by Maria Ferraro
What are we doing letting kids get out of school on the first Monday in March? And what is this obscure school holiday that happens without us knowing why?
When we think of school holidays to honor American heroes those that come to mind are Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, George Washington’s birthday and Martin Luther King Jr. day. But today, I will add another great man to the list. He is an unsung hero, you have most likely never heard of him. Yet, in the state of Illinois, the first Monday in March is named in his honor and the kids get the day off of school. He is among the greatest of heroes and contributed greatly to many victories as America struggled to break from the tyrannical grasp of Great Britain. He was a patriot. And his name is Casimir Pulaski (1745-1779).
Casimir Pulaski was the ultimate soldier, like every soldier, he fought for his country. But more notably, he fought for a cause – the cause of freedom. Interestingly, Pulaski was Polish – not American. Yet, he believed with all his heart in the cause he defended, and he vowed to give his life for freedom in not just his own country, but also a country that was not his own.
After losing Poland to the Russians, Pulaski was kicked out of his homeland along with his brothers and father, because he fought for freedom. Like his father, he was a fighter and if Poland was going to lose her freedom to the Russians, it was not going to be without a fight. The Pulaski’s rallied their countrymen to defend the freedom and independence of Poland, giving their land across the country to be military bases, and giving themselves to build the military. As Casimir trained the growing army, his brother gathered money and supplies from the people to support the revolt against tyranny. With six thousand soldiers gathered, Joseph Pulaski read a manifesto of freedom to the men, his purpose was to show them that they fought for the cause of freedom, and as Poles, they would die for it.
Casimir Pulaski lost freedom once to the Russians, and he was not going to lose it again. After fighting tirelessly for five years to free his beloved Poland, Pulaski, a hero to true every Polish patriot, was considered a traitor. He tried multiple times to garner the support of other European countries to take back Poland, but every effort failed. Forced to leave his country, Pulaski went to France.
Twenty-seven year old Pulaski had no money, no family, and no country. He landed in debtors’ prison. However, the heroic Pulaski was remembered. While in prison, his friend’s raised funds to pay their exiled hero’s debts. In June of 1775, Casimir Pulaski was released. He often watched boats being loaded at the docks with supplies and munitions for the American Colonies. Exiled from his own country, a freedom-fighting dream was born in his heart – he would fight for freedom again in America.
It was not an easy thing to go to America, Ben Franklin, was the man who made it happen, though. Franklin requested a meeting with Pulaski in Paris, despite his shabby appearance, Franklin saw a hero in Pulaski. The great Benjamin Franklin believed the young Polish patriot-soldier would be an asset to George Washington and America. The last wrinkle came before Pulaski sailed; his sister wrote sending money from the family funds, she informed him his name had been cleared and he could return and live peacefully in Poland. But how could he “live quietly” in a country ruled by his enemy? How could he live his life in an enslaved nation unable to fight back? But if he left, he would never see Poland again. Pulaski refused to live in slavery, weighing the options, Pulaski chose to go to America and die in freedom rather than live in slavery. From now on Franklin’s words would be true for Pulaski: “where liberty dwells, there is my country.”
With that, Pulaski set sail for America. As he traveled across the sea, he studied battle plans. He did not just want to be a soldier – he wanted to lead in the fight for America’s freedom. He landed safely in America despite many odds on July 23rd, 1777 – in the heat of the American Revolution.
Upon his arrival in the Colonies, Pulaski reported to General Ambrose Heath, commander of the American forces in Boston. Heath quickly recognized Pulaski’s skill as a soldier and a leader and gave him a tour of their fortifications in Boston. Pulaski saw the city was already secure, and he made a move – he would rather be commanding troops in the thick of battle instead of standing behind secure walls, Pulaski remounted his horse and rode off to Philadelphia.
Arriving at General Washington’s camp in Philadelphia, Pulaski was escorted into Washington’s tent by the Aid-de-camp Marquis de Lafayette. Pulaski was honored to meet Washington and the feeling was mutual, they began discussions on commissioning this ambitious and Polish protégé into the army in the position of general. However, such a promotion was Congress’ jurisdiction. Washington, Pulaski, and Lafayette, petitioned Congress to commission Pulaski as a General, Washington told Congress, “This gentleman, like us, has been engaged in defending the liberty and independence of his country and has sacrificed his fortune in his zeal for these objects.”
Hoping Congress would act speedily, Pulaski and Washington waited – and they received no response. Meanwhile, the war waged on. Learning that the British were landing on Chesapeake Bay, Pulaski said he would fight as a common soldier, since to his fury, Congress had failed to act. Washington would have none of that; he promptly made Pulaski one of his aide’s – and together they went to lead the battle.
Ultimately, America won their war for independence from Great Britain, and Casimir Pulaski was greatly to thank for his contributions. Some of his accomplishments include saving the life of George Washington, becoming a general in the Colonial army, and reforming the American cavalry. To this day, Pulaski is hailed as the “Father of the American cavalry.” While he was mortally wounded in a daring charge in the siege of Savannah Georgia, Pulaski valiantly fulfilled his vow to defend freedom. He died aboard an American brig on October 11th, 1779 at the age of thirty-two.
Upon his death, government officials called for a day of “Universal mourning”. General Washington, when informed of Pulaski’s death, said, “He was the most noble kind of hero. It is one thing to fight and die for your country. It is quite another thing to fight and die for freedom itself.”
Pulaski was posthumously granted honorary citizenship, only one of eight people ever to be given it. Others who have been given it are Winston Churchill, Marquis de Lafayette, and Mother Teresa.
So, on this first Monday in March, as the schoolchildren play blithely outside of classrooms, pause a moment and thank God for the freedom we have in this country. And while you’re at it, thank Him for sending men like Casimir Pulaski who gave their lives to defend it.