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Casimir Pulaski: The Father of American Cavalry

Of all the Polish officers who took part in the American War of Independence, Casimir Pulaski was the most romantic and professionally the most prominent. He was born into the middle gentry at Warka, Poland, March 4, 1747. His family was rich and had enhanced their fortune as clients of the Czartoryski family with whose nationalist policies it was identified. Joseph Pulaski, Casimir’s father impatient with the Russian interference precipitated an armed movement called the Confederation of Bar in 1768. At the age of fifteen, he joined his father and other members of the Polish nobility in opposing the Russian and Prussian interference of Polish political affairs. Casimir was one of the founding members and on his father’s death in 1769, carried the burden of military command. His greatest success was in the taking and holding of Jasna Gora at Czestochowa, the holist place in Poland. His brilliant defense against the Russians thrilled all of Europe. Unfortunately soon afterward he was implicated in a plot to kill the Polish King and forced into exile. Outlawed by Russia for his actions on behalf of Polish liberty, he traveled to Paris where he met Benjamin Franklin. Franklin convinced him to support the colonies against England in the American Revolution. In 1777, Pulaski arrived in Philadelphia where he met General Washington, Commander-in -Chief of the Continental Army. Later at Brandywine, he came to the aid of Washington’s forces and distinguished himself as a brilliant military tactician. 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 charge that surprised the British and allowed the American army to escape.

Casimir Pulaski Memorial Monument in Pulaski Plaza, Hartford, CT.

For his efforts, Congress appointed him Brigadier-General in charge of Four Horse Brigades. Then again, at the battles of Germantown and Valley Forge, Pulaski’s knowledge of warfare assisted Washington and his men. Later in 1778, through Washington’s intervention, Congress approved the establishment of an independent Cavalry Corps and put Pulaski at its head. The Father of the American Cavalry demanded much of his men and trained them in tested cavalry tactics. He used his own personal finances, when money from Congress was scarce, in order to assure his forces of the finest equipment and personal safety. 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 ordered to defend Little Egg Harbor in New Jersey and Minisink on the Delaware. They were then 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 planed 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.

 

 

Historians are unsure how Pulaski died. The popular account holds that Pulaski rallied the troops in a cavalry charge upon hearing that a fellow officer was hit in the leg by a musket ball. During the charge, Pulaski was struck in the thigh by grapeshot and fell from his horse. It is said, the General’s enemies were so impressed with his courage, that they spared his life and permitted him to be carried from the battlefield.

Within days, gangrene claimed the war hero’s life. Historians continue to debate what happened to Pulaski’s body after his death. One traditional account is that Pulaski died aboard the American ship Wasp and is buried at sea. A second claim is that he was first buried at Greenwich Plantation in Georgia and later reburied under a monument in one of the downtown Savannah squares. September 27, 1996, bones were disinterred from under the Pulaski Monument in Monterey Square. To date, the bone analysis is inconclusive.

Pulaski Monument in Washington D.C. - CavHooah.com Pulaski Monument in Washington D.C.

 

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”.


 

Philip St. George Cooke – “The Father of the United States Cavalry” (1809-1895)

 

While Casimir Pulaski is called the “Father of the American Cavalry,” the man known to us today as the tactical master of the modern 19th-century mounted forces is Philip St. George Cooke. Cooke wrote a cavalry tactics manual just prior to the Civil War that became the training and fighting textbook for American troopers. Cooke’s manual would be used in conjunction with an instruction manual titled Instructions for Officers on Outpost and Patrol Duty, required reading for all cavalry officers as early as September 1861 and written by Colonel Arentschild of the British Army. Cooke was born in Leesburg VA on June 13, 1809. He graduated from West Point in 1827 and was on frontier duty, serving in the Black Hawk War, Mexican-American War, the Civil War, and was an observer of the Crimean War. In the 1840′s, westward expansion in the nation was rapid. Many people from the East were enticed to move westward by promises of wide-open, inexpensive land with rich farming soil. As the western population increased, so too did the country’s desire to own the land. “Manifest Destiny” was the justifying phrase coined to assert that the United States had a “divine right” to be one nation from ocean to ocean. Subsequently, the decade of the 1840′s was one of rapid territorial expansion and acquisition. US Dragoon soldiers from various forts participated in both the westward expansion and the conflicts it created. Dragoons would see duty providing armed escorts on the Sante Fe and Oregon Trails, surveying the frontier, and maintaining contact with the various Indian tribes to keep the peace. The US Dragoons had been charged with protecting traders on the Santa Fe trail from Indian attacks. In 1843, trouble erupted along the trail, a trade route between Missouri and Santa Fe (then part of Mexico). It wasn’t Indians, however; ill feelings existed between Texans and Mexico, and border disputes and violence broke out constantly. That year, Texas “freebooters” began attacking Mexican wagon trains along the trail. One group of those Texans murdered Antonio Chavez, a Mexican trader, while on American soil. The killers were apprehended but fear still existed and traders asked the US War Department to furnish military escorts on the trail. Captain Philip St. George Cooke of the Dragoons led five companies of troopers along the Sante Fe trail as escorts to protect the trade. While on the trail, Cooke and his men encountered Jacob Snively, a freebooter who held a commission from Texas to raid Mexican wagons that were on Mexican soil. Two days prior, Snively and his band had attacked Mexican soldiers, killing several of them. When they met, each party was across the Arkansas river from the other. The land north of the river was United States soil, but to the south, American territory extended only to the 100th meridian. Snively claimed that he and his men were some 40 miles west of the boundary, but Cooke insisted that the freebooters were on American soil. Ordering his troopers, under Captain Terrett, to cross the river and disarm Snively’s men, the dragoons left them only a few guns for defense on their route back to Texas. This action caused Captain Cooke to be hated by the Texans, but it was a successful expedition since it discouraged any further attacks along the trail that year.

Cooke Cavalry Tactics Manual - CavHooah.com

Cooke would later become the father-in-law of a young Confederate cavalier named James Ewell Brown Stuart. During the Civil War, JEB Stuart would ride circles around Cooke and his troopers, causing the old dragoon to be relieved of his command and he would never be given mounted troops to command in battle again. Cooke’s Cavalry tactics manual, a comprehensive work on training, development with the horse, drill, and fighting tactics, became the standard textbook for much of the United States Cavalry. It would be used heavily during and after the Civil War. In November of 1861, Cooke became a Brigadier General in the Regular service and served in the defenses of Washington, commanded a cavalry division in McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign and the Seven Days battles, served on court-martial duty, and also commanded the District of Baton Rouge. After the Civil War, Cooke remained in the service, dying on March 20, 1895 in Detroit MI. Today he is buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit MI. Many Eastern units continued to use Poinsett’s manual during the war, while most Western units began using Cooke’s. There were also several privately-printed manuals available, some of them endorsed by well-known and respected military officers of the era, making things rather confusing when different units used different manuals. During the final year of the war, some volunteers in the East, then using Cooke’s work, were ordered to switch to Poinsett’s. Southern units used these and other manuals as well, of course, especially since many Confederate cavalry leaders had been members of the pre-war regular forces.