Declarations of Independence – Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #29)

If a visitor to Krakow does not know who Tadeusz Kosciuszko was, I am sure they will after they visit Wawel Castle. Outside the royal castle stands a statue of Kosciuszko on horseback. The pose is highly charismatic, with Kosciuszko gazing off into the distance as he waves his hat. The steed he is riding prepares to rear upwards. The bronze statue is a delightful work, one that adds to the royal ambiance that pervades the Castle and accompanying grounds. It is fitting that Kosciuszko’s statue retains a prominent place at Poland’s greatest national shrines. He fought for Polish independence at a time when all hope seemed lost. Kosciuszko’s life was coterminous with the partition of Poland between the Austrian, Prussian, and Russian Empires during the late 18th century. Though Kosciuszko’s efforts failed, he kept alive the flame of Polish liberty during some of its darkest days.

After a failed revolt against Tsarist Russian rule in 1794, Kosciuszko was imprisoned in St. Petersburg. In 1796 he was released from prison and sent into what would turn out to be permanent exile from his beloved homeland. Unlike other exiled revolutionaries, Kosciuszko held citizenship in another country, the United States. He had earned citizenry through meritorious service during the American Revolution. Kosciuszko had performed feats of engineering that helped the American colonists defeat the British. The Americans never forgot Kosciuszko’s invaluable assistance to their war effort. I realized this when I discovered another important site dedicated to the memory of Kosciuszko. This one could not have been more different from the equestrian statue in Krakow. An ocean away from Poland, in another place synonymous with freedom, stands the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Philadelphia. It preserves the boarding room where Kosciuszko spent part of 1796-1797 before he returned to Europe.

Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Philadelphia (Credit: Victoria Staffenberg/NP Gallery)

Poetic Justice – The Freedom Fighter
The National Parks have been called America’s best idea. They are also said to be a uniquely American idea. While this is true, in many cases they also tell stories of immigrants, including those from Eastern Europe. The most famous of these is the Ellis Island National Monument in New York harbor. Conversely, one of the least known is Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial. That might have something to do with its size. The National Memorial is the smallest of the 425 units that makeup part of the National Park System in the United States. It is easy to overlook. Though it is only a five minute walk from one of the most visited National Park units in the nation – Independence National Historical Park (NHP) – few are aware of its existence. With the site only open on weekends, it can be difficult to access. My wife and I were lucky enough to visit it on a summer afternoon.

It is poetic justice that a site dedicated to Kosciuszko is administered by Independence NHP. His life spanned the fight for freedom on two continents. What better place than a site synonymous with liberty for the Kosciuszko National Memorial to be associated. While the National Memorial may be small, the place it protects tells a much larger story. Kosciuszko’s life represents the pursuit of independence, something he never stopped fighting for, even when he was half a world away in the United States. Kosciuszko’s second and final journey to America in 1796 was met with great fanfare. When he arrived at the harbor in Philadelphia, he was met by chants of “Long live Kosciuszko” from an adoring crowd that had come to welcome a returning hero. The crowd was so enamored with Kosciuszko, that they unhitched the horse that was supposed to pull his carriage into the city. They then pulled the carriage themselves. Only a few months earlier, Kosciuszko had been a prisoner in Russia, now he was being feted as a national hero in America. Such were the extremes of life for this Polish patriot.

Enshrined in Bronze – Kosciuszko Statue at Wawel Castle (Credit: Poeticbent)

Preserving Polish Patriotism – A Memorial To Memory
Once he settled in at his lodging, Kosciuszko used his contacts in Congress to arrange a meeting with the French consul. Kosciuszko wanted to arrange a meeting with Napoleon when he returned to Europe. The French were the Poles’ best bet when in creating an alliance that could advance their interests. Kosciuszko’s stay in Philadelphia was not for long. Dr. Benjamin Rush, the most famous physician in America, advised him to leave the city to avoid a deadly epidemic of yellow fever. After visiting friends and colleagues from his service in New Jersey and New York during the American Revolution, Kosciuszko returned to Philadelphia after the epidemic subsided. It was during this time that he rented a room on the second floor of a Mrs. Relf’s Boarding House on Pine Street. The room could only hold a handful of people at one time. I can vouch for its small size. While the room may be small, it is also quite intimate.

To think that one of the greatest Poles in history spent several months here is mind boggling. The fact that the room has been preserved as a National Park unit is heartening. Whomever decided the site was worth preserving had their heart in the right place. Kosciuszko may have been at the wrong place at the wrong time in Poland, but in the United States he was in the right place. He bided his time here, collecting backpay that Congress had voted for his service during the American Revolution. He then sailed back to Europe in 1797. Kosciuszko’s American adventure was over, but never quite forgotten. In 1972 Mrs. Relf’s boarding house became a unit of the National Park system. It brought much needed attention to a man whose name had been lost to American history.

Leading the Charge – Thaddeus Kosciuszko (Credit: Juliusz Kossak)

Life Everlasting – An American Honor
Kosciuszko would live another seventeen years after he left America. Unfortunately, he would not see the resurrection of Poland or freedom for its citizenry. He died in Switzerland at the age of 54, never returning to his native Poland until his remains were sent to Wawel Castle. The fight for Polish independence would outlive Kosciuszko, finally being realized at the end of World War I. As a Polish patriot, Kosciuszko would have been proud. He would also have been proud to know that the National Park system was preserving his former residence in perpetuity. It is said that nothing lasts forever, but the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial just might.

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