Casimir Pulaski in Georgia – Encyclopedia of New Georgia

Brigadier General Count Casimir (or Kazimierz) Pulaski came from Poland to fight in the American Revolution (1775-1783). Frequently hailed as the founder of the American Cavalry, he served in the Continental Army from late 1777 and died in the Siege of Savannah in October 1779.

Casimir Pulaski was born in Warsaw, Poland on March 6, 1745, to Marjanna and Jozef Pulaski, members of an ancient and influential branch of the Polish aristocracy. Baptized as a boy, young Pulaski received a general education suited to male children of nobility. His family was heavily involved in the 1768 plot, known as the Confederation of the Bar, to liberate Poland from Russian political influence. Pulaski, who always presented himself as male, joined the effort and quickly showed his ability to command a powerful mobile force against Russian troops. In 1771, the Polish government implicated Pulaski in a plot to kidnap Stanislaus II, the Russian-controlled king, and charged him with treason. Pulaski sought protection in France and in 1773 briefly commanded an international force during the Russo-Turkish War (1768-1774).

In 1777, the Revolutionary War in America had caught Pulaski’s attention. He not only sympathized with the new nation’s struggle against oppression, but also saw the conflict as a possible means of regaining his military reputation in Europe and rebuilding his fortune. He enlisted the aid of Benjamin Franklin, one of the American ambassadors to France, and sailed for America in June 1777. Pulaski soon submitted his name to the Continental Congress for an officer’s commission. To demonstrate his zeal for the success of the war, he supplemented the request with a variety of military proposals, including an expedition to capture the French island of Madagascar.

Pulaski’s past military commands and reputation as a skilled cavalry officer did not cause George Washington or the Continental Congress to immediately accept him. They had grown tired of Europeans applying for military service and failing to live up to their vaunted reputation. Thus, Pulaski unofficially joined Washington’s forces on September 11, 1777, at the Battle of Brandywine in Pennsylvania, where he led a small force of horsemen and helped protect the Continental Army during its retreat. His fervor for the American cause and fighting ability convinced Washington and Congress to accept Pulaski as brigadier general and appoint him “commander of the cavalry”. He fought at the Battle of Germantown, also in Pennsylvania, later that year and briefly stayed at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania during the winter of 1777-1778. Most contemporaries who met Pulaski agreed that he excelled as a bold and energetic rider; a friend described him as a soldier who fought with the strength of ten men.

Again he faced the difficult task of combining four semi-independent continental dragoon commands. Speaking little English, Pulaski discovered to his dismay that Washington and most of his generals had failed to grasp the potential effectiveness of a cohesive, highly trained cavalry unit; indeed, sections of his corps were detailed as messengers and guards. Pulaski insisted that his men follow European-style cavalry tactics, act as shock troops in battle, and learn to harass the advancing enemy.

Fort Pulaski
Fort Pulaski

Photograph by Brooke Novak

To make matters worse, Congress rarely appropriated sufficient funds for cavalry, and the prices of provisions rose steadily. Pulaski’s desire to supply and train his command properly caused him to act brashly at times and ignore the mundane tasks of administration. Few contemporaries questioned his commitment to the American cause, but his actions angered Congress, civilians, and military personnel. His letters to friends and acquaintances frequently conveyed a strain of melancholy disillusionment with life in the United States Army.

In the spring of 1778 Pulaski briefly resigned his commission with the intention of returning to France. But that year, Congress approved his command of an independent legion and gave him permission to train it the European way. Pulaski’s Legion quickly acquired an international character, with American, Hungarian, German, Polish, Swedish, Italian and French volunteers. Pulaski hoped to demonstrate the capabilities of his command, but setbacks continued to hamper his efforts. For example, a legion infantry unit suffered a surprise night attack from the British at Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey, in October 1778. Washington then assigned the legion to border patrol at Cole’s Fort in New York, located on the northern border. It proved an unsuitable place for cavalry tactics, and once again Pulaski decided to leave America.

But events in Georgia kept Pulaski in the military and brought him to the South. Earlier, in December 1778, British forces took Savannah by surprise. In response, Washington ordered Pulaski’s Legion and several Continental units to join the forces of General Benjamin Lincoln, commander of the Army of the South. Once in South Carolina, the Legion helped defend Charleston against a surprise British attack and fought at the Battle of Stono Ferry. In mid-September 1779, the Legion marched with Lincoln to join French troops under Count Charles Henri d’Estaing in a campaign to recapture Savannah.

In October, the Franco-American force began a devastating bombardment of the city that lasted five days. But d’Estaing’s fears for the supporting French fleet to remain too long in Georgia during the hurricane season forced the Allies to attack the British defenses head-on on the 9th. The approved plan called for a diversionary assault on the British left followed of the main attack of French and American troops on the British right at the Spring Hill redoubt. American infantry served as a follow-up force, while Pulaski’s men were to launch a cavalry charge whenever a breach occurred in the defenses to sow chaos among the enemy troops.

Siege of Savannah

The attack did not go as planned. The Allied troops started late, as fog and a lack of clear directions delayed the French columns. Once the assault began, the Allies soon realized that the British knew their plans. Eyewitness accounts of Pulaski’s accusation vary. Captain Paul Bentalou, a member of the legion, wrote that the general went into battle when he learned that d’Estaing was wounded. Another legionnaire, Maciej Rogowski, claimed Pulaski and his men got caught in a crossfire between two batteries. D’Estaing recalled that Pulaski charged too quickly and cut himself off from support. All accounts carried the grim news that grapeshot from a British cannon had hit the general as he attempted to crash through enemy lines.

Pulaski died within two days of his injury. Rumors and controversies about the exact cause of death and place of burial emerged decades after Pulaski’s disappearance and continue to exist. James Lynah, the doctor who removed the deadly grapeshot, claimed he could have saved Pulaski if the general had remained in the American camp, but he insisted on boarding a ship. The standard account of Pulaski’s death comes from Captain Paul Bentalou in an 1824 essay titled “Pulaski justified from an unsupported accusation…”. in which he claims his commanding officer died of gangrene aboard the brigantine Continental Wasp. The rapid deterioration of the body forced a burial at sea near Tybee Island, of which Bentalou claimed to be an eyewitness. Another account has Pulaski buried in South Carolina, while another report speaks of a secret burial at Greenwich Plantation near Thunderbolt, Chatham County, Georgia.

When the city of Savannah erected a fifty-five-foot obelisk in Monterey Square to honor Pulaski in the 1850s, examiners unearthed the Greenwich Plantation grave believed to contain his remains. They pronounced the bones similar to a male of the same age and size as the general. City officials reinterred the remains under the monument in 1854. A more recent interpretation by Edward Pinkowski supports the Greenwich burial site and relies on a letter written by the captain of the Wasp, Samuel Bullfinch, dated October 15, 1779. Captain Bullfinch notes that his ship fired Thunderbolt and reported details of the burial of a recently deceased American officer on board the ship who was given a funeral ashore.

Casimir Pulaski stamp
Casimir Pulaski stamp

Courtesy of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum

When plans were drawn up to dismantle and renovate the monument in Monterey Square in the fall of 1996, the Pulaski DNA Investigation Committee exhumed the grave and had DNA taken from the remains against that of the Pulaski family members buried in Eastern Europe. Proponents of the theory that Pulaski’s body lay in Monterey Square pointed out that the skeletal remains revealed broken bones in his right hand as well as head and tailbone injuries similar to injuries sustained by the general. Yet the unearthed remains had typically female pelvic bones and a delicate facial structure. At the time, DNA tests were inconclusive, but some bone samples were saved in hopes that DNA technology would improve in the future. On October 9, 2005, the 226th anniversary of the Siege of Savannah, the city held special funeral services and a final reburial ceremony in Monterey Square to honor the fallen soldier.

In 2015, Georgia Southern University anthropology professor Virginia Hutton Estabrook and then-graduate student Lisa Powell began re-examining the data. With support from the Smithsonian Channel, the team performed additional DNA testing, and this time the results were conclusive: mitochondrial DNA matched a known relative of Pulaski. Given the typically female pelvic bones and facial structure of the skeletal remains, the team concluded that Pulaski was intersex. According to the Intersex Society of North America, “intersex is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that does not appear to fit typical definitions of female or male” . Pulaski has presented as a man throughout his life and he may not have been aware of his condition. In 2019, this recent discovery, along with Pulaski’s distinguished military career, was featured in a Smithsonian Channel documentary. Pulaski is now publicly recognized as an important historical figure in an often hidden and marginalized community.

Fort Pulaski, built at the mouth of the Savannah River to protect Savannah from Union attack during the Civil War (1861-1865), and Pulaski County were named for the officer of the independance War.

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