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Pulaski, a man with a history

Brigadier General Casimir Pulaski, for whom our county was named (Click here to see how we pronounce it, and why.), was born in the province of Podolia, Poland, of aristocratic parents on 6 March 1745. Often referred to as ‘Count Pulaski’, he never actually carried this title or referred to himself in such a manner; however, in a letter (mentioned below), Benjamin Franklin stylized Pulaski as such.

While he was a young man, his native land was overrun by Russian troops during the reign of Catherine the Great. During extended fighting against the invaders, his father and a brother were killed, another brother was banished to Siberia, the family home was burned, and his mother and sister were forced to flee for their safety.

At 27, Pulaski was a hero as a leader of forces seeking to wrest Poland from Russia, but his honor was short-lived. Falsely accused of an attempt on the life of the king, he secretly disbanded his troops and fled his country to France, where he briefly spent time in a debtors’ prison.

Through Benjamin Franklin, then a minister to France, Pulaski was granted permission to go to America. Franklin advised General Washington that Pulaski was famed for his “bravery in defense of the liberty of his country” and that he “may be highly useful to our service.” He arrived in Boston in July 1777.

“I came here, where freedom is being defended, to serve it, and to live or die for it.”

Because Washington was unable to grant him an officer rank, Pulaski spent the next few months traveling between Washington and the US Congress in Philadelphia, awaiting his appointment.  His first military engagement against the British occurred before he received it, by way of volunteerism, on 11 September 1777, at the Battle of Brandywine.  As a result, on 15 September 1777, on the orders of Congress, Washington made Pulaski a brigadier general in the Continental Army cavalry.  Later that winter, Pulaski compiled the first set of regulations for the cavalry, earning him the title “Father of the American Cavalry”. The general faced not only a shortage of men and horses, but also dissension in the ranks: some subordinate officers chafed at taking orders from a foreigner. Not wishing to be a source of discord, Pulaski resigned his commission as commander of the cavalry.

Despite that setback, Pulaski soon presented a new plan to Washington: an independent legion consisting of 68 cavalrymen and 200 infantry that would allow Pulaski to be of greater service to the fledgling American nation. Washington accepted the idea and recommended it to Congress, which sanctioned it in March 1778.  This would later become known as ‘Pulaski’s Legion’ and was sometimes supported with personal funds, which he obtained from his sister.

Following action in New Jersey and New York, the unit was ordered south. In May 1779, Pulaski’s forces saved Charleston, South Carolina, from the British, and he was acclaimed a hero.

During the siege of Savannah, Pulaski rushed to the aid of French troops; in so doing he was wounded in the upper right thigh by grape shot.  The wounded general was carried from the field of battle and taken aboard the privateer merchant brigantine Wasp, where he died two days later.

The historical accounts for Pulaski’s time and place of burial vary considerably. According to several contemporary accounts, witnesses, including Pulaski’s aide-de-camp, reported that Pulaski was buried at sea near Tybee Island, Georgia.  Other witnesses, including Captain Samuel Bulfinch of the Wasp, however, claimed that the wounded Pulaski was actually later removed from the ship and taken to the Greenwich Plantation in the town of Thunderbolt, near Savannah, where he was buried in a torchlit ceremony to elude grave robbers.

When the City of Savannah erected a 55-foot obelisk in Monterey Square to honor Pulaski during the 1850s, examiners exhumed the Greenwich Plantation grave believed to contain his remains. They pronounced the bones similar to a male the same age and height as the general. City officials reburied the remains underneath the monument in 1854.

When plans were made to disassemble and renovate the Monterey Square monument in the fall of 1996, the Pulaski DNA Investigation Committee exhumed the grave and had DNA taken from the remains compared with that from members of the Pulaski family buried in Eastern Europe. Supporters of the theory that Pulaski’s body lay in Monterey Square stressed that the skeletal remains revealed injuries similar to wounds suffered by the general. Results of the DNA testing, however, did not prove to be conclusive because of water damage to the remains. On 9 October 2005, the 226th anniversary of the Siege of Savannah, the City organized special funeral services and a final re-interment ceremony at Monterey Square to honor the fallen soldier.

Upon his arrival in Boston, Casimir Pulaski wrote to General George Washington:

“I came here, where freedom is being defended, to serve it, and to live or die for it.”