I am publishing the best of my Exceptional Americans series on Kindle and on Amazon. Volume I covering American history from the 16th through the 20th century is here. And Volume II on The Capitalists is available here.
He arrived in Philadelphia in 1776 to join the American side in the Revolutionary War -- and wept when he read the Declaration of Independence. The preamble was a concise, clear and eloquent summation of Andrzej Tadeusz Bonawentura Kosciuszko's worldview. And he and its author, Thomas Jefferson, would become lifelong friends, with Kosciuszko appointing Jefferson as the executor of his will.
“He is as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known,” Jefferson later wrote of his friend.
Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Casimir Pulaski were Polish generals who helped liberate the United States from a foreign empire, even though their homeland was under the thumb of the Russian empire. Their efforts were invaluable. Pulaski formed America's cavalry, and also saved General Washington's life once. Kosciuszko was an engineer and intelligence officer who helped General Nathaniel Greene win the Race to the Dan -- a river -- against Cornwallis in 1781.
But it was his fortification of West Point for which he is best known. He turned it into the American Gibraltar.
Born in Poland, he received a military education and was 30 when he came to America to join its revolution.
The Continental Congress appointed him a colonel of engineers. Kosciuszko’s fortifications contributed to an American victory at Saratoga, and he then was assigned to further fortify West Point, a key point of defense on the Hudson River. Here, in addition to defenses, he created a small garden, which is still maintained at the U.S. Military Academy.
He had built fortifications along the Hudson River and helped slow the British advance by having his men fell trees during General Shuyler's retreat. Blocking the way slowed the redcoats down allowing the Americans to escape.
The military assigned Agrippa Hull as Kosciuszko's aide. The men instantly bonded. Agrippa Hull was a freeman and likely the first Negro that Kosciuszko ever met. For four years they served side-by-side from the Hudson to the Dan River and beyond.
Agrippa Hull enlisted in the Continental Army shortly after his eighteenth birthday. The military assigned him as an orderly to General John Paterson of the Massachusetts Line. As the general's enlisted aid, Hull witnessed the surrender of British General John Burgoyne at Saratoga, New York. Hull also endured the winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Hull also participated in the battle at Monmouth Courthouse, New Jersey. on June 28, 1778.
But Private Hull's career took off in May 1779, when he joined Kosciuszko's staff. This launched a lifelong friendship between the engineer who designed the fortifications at West Point and one of the few African-American soldiers allowed in the Continental Army, much less as an orderly to a general.
For the next four years, the two men worked side by side, with Hull serving as the Polish general's attendant and messenger.
In 1780, General Washington sent Kosciuszko south as part of the American effort to stop the British Southern Campaign. By this time, he was the chief military engineer in the Continental Army. This assignment thrust Kosciuszko and Hull into the bloodiest, most intense, and final phase of the war.
Arriving in North Carolina in October 1780, Kosciuszko and Hull joined a motley army that desperately needed of supplies. Washington had sent his right-hand man, General Nathanael Greene, to take over as head of the Southern Command after Gneeral Horatio Gates proved to be a disaster as a commander. But Gates was not wholly responsible for its failures.
“The miserable situation of the troops for want of clothing has rendered the march the most painful imaginable, several hundreds of the soldiers tracking the ground with their bloody feet,” Greene wrote Washington.
The trip South opened the eyes of both Kosciuszko and Hull, who witnessed for the first tome slavery. While every slavery was legal in every British colony, plantation slavery in the South was far different and crueler.
In 1776, Virginia Royal Governor Lord Dunmore wisely offered freedom to any escaping slave who joined the British. Kosciuszko and Hull saw on a daily basis the inhumanity of the situation. They knew why so many southern slaves were willing to join the British military in an effort to escape slavery and become freeman, like Hull. This was an eye-opener for the Polish engineer, who immediately became an abolitionist.
But the Southern Campaign by the British would turn from triumph to defeat for the Redcoats, following General Daniel Morgan's brilliant victory at the Battle of Cowpens on January 17, 1781.
Kosciuszko and his orderly, Hull, were there every step of the way, participating in all the major battles: Cowpens, Eutaw Springs, Ninety-Six, Guilford Courthouse, and the Siege of Charleston. Hull also worked with the medical corps, performing life-saving amputations and setting bones. While Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown in October 1781, the British Southern Campaign continued until the signing of the Treay of Paris in 1783. The two returned to Philadelphia, and Kosciuszko invited Hull to return with him to Poland. Hull declined the offer.
After the war, Kosciuszko left in his will money to buy and free slaves as well as educate them. But the significance of that comes later.
Kosciuszko rendered exceptional service. By war’s end, Kosciuszko was made a brigadier general and received U.S. citizenship, along with a medal for his service to the Continental Army.
But there would be more battles for this soldier -- in Europe. He kept his correspondence with Jefferson. He also returned at least once. When General Kosciuszko returned to the new nation in August 1797, he received a hero’s welcome in Philadelphia.
He would continue the fight for freedom for another 20 years.
The final years of his life were spent in Switzerland, where Kosciuszko died on October 15, 1817, at age of 72. He is buried in Wawel Castle, in Krakow, Poland, among the tombs of the Polish Kings. In 1828, a Corps of Cadets erected a monument to Kosciuszko at West Point, for his work in the Revolution and in creating West Point.
His death in 1817 brought out the worst in President Jefferson, his friend whom Kosciuszko trusted to carry out his wish to have his wealth used for manumission and the education of former slaves. Citing his own age -- 82 -- Jefferson moved to have himself excused from carrying out this duty. Fine, but he failed to ensure that someone else would do this work. The will began a nearly 40-year journey through the legal system -- thrice it went before the U.S. Supreme Court -- before the money finally was released in 1856 without a cent going to free slaves or to educate them.
“Jefferson had helped Kosciuszko draft the will, which states, 'I hereby authorize my friend, Thomas Jefferson, to employ the whole [bequest] in purchasing Negroes from his own or any others and giving them liberty in my name.' Kosciuszko’s estate was nearly $20,000, the equivalent today of roughly $280,000. But Jefferson refused the gift, even though it would have reduced the debt hanging over Monticello, while also relieving him, in part at least, of what he himself had described in 1814 as the “moral reproach of slavery,” wrote Smithsonian scholar Henry Wiencek.
“If Jefferson had accepted the legacy, as much as half of it would have gone not to Jefferson but, in effect, to his slaves — to the purchase price for land, livestock, equipment and transportation to establish them in a place such as Illinois or Ohio. Moreover, the slaves most suited for immediate emancipation — smiths, coopers, carpenters, the most skilled farmers — were the very ones whom Jefferson most valued. He also shrank from any public identification with the cause of emancipation.”
General Kosciuszko should have entrusted his loyal aide with the will. Only 24 when his service ended, Agrippa Hull went on to work hard and invest wisely. Instead of moving to Poland, Hull returned to Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He became a landowner. He was a neighbor of Elizabeth Freeman, the first enslaved African-American to be freed under the new state constitution. Judge Theodore Sedgewick, who as a young lawyer had represented Freeman in her lawsuit. Hull worked for the Sedgewick family and hired the judge in his successful efforts to gain the freedom of Jane Darby, an enslaved woman who had sought refuge in Stockbridge, where she met and married Hull.
In 1828, the family helped Hull again. Charles Sedgwick wrote to the Acting Secretary of State on Hull's behalf, requesting that his soldier's pension be mailed directly to his home. Sedgewick asked for the return of the enclosed discharge paper, which had by signed by George Washington at West Point, explaining that Hull had been reluctant to part with it: “he had rather forgo the pension than lose the discharge.”
Hull earned respect, as a man of great dignity, pride, character and biting wit who became the village seer. Once, after Hull had accompanied a white man to hear a “distinguished mulatto preacher.”
Afterward, the white man asked Hull, “Well, how do you like [N-word] preaching?”
Hull replied, “Sir, he was half black and half white. I like my half, how did you like yours?”
At 72, Agrippa Hull made a final trip to West Point, where his friend, the Polish prince had designed and built a fortress.
“In 1831, Grippy made what was probably his last venture out of Stockbridge. The journey to West Point in 1831 was memorable. A half-century before, he had served with Kosciuszko for many months at the Hudson River fortifications before they went south for the final campaign of the revolutionary war,” according to Black Past History.
“This time, Hull was part of a Stockbridge entourage that visited West Point, now the home of the U.S. Military Academy. Catharine Sedgwick, daughter of his former employer, wrote of how Grippy revisited West Point, a pilgrim to a holy shrine. He was slightly bent by the rheumatism, and his locks somewhat grizzled, she wrote, but beneath his fleecy locks and black complexion was a mind as sagacious as Sancho’s [Cervantes’ Sancho Panza] and a gift of expression resembling in its point and quaintness that droll sage. He is, however, far superior to Sancho; for with his humor he blends no small portion of the sentiment and delicacy of Sancho’s master.”
This was a triumphant moment for a man who a half-century earlier had been part of the effort to liberate the United States.
“Hull was one of a large party that included the young, the gay, and the beautiful,” wrote Sedgwick. “But he was, as most fitting, the most noticed and honored of them all.”
"Hull’s return to West Point offered an opportunity for special homage to the officer he served so faithfully during the revolution. Recently erected was a monument to the Polish hero, paid for by West Point cadets from their slender wages. Of course, everyone in the party wanted to hear the stories about Kosciuszko, who had designed the fortifications at West Point. Grippy obliged with pleasure," Black Past History reported.
“If you wish it, young laddies, you shall have a tale; for when it’s about the General, love and memory never fail.” Grippy concluded his stories of his long service with the general by saying, “he was a lovely man!”
America owes much to its British lineage, which gave us the Rule of Law and the presumption of innocence. But our nation also owes a debt to a young man from Poland, and the son of an African king.
If anyone in Hollywood is looking for material to make another interracial buddy movie, how about one on how Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Agrippa Hull won the American Revolutionary War?