’s name as Thaddeus Kosciusko over the Polish frequently favored Tadeusz Koúciuszko, the Lithuanian Tadas Kosciuška, or the Ruthenian Tadevush Kastsyushka. The author largely attributes the present name dispute to the fact that most official records at the time of his birth were recorded in the Polish language, and to the unwillingness of Lithuanians and Belarusians to accept the written records as the correct spelling of the family name.
As a starting point let me state that Kosciusko was born on February 4, 1746, in the village of Mereczowszczyzna and that he died on October 15, 1817 in Solothurn, Switzerland, which all sides apparently agree upon. There is ample documentation that at the time of his birth, Mereczowszczyzna was in the palatinate of Brest which was part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and today is located near the town of Kosava in Belarus. At the same time, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was an equal partner with the Kingdom of Poland forming the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Similarly most historians acknowledge that the official records of the PolishLithuanian Commonwealth were maintained largely in the Polish language and names were written in Polish fashion. As a result, Kosciusko’s full name at the time of his birth was recorded as Andrew Thaddeus Bonaventure Kosciusko and his parents listed as Ludwik Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Tekla Kosciuszko, nee Ratomska. Likewise most historians concede that he was descendant from Konstanty Fiodorowicz Kostiuszko, a Lithuanian nobleman who served as a courtier to Polish King and Lithuanian Grand Duke Sigismund I (1506-1548) who awarded his son, Constantine, with an estate at Siechnowicze. Constantine married Anna of Olszany (Alšėnai-Galšia). By the 16th century the family surname had become Kosciusko.
Over time, the Kosciusko family acquired land holdings in Ruthenia, which included the estate in Mereczowszczyzna where Thaddeus was born. Available information further indicates that part of the original Lithuanian family moved to Ruthenia where they often married in ethnic Ruthenian families. A majority of those involved in the Kosciusko dispute probably accept this rendition of the facts, but they quickly separate on its interpretation as it relates to nationality.
One of the traditional arguments centers on a dictionary definition of nationality wherein the word is associated with one’s origin, birth, or naturalization; having common origins or traditions; or forming the same political entity or capability of forming a same political entity. At the time of Kosciusko’s birth, Mereczowszczyzna lay within the Grand Duchy of Lithuania which was part of the joint PolishLithuanian Commonwealth. As a result, both Lithuania and Poland can legitimately lay claim to Kosciusko’s nationality based on the geographic place of his birth.
Similarly, Lithuania and Belarus can both legitimately claim Kosciusko because he was born to parents having blood linage to these two peoples..
Still, the situation is not limited to just these two interpretations of the meaning of nationality.
The concept of nationality had a totally different meaning to the people who lived in the PolishLithuanian Commonwealth. Although Lithuanians and Poles made up the major portion of the Commonwealth’s population, its citizens included large numbers of Ruthenians (Belarusians), Ukrainians, Prussians, Livonians, and Jews. They all considered themselves to be Poles regardless of their ethnic origin because they were all citizens of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. As a result, the modern definition of nationality based largely upon ethnic origin or a common language had no meaning to them.
The concept of nationality embraced by most of the population at the time can best be explained through the often cited phrase “Gente Lituani, natione Poloni,” or more simply put in English as Lithuanian by origin and Polish by nationality. In many ways this concept still exists today in America. If someone was stopped on the street and asked where he/she was from, most Americans would give the name of the city, town, or state where they were born. If the person were asked that same question while abroad, he would immediately say he was from the United States of America. If Kosciusko had been asked that same question by a fellow officer while serving in America, his reply without any doubt would have been: “Poland.” Had the same question been asked by a fellow citizen of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, his answer would have been: “Lithuania.”
Since the Polish claim to Kos-ciusko by birth is minimal at best, they extend their claim because he had been a Polish officer and because of his contribution to the cause of Polish independence.
There is no question about Polish arguments that Kosciusko was a graduate of the Corps of Cadets established by King Stanislaw August Poniatowski in Warsaw in 1765, and that he served as a commissioned officer in the Polish Army. What is not frequently disclosed is how Kosciusko came to be a member of the Corps of Cadets and why he accepted a commission in the Polish Army.. The armed forces of the PolishLithuanian Commonwealth consisted of two separate and distinct formations, being the Polish or Crown Army and the Lithuanian Army. Still, the two separate armies had a number of overlapping areas such as the purchase of weapons, uniforms, training, etc. The Corps of Cadets was intended to train military officers for both the Crown and Lithuanian Armies and the funds for its operation came from both treasuries. Kosciusko was appointed to the Corps of Cadets as a Lithuanian in a similar fashion to how cadets are appointed from our various fifty states to West Point. Although Lithuania encompassed a far larger geographic area than Poland, it had a much smaller population and therefore had a smaller standing military force. Unfortunately due to the smaller size of the Lithuanian Army it had no open positions available when Kosciusko graduated and he then happily accepted an appointment in the Polish Army.
There is little dispute about Kosciusko’s subsequent rise through the ranks of the Polish Army and the contribution he made to the cause of American independence. Similarly, all parties concerned take great pride in Kosciusko’s military accomplishments during the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s struggle in its vain attempt at forestalling the partition and eventual dismemberment of the Commonwealth by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. There is no question that Poles, Lithuanians, and Ruthenians took an equal part in the Commonwealth’s final struggle for survival.
On several occasions, Kosciusko issued proclamations printed in the Lithuanian language promising freedom to those who would enlist in the insurrection and he appointed several Lithuanian officers to high ranking positions in the joint Polish-Lithuanian forces. Kosciusko fought bravely and with great distinction for the independence of both nations until he was wounded and captured during the Battle of Maciejowice. Even after his capture, the Polish-Lithuanian forces continued the struggle under the command of General Thomas Wawrzecki (Vavreckis), another Lithuanian General, until the fall of Warsaw several months later.
Kosciusko remained imprisoned for several years in Saint Petersburg in an honored state in the luxurious Prince Orlov’s Marble Palace.
He was finally freed by Czar Paul I in 1796, and after a visit to the United States, he settled in Breville near Paris where he remained politically active in Polish-Lithuanian émigré circles.
Although Napoleon Bonaparte attempted to persuade Kosciusko to champion his cause, he refused to become involved with his Polish-Lithuanian armed forces. In a similar fashion, Czar Alexander I attempted to curry Kosciusko’s favor after the fall of Napoleon. During a meeting in 1815, Alexander invited him to return to Warsaw. Kosciusko attempted to persuade the Czar to reestablish the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, but soon learned that Alexander only intended to create a much smaller Kingdom of Poland. Refusing to take part in reestablishing the Commonwealth in an even smaller size than Napoleon’s Duchy of Warsaw, Kosciusko moved to Solothurn, Switzerland, where he lived the remainder of his life in exile.
Upon learning of Kosciusko’s death, memorial services were held throughout Lithuania and a convention of Lithuanian nobles beseeched the Czar for permission to bring the Lithuanian General’s body to Vilnius for burial. The request was denied although the Czar agreed to allow Kosciusko to be buried in Wawel Cathedral, Kraków, Poland, among Poland’s kings and national heroes. One can only speculate about the Czar’s refusal of the Lithuanian request, but it was most likely to eliminate a rally place for future freedom movements.
At this point one might continue to argue that since Kosciusko was a citizen of a joint Polish-Lithuanian state, each out of fairness should have an equal claim to him. In my opening paragraph, I acknowledged that all sides have a valid claim to Kosciusko, and concede that fact based upon a strict definition of the word “nationality.” Still, I believe any objective review should also include an examination of Kosciusko’s own thoughts on the matter and a number of his surviving statements do just that.
During the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s Four Year Diet (1788-1792), an effort was made to modernize and enlarge the nation’s armed forces. Upon his return home, Kosciusko was awarded by the King with a commission as Major General in the Polish Army, but apparently was not happy in that assignment or living in Poland. In a surviving letter sent to General Ksavery Niesiolowski, the Commander in Chief of the Lithuanian Army, dated March 7, 1790, Kosciusko wrote “…Will you return me to Lithuania?…
What am I if not a Lithuanian, one of your chosen countrymen?… Whom should I defend if not you and myself?… It angers me to be away from Lithuania and serving in Poland…”
Later after Kosciusko had been appointed the Commander-inChief of the Polish-Lithuanian forces during the 1794 Insurrection, he issued a proclamation in which he wrote, “Lithuania! My fellow countrymen and nationals! I was born on your soil and in my ardor for my Fatherland there is within me a special inclination toward those among whom I began my life… Lithuania! Glorious for valor and citizenship, long unfortunate because of the treason of her own sons, I vow to stand amidst you.” This proclamation was received with great fervor among his fellow countrymen and Lithuanians quickly joined him in his struggle for freedom. After Kosciusko was released from Russian captivity in 1796, he travelled to America to visit with his old comrades in arms and was received by the Americans with great respect and honors.
Upon returning to Paris, Kosciusko executed a codicil to his will in which he provided funds to Kosciusko Armstrong, the son of General John Armstrong who was named in his honor. In that document, Kosciusko identified himself as “I, Thaddeus Kosciusko, formerly an officer of the United State of America and a native of Lithuania in Poland…”
Still, in another surviving letter sent to Russian Czar Alexander I in 1815, Kosciusko identified himself as a native Lithuanian (“…je suis ne Lithuanien.”) In that letter, he praised the Czar for his promise to the reestablishment of Poland, but expressed his concern about the future of Lithuania which was then shrouded in uncertainty. The Czar apparently chose not to reply to this communication probably because he had already decided not to include Lithuania in the new Polish Kingdom in favor of annexing the country to Russia. No similar documentation where Kosciusko claimed to be Polish or Ruthenian is known to the author.
Although Kosciusko may have considered himself to be a Pole in classical “Gente Lituani, natione Poloni” geopolitical terms, in his writings he clearly said that he considered himself to be a Lithuanian. Based upon such surviving documents, the author believes any objective researcher has to conclude that Kosciusko, a hero to Poles, Ruthenians, and Americans, was in fact a Lithuanian.