Father of the American Cavalry

pulaski_savannah_batowski

General Pulaski joined General George Washington in the war for America’s independence in 1777 and became known as the “Father of the American Cavalry”. He lost his life in October 1779, at the Battle of Savannah.

Burdened by debts, Casimir Pulaski was found in Paris by Benjamin Franklin and enlisted in for American cause. Pulaski joined George Washington’s army just before the battle of Brandywine. Acting under Washington’s orders without commission Pulaski lead the scouting party that discovered the British flanking movement and the American escape route. He then gathered all available cavalry to cover the retreat, leading a dashing charge that surprised the British and allowed the American army to escape.

Congress rewarded Pulaski with a commission as brigadier general and command of all American cavalry. He spent the winter of 1777-8 training and outfitting the cavalry units but in March, he gave way before the intrigues of his jealous officers. He requested and Washington approved the formation of an independent corp of cavalry and light infantry of foreign volunteers. Pulaski’s Legion became the training ground for American cavalry officers including “Light Horse” Harry Lee, the father of Robert E. Lee, and the model for Lee’s and Armand’s legions. Thirteen Polish officers served under Pulaski in the legion.

The best assessment of Pulaski’s legion came from a British officer who called them simply “the best damned cavalry the rebels ever had”.

In 1779 Pulaski and his legion were sent south to the besieged city of Charleston where he immediately raised morale and assisted in breaking the siege. A joint operation with the French was planned to recapture the city of Savannah. Against Pulaski’s advice the French commander ordered an assault against the strongest point of the British defense. Seeing the allied troops falter Pulaski galloped forward to rally the men, when he was mortally wounded by British cannon shot. He died two days later and was buried at sea. Pulaski was the romantic embodiment of the flashing saber and the trumpets calling to the charge, and that is how history has remembered him.

The larger-Than-life aspect of his death has often obscured his steadier, quieter, and more lasting services. It was in the drudgery of forging a disciplined American cavalry that could shadow and report on British movements, in the long distance forage raids to feed and clothe the troops at Valley Forge, and the bitter hit and run rearguard actions that covered retreating American armies that slowed British pursuit, that gave Pulaski the title of “Father of the American cavalry”.

  • Richard Lysiak: Casimir Pulaski Father of American Cavalry (fragments). Reprinted with Author’s permission.
  • Painting by S. Batowski: The Death of General Casimir Pulaski. Courtesy of Polish Museum of America in Chicago.

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