For many of us who live in Chicago, we celebrate Pulaski Day the first Monday of March. Of course, some are just happy for the day off, but with our new mayor declaring he will be taking that holiday away in the upcoming year, I started to wonder – I bet most people do not even know who this man is. Who is Casimir Pulaski and why would we have a day off in his honor?
Anyone who knows American war history knows him as the Father of the American Cavalry.
Casimir Pulaski was born in Warsaw, Poland on March 6, 1745. He loved to ride horses and his father sent him for official training. He became an officer in the army in 1771. While he was young, he joined his father and other noblemen while they fought against the Russians and Prussians. The Russians were trying to dominate the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He started out as a page for the Duke of Corland, but when the nobility was disbanded, he found other ways to support his countrymen. He helped elect Stanislaw II August. He also helped form the Bar Confederation in 1768.
He was living in exile in Paris when he met Lafayette and Benjamin Franklin. He liked the ideals of freedom and equality. After all, hadn’t he been trying to fight for his own country’s freedom all those years ago? He was forced to leave his beloved Poland because he was wrongfully accused of plotting to kill the king at that time. His father and brothers were killed and he was captured and condemned to death. In order to escape capture and a hanging, he fled Poland and lived in France. He always hoped to return to his country, but unfortunately that did not happen. It was not until years later he was cleared of all wrong-doing.
When he arrived in the colonies, he was introduced to George Washington. He came to Philadelphia in 1777 and helped Washington at the Battle of Brandywine. On September 11, 1777, he thwarted an attempt to cut off the Continental Army and saved George Washington’s life. Because of his bravery and amazing skill with horses, he given the rank of Brigadier General and given charge of the Four Horse Brigade. In 1778, Congress created the Cavalry and Pulaski was given command of it. He trained the men the same way his troops were trained in Poland. Many times he would use his own money when funds were depleted so his men would have the proper supplies and uniforms.
Unfortunately, many soldiers did not trust him because of his heavy accent. Frustrated, Pulaski returned to Valley Forge and General Washington. He was given a group of men to command – the Pulaski Cavalry Legion. It consisted of over 350 men which was divided into 3 companies of infantry and 3 companies of cavalry.
Pulaski helped defend Little Egg Harbor in New Jersey as well as Minisink (also in New Jersey at the time). He traveled south to help there and was involved in many battles. While in Charleston, South Carolina, he helped capture a British outpost. He helped establish communications with the French fleet at Beaufort. During the Battle of Savannah on October 9, 1779, he was injured by grapeshot, which is a mass of small metal balls packed in a small canvas bag (think of buckshot today). The balls spread out when fired from a rifle. He was carried from the battlefield in honors, but he died on October 15, 1779 at the young age of 34.
Years later he was awarded honorary United States citizenship. In 1910, a statue was erected in his honor in Washington, DC.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem called “Hymn of the Moravian Nuns of Bethlehem” which is supposed to have been inspired by Pulaski’s Legion.
When the dying flame of day
Through the chancel shot its ray
Far the glimmering tapers shed
Faint light on the cowled head;
And the censer burning swung,
Where nere before the altar, hung
The crimson banner, that with prayer
Had been consecrated there.
And the nun’s sweet hymn was heard while,
Sung low, in the dim, mysterious aisle.
“Take they banner, May it wave
Proudly o’er the good and brave;
When the battle’s distant wail
Breaks the Sabbath of our vale,
When the clarion’s music thrills
To the hearts of these lone hills,
When the spear in conflict shakes,
And the strong lance shivering breaks.
“Take thy banner! And, beneath
The battle-cloud’s encircling wreath,
Guard it, till our homes are free!
Guard it! God will prosper thee!
In the dark and trying hour,
In the dark and trying hour,
In the breaking forth of power,
In the rush of steeds and men,
His right hand will shield thee then.
“Take they banner! But when night
Closes round the ghastly flight, if the vanquished warrior
Bow, spare him! As thou wouldst be
Spared! By our prayers and many tears, by the
Mercy that endears, spare him! He our love hath
Shared! Spare him! As thou wouldst be spared
“Take thy banner! And if e’er
Thou shouldst press the soldier’s bier,
And the muffled drum should beat
To the tread of mournful feet,
Then this crimson flag shall be
Martial cloak and shroud for thee.”
The warrior took that banner proud,
And it was his martial cloak and shroud!