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Who Was Casimir Pulaski?

Updated on March 4, 2016
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Caroline is a copywriter, an amateur historian, and a narrative genealogist. She earned her B.A. in Philosophy from Northwestern University.

Brigadier General Kazimierz Pulaski mortally wounded at the battle of Savannah on the 9th of October 1779 by Stanislaw Batowski Kaczor, Polish Museum, Chicago.
Brigadier General Kazimierz Pulaski mortally wounded at the battle of Savannah on the 9th of October 1779 by Stanislaw Batowski Kaczor, Polish Museum, Chicago.
Casimir Pulaski portrait by Jan Styka.
Casimir Pulaski portrait by Jan Styka.

In Chicago and throughout Illinois, Casimir Pulaski Day is celebrated on the first Monday of every March. In our children’s elementary school district, the day is a non-attendance holiday. Relatives and friends from outside of Illinois used to ask the same question you may be asking right now: Who on earth is Casimir Pulaski and why does he have a special holiday?

Casimir Pulaski (Kazimierz Pułaski) is considered the Father of the American Cavalry and was a Polish American Revolutionary War hero.

Pulaski's birthplace and family home at Warka, now the Pulaski Museum.
Pulaski's birthplace and family home at Warka, now the Pulaski Museum.
Restrelli Palace of the court of Duke of Courland, in what is now Jelgava, Latvia.
Restrelli Palace of the court of Duke of Courland, in what is now Jelgava, Latvia.
Pulaski at Częstochowa's walls by Juliusz Kossak, circa 1880.
Pulaski at Częstochowa's walls by Juliusz Kossak, circa 1880.

Pulaski's Career in Poland

The exact dates marking the beginning and the ending of Casimir Pulaski's life are both subject to debate among historians. He was the son of Marianna Zielinska and Józef Pulaski, the Starost of Warka and Crown Tribunal advocatus. His commonly accepted birth date is March 6, 1745 in the family home in Warsaw, which no longer stands. However, late 20th-century historians offer compelling research and previously lost baptismal records that argue for a March 4, 1745, birthday at the family country home in Winiary, Warka, Poland.1

Pulaski was baptized on March 14, 1745, in the parish church of Grabow, 3.5 miles from Winiary. His many godparents included Princess Maria Zofia Czartoryska, wife of Prince August Alexander Czartoryski (a voivode in Russia); Casimir Rudzinski, castellan of Czersk; and Princess Eleanora Czartoryska, wife of Prince Michael Czartoryski, deputy chancellor of Lithuania.2

Pulaski began his military career in 1762, at the age of 17, as the page to Carl Christian Joseph of Saxony, the Duke of Courland, in Mitau (now Jelgava, Latvia). While there, he experienced six months during which time the court was held under siege in the Rastrelli Palace for six months by Russian forces. The siege ended in 1763 with the abdication of the Duke. When Pulaski returned to Warsaw, his father awarded him the village of Zezulińce, and Pulaski carried the title of Starost of Zezulińce.3

The 1760s were chaotic in Poland, as times frequently are in Eastern Europe. By the end of 1767, Pulaski and his father joined the Confederation of Bar, an association of Polish nobles committed to defending the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth against Russian political influence. The Confederation viewed the newly elected Polish monarch, King Stanislaw, as merely a Russian puppet. The organization raised troops and became militarily active against Russian forces stationed inside Poland. By March 1768, Pulaski was in charge of his own cavalry unit. He and his men defended several sieges that year, winning some and losing others.4

In the first half of 1769, about the time Józef Pulaski died, Casimir broke a lengthy siege at Okopy Świętej Trójcy. On the tails of this success, he was made a regimental leader. After a criticized defeat at Przemyśl, he led a group of allied officers and 600 troops to Lithuania in June 1769. In Lithuania, Pulaski attempted to create a much larger revolt against Russia. While he achieve no military successes on the battlefield, he returned to the main Confederate theater of action in Poland with an additional 4,000 troops. This significant achievement became known internationally.5

In early-1770, Pulaski was operating in Lesser Poland. In June 1770, he and other Confederate leaders attended a conference in Prešovin, where he received a compliment on his military actions from Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. Just one month later, though, his camp was captured and Pulaski was forced to retreat to Austria. While in Austria, Pulaski made the acquaintance of French emissary Charles François Dumouriez, who would be an important contact in Pulaski's future.

In late August 1770, Pulaski cooperated with forces in a raid on Kraków with Michal Walewski. The two then departed for Częstochowa with their troops. On September 10, Pulaski and Walewski took control of the Jasna Góra monastery, which was and is still considered Poland's spiritual capital and is the location of one of the world's few Black Madonnas. Through January 1771, he and Walewski commanded the Polish troops through the successful defense of the monastery during the Siege of Jasna Góra. This achievement further enhanced Pulaski's growing international reputation.6 However, the Confederation did not succeed in its overall campaign. The Confederation fell in 1772, and Pulaski was left to seek refuge in France.

Pulaski & the Confederation of Bar Rebelllion

Warka, Poland:
Warka, Poland

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Birthplace and country home of Casimir Pulaski. Now home to the Pulaski Museum.

Warsaw, Poland:
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The Siege of Josna Gora Monastery

Casimir Pulaski, Founder of American Cavalry
Casimir Pulaski, Founder of American Cavalry

Pulaski in Exile

In addition to the collapse of the Confederation of Bar, part of Pulaski's flight from Poland was due to on-going charges that he had participated in an unsuccessful plot to kidnap and kill Polish King Stanislov--a charge that Pulaski continually denied. Because of the regicide charges, only Saxony and France welcomed him. He sought multiple military commissions with France but was continually turned down. For someone who had lived on the battlefield for four years, Pulaski's exile in France must have been exceedingly frustrating. Multiple times, he attempted to fund excursions to the Ottoman Empire, which was at war with the Russians. By the time he arrived, though, the war was over. He had nothing to do but return to France.7

When Pulaski arrived back in Marseilles, in 1774, he was a very debt-laden 29-year-old man (assuming a 1745 birth year). He was unable to repay loans and was sent to debtors' prison. It isn't known whether he was in and out of debtors' prison or spent one long sentence there. But by 1776, French historian Claude Ruhliere was helping Pulaski find a way to clear his debts by serving the French allies, the American colonists, in their fight for independence.8

Late in the Confederation of Bar War, Pulaski fell out of favor with Dumouriez, the French emissary. Pulaski was a loose cannon who favored hit-and-run, insurgent-style fighting, similar to what the American Continental Army would be using. He did not agree with Dumouriez's preferred linear tactics. However, despite their differences, Dumouriez described Pulaski as:

"[Pulaski was] a young leader, very brave and very innovative, but liked independence, preferred his own projects, not respecting authority or a set plan . . . elated in the success of his compatriots with grand gestures . . . he was very against the system of regular war because he wasn't but a very small person and delighted in the leadership of a small army, he did not believe in the new system of lines, and didn't submit to the orders of the Regiment General . . . who was a very incapable man. . . ." 9

Historian Jędrzej Kitowicz met Pulaski and described him as short, thin, and energetic. Kitowicz stated that Pulaski paced and spoke quickly, and was uninterested in women or drinking. He was committed to, and enjoyed fighting, the Russians above all else.10

In early 1777, Silas Deane, the American representative in Paris responded positively to Rhuliere's suggestion of Pulaski's service in the American Revolution. However, Deane was recalled to the States due to his own budget discrepencies. Benjamin Franklin's replacing of Deane in May, probably had much to do with the French Foreign Ministry finally allowing Pulaski to leave Marseilles. In Strassbourg, he was able to obtain funds to repay most of his debt. His only problem was to find further financial resources to pay his passage to the United States.

Pulaski fatally wounded in First Siege of Savannah
Pulaski fatally wounded in First Siege of Savannah
Brigadier General and Commander of the Horse Casimir Pulaski
Brigadier General and Commander of the Horse Casimir Pulaski

Pulaski & the American Revolution

Founder of the U.S. Cavalry

Enamored by Pulaski’s reputation for bravery and courage, Franklin recommended him directly to George Washington. Arriving in Massachusetts in July 1777, Pulaski, carried letters of recommendation from Franklin and Deane, as well as a letter for the Marquis de Lafayette from the Marquis' wife. Pulaski met Washington at his headquarters near Philadelphia that August, where he famously showed off riding stunts to Washington and, more seriously, argued for the importance of cavalry over infantry.

Pulaski saw action against the British at the Battle of Brandywine, before his commission was completed. [In fact, it was Lafayette who probably convinced Washington to forward Pulaski's commission to Congress for approval.11] Pulaski had started the battle as an observer until he realized that Washington's headquarters were about to be overrun by the British. He took charge of Washington's personal security unit to halt the advance. At this point, his English was almost non-existant. Legend has it that he yelled "Vorwarts, Bruden, Vorwarts," along with arm signals, and the detachment understood that they were to follow into the charge. The advancing British were so shocked to be attacked in the middle of a rout, that they had to regroup. This pause gave the Continental Army a chance to organize a hasty retreat.12

The first British history of the war with colonies notes: "two Polish noblemen [presumably Pulaski and Jan Zielinski], [who] exhibited in the battle of Brandywine, great proofs of bravery and attachment to the cause they had espoused."13

Pulaski's commission was almost immediately approved, and he was appointed a brigadier general and Commander of the Horse in September 1777.

Pulaski, Zielinski, fellow Pole Tedeusz Kosciuszko, and even Lafayette all experienced instances of prejudices against them as foreign officers. Serving in an army so far removed from Europe was probably very difficult. In addition to significant language barriers, the military culture was very different as well. In fact, the foreign officers probably had much more in common with the Hessian mercenaries and British soldiers than the Colonial officers and soldiers. For instance, at one point in late 1777, Washington reprimanded Pulaski for taking horses from local farms, despite the cavalry and overall army's need for horses. Pulaski had been used to supplying himself in Europe. Washington, though, ordered all Continental Army horses branded and the cessation of all theft.14

During the winter of 1778, Pulaski and his cavalry wintered in Trenton and obtained permission to form a unit of lancers. He also led units of cavalry, alongside General Anthony Wayne's infantry, in foraging missions to help feed the men at Valley Forge. Some of these missions resulted in skirmishes with the British. But frustrated with inactivity, infighting among other cavalry commanders, and the strategy of the Council of War, Pulaski resigned his post in favor of creating a new unit from scratch. Washington supported Pulaski's idea.

The Congress authorized the formation of a corps of lancers and a light infantry brigade. This became known as the Pulaski Cavalry Legion and was headquartered at Baltimore, where throughout much of 1778, Pulaski trained his men in tested cavalry tactics. The Continental Army is noted for its headstrong, independent soldiers who resisted military obedience and command, even under such figures as Washington. Resistance to Pulaski’s European-style training and discipline was even stronger.

Sent South

The Legion's first battle with the regular Army ended in a defeat at Little Egg Harbor in late 1778. This was followed by orders from Washington to help settlers in Minisink, New York, fight the Iroquois. However, upon arrival, the Legion found neither Native Americans nor any forage for their horses. In early 1779, Pulaski and his cavalry were sent to South Carolina. There, they joined General Benjamin Lincoln's army to fight the British for Charleston in May and June 1779. Pulaski remained in Charleston for much of the summer, ill with malaria and fighting Congress through the mail about his expense accounting with the Legion.

In September 1779, the French fleet arrived. Quickly consolidating French and American troops, the Army set off for British-held Savannah. At Thunderbolt, Pulaski personally greeted the French Vice-Admiral Count Charles-Henri d'Estaing. Pulaski's Legion then spent a week engaged with the British in skirmishes and successfully clearing a path for the unification of the American and French forces. After a plague of delays, the First Siege of Savannah began on Oct. 4, 1779. Pulaski commanded the combined American and French cavalries and initially succeeded in taking a British outpost.

While rallying cavalry troops during a charge on October 9, 1779, Pulaski was fatally hit with grapeshot. He was carried off the battlefield and to the Wasp, a private brig off the shore of Savannah. Casimir Pulaski died on October 11, 1779, or between October 11-15, at the young age of 34 years.15

Pulaski & the American Revolution

Philadelphia, PA, USA

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Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania:
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Battle of Brandywine

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Thunderbolt, Georgia:
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Savannah, Georgia:
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Casimir Pulaski Memorial, Monterey Square, Savannah
Casimir Pulaski Memorial, Monterey Square, Savannah
Upclose view of relief work on base of Pulaski monument.
Upclose view of relief work on base of Pulaski monument.
The (truly) final resting place of Casimir Pulaski in Monterey Square, Savannah, Georgia.
The (truly) final resting place of Casimir Pulaski in Monterey Square, Savannah, Georgia. | Source
Pulaski's white oak casket, donated by families in Poland.
Pulaski's white oak casket, donated by families in Poland. | Source
Funeral Caisson with Pulaski's Casket arrives at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, 2005
Funeral Caisson with Pulaski's Casket arrives at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, 2005
Polish Cavalry representatives
Polish Cavalry representatives | Source
The veterans of Poland's September 1939 Defensive Campaign.
The veterans of Poland's September 1939 Defensive Campaign. | Source
U.S. Army Color Guard, 2005 Pulaski Reinterment
U.S. Army Color Guard, 2005 Pulaski Reinterment | Source

Pulaski's Movable Grave: Burial & Reburial & Reburial Again

Until 1996, the burial site of Casimir Pulaski was undetermined and subject to debate among scholars. Various articles, in print and online, still incorrectly state that Pulaski was buried at sea. The Wasp was docked at Bonaventure Plantation (now Bonaventure Cemetery) in Thunderbolt, Georgia, where d’Estaing had organized a field hospital and had headquartered his artillery base. It was employed to transport French artillery guns and the wounded back to Charleston following the unsuccessful siege on Savannah. Pulaski was one of the last wounded to be transported onto the at-capacity Wasp.

The captain of the Wasp, Samuel Bullfinch, and other witnesses stated that a mortally wounded Pulaski was transferred from the Wasp to Greenwich Plantation, across the road from Bonaventure. According to these witnesses, he died at Greenwich and was buried there. He may also have died on board ship before it set sail, with his body being transferred to Greenwich. In any event, the personal papers of ship purser Eleazar Phillips, a carpenter by trade, prove that Phillips built the pine coffin in which Pulaski was buried16.

Greenwich Plantation was home to Jane Bowen, widow of Samuel Bowen, their four children, her brother, and servants and slaves. Vice-Admiral D’Estaing preferred her property to that of Bonaventure and had his own tent erected on her land. Two of his officers boarded in her home. Mrs. Bowen herself directed Pulaski's burial, supposedly at night to deter grave robbers. Successive generations of the Bowen family kept up the grave.17

In 1825, during his return to the United States, Lafayette laid the cornerstone to Savannah's Pulaski monument in Chippewa Square. Before his death in 1834, Lafayette told Polish historian Leonard Chodzko the location of Pulaski's grave. In doing so, he confirms the initial burial at Greenwich Plantation: "Pulaski was buried in a garden under a palm tree, on the plantation belonging to the Beecroft family, in the area of Greenwich."18 Beecroft was the married name of Jane Bowen's daughter Elizabeth Ann.19

The First Reburial

In 1853, in preparation for a new Savannah Pulaski monument, this one an obelisk in Monterey Square, Jane Bowen’s grandson, Major William Bowen, opened Pulaski’s grave at Greenwich Plantation. At this time, Bowen had the exhumed remains sent to the Savannah Medical College for examination. In 1853, all that the forensics team could do was to confirm that the bones belonged to a "man of medium build who died in the prime of life." The committee for the Pulaski Memorial was sufficiently satisfied, so they approved the remains for reinterment in the Memorial.20 Contents of the grave, including about 80% of Pulaski's skeleton and remnants of the pine coffin and its nails, were transferred to an iron box, onto which was etched Pulaski's name. Bowen arranged for both the iron box and the original 1825 cornerstone to be quietly placed inside the vault of the new Pulaski monument in Monterey Square.21

The Discovery of a Lost Hero

In 1996, more than 140 years later, during a much-needed restoration of the Pulaski Monument, the iron box, unknown or long forgotten, was discovered. Etched into a plate on the box was the name “Brigadier General Cassimer Pulaski.” Dr. Karen Burns, a forensic anthropologist with the University of Georgia, Chatham County (Georgia) Coroner Dr. James Metts, and James Wermouth, an archaeologist from Newport, Rhode Island were involved in the exhumation. 22

Among evidence of a coffin burial, an intact skull and skeleton were retrieved. Upon forensic examination, the skull and skeleton proved to be that of a man of Pulaski's size, ethnic background, and showing evidence of Pulaski's known injuries. Bone patterns were consistent with life on a horse.23 Unfortunately, upon exhumation, authorities realized that such relics as Pulaski's uniform buttons and rosary beads had gone missing between the first exhumation and the first reburial. Despite possessing a full set of teeth at the time of death, Pulaski's remains only included molars. Clearly, some souvenir hunters were amid the Major Bowen's team. After eight years of on-going forensic investigation, DNA information was inconclusive. However, most scholars now believe that Pulaski was indeed originally buried at Greenwich and moved to the Monterey monument.24, 25

Another Reburial26

In a city already known for ghostly presences, poor Pulaski wasn't laid at rest again until 2005. The final touches included a new white marble crypt that was installed in front of the monument. The 2005 reinterment of Pulaski's remains included a week's worth of ceremony leading up to the official Military and Religious Funeral on October 9, exactly 226 years from the day he was mortally wounded. This time, instead of a crude pine casket or an iron box, Pulaski was laid to rest in a white oak casket from Poland. Among the dignitaries were Poland's Undersecretary of State Andrzej Majkowski, 12 Polish horseback riders from a ceremonial-parade unit, and several Polish veterans from the September 1939 Defensive Campaign. Bishop General Tadeusz Ploski, chief of the Polish Army Chaplains, was part of the delegation. From Washington, D.C., Poland's Ambassador to the U.S., Janusz Reiter, and military attaché General Kazimierz Sikorski, were in attendance, among others. A contingent from Pulaski's birthplace of Warka were Iwona Stefaniak, the Pulaski Museum Director; Miroslaw Maliszewski, Grojec County Administrator; Teresa Knyzio, President of Warka City Council; and Jolanta Kazimierska, Director of the Warka Brewery.

Revolutionary war re-enactors and patriotic groups marched, to fife and drum, to the nearby battlefield where a replica rampart had been erected. There, after a speaker recounted the course of the battle, wreaths were placed. A cannon shot sounded in salute to those who like Pulaski, gave their lives to the cause of American Independence. A memorial Mass at St. John the Baptist Cathedral followed, conducted mainly in Polish by Bishop Ploski.

During the Mass, a number of units assembled on Abercorn Street and on the steps leading to the church, including a US Army color guard, an infantry unit that was to fire a salute at the grave, sailors from the USS Roosevelt, the Knights of Columbus, the Pulaski Cadets, the Polish riders (with five on horseback), the September 1939 Defensive Campaign from Poland, and a military burial detail in 19th-century uniforms from Arlington National Cemetery. Their four white draft horses pulled a caisson that held Pulaski's casket. A riderless horse was included to memorialize the fallen General. The casket was placed on a catafalque on the steps of the Cathedral where it remained throughout the mass, guarded by sailors from the USS Roosevelt.

Following the funeral Mass, the procession made toward Monterey Square. The splendid sight--with flags, horses, uniforms, and flowers--wound its way over nearly twenty-two blocks and was a fitting tribute to the fallen 34-year-old (plus 226 years) Polish war hero.

Upon reaching the monument at Monterey Square, Ploski began Pulaski's first (and hopefully, final) ceremony of Christian Burial. He was assisted by an Anglican priest, a member of the Savannah Masonic Lodge, and the Rabbi from the nearby synagogue. With the casket in the crypt chamber, the ceremony concluded, a 21-gun salute was fired, and Taps were sounded.

Casimir Pulaski Birthday in Savannah
Casimir Pulaski Birthday in Savannah
Pulaski Statue, Chicago
Pulaski Statue, Chicago
Polish Constitution Day in Chicago
Polish Constitution Day in Chicago
Pulaski Road (Honorary Casimir Pulaski Way), Chicago
Pulaski Road (Honorary Casimir Pulaski Way), Chicago

Pulaski's Significance to Chicago

Until the U.S. Census of 2010, the Chicago metropolitan region was home to more Polish people than anywhere else in the world outside of Poland. While the New York metro area now has a slight edge in population figures, the Chicago area continues to recognize the substantial impact the Polish community has long had on local culture. Polish is the third most widely spoken language in Chicago, following English and Spanish. The Dziennik Związkowy (The Zagoda, or the Polish Daily News) is the city’s Polish-language newspaper, the oldest Polish paper in the United States. Polish-language radio is available on channel 1030 AM. Among Chicago's many Polish American organizations are the Polish Museum of America, the Polish American Association, the Polish National Alliance, and the Polish Highlanders Alliance of North America. And the restaurants . . . according to, Chicago is home to nearly 200 Polish eateries serving up everything from pierogis and dumplings to stuffed cabbages and white borscht. Pulaski's name is on a major north-south thoroughfare (Pulaski Avenue), and many Chicago Polish American children attend Polish school on weeknights or weekends.

But why Pulaski Day in Chicago? Casimir Pulaski Day is a chance to remember the role the Polish have played in the development of the United States, all the way back to the founder of our cavalry, a 34-year-old Polish revolutionary who died fighting in the American Revolution. The day also offers us a moment to reflect on the significant contributions of all Polish Americans, from the Polish colonists who arrived in 1609 with Captain John Smith to immigrants and their Polish American descendants who, for generations, have enriched the culture of Chicago and helped make up the backbone of the “City that Works.”


1 Pinkowski, Edward. "General Pulaski's Age: Baptism Record Verifies Historian's Hunch.” Polish American Journal. 1996: February. [PAJ]
3Szczygielski, Waclaw. Pułaski Kazimierz, 1986. [WS]
7 Shores, Douglas. Kazimierz Pulaski: General of Two Nations. 2015: San Diego, CA.[KP]
8 ibid
9 ibid
10 WS
11 KP
12 KP
13 KP
14 KP
15 Pinkowski, Edward. “General Pulaski’s Body.” Presented October 1997: Pulaski Museum, Warka, Poland. [GPB]
16 ibid
17 ibid
18 KP
19 GPB
20 KP
21 GPB
22 ibid
23 KP
24 ibid
25 GPB
26 "Pulaski's Grand Burial in Savannah." 2005: Oct. 7-10.


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    • profile image

      Leon Duffy 

      2 years ago

      I think the picture that is titled Pulaski statue, Chicago is actually a statue of another Polish military person, Tadeusz Kościuszko.

      And I think that statue in the picture is on Northerly Island near the Planetarium.


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