Every year on the first Monday in March, Illinois schoolchildren get a day off to celebrate a little-known Revolutionary War hero. In 1977, Illinois enacted a law designating the first Monday in March as “Casimir Pulaski Day,” but most Illinoisans don’t know much about the Polish soldier.
The son of a Polish Count, Casimir Pulaski was born in Warsaw, Poland on March 4, 1745 and was involved in political activity and controversy in his home country. When he was 15, he (along with his father and other members of Polish nobility) publicly opposed Prussian and Russian influence and interference on the affairs of Poland. Because of his opposition and his support of Polish liberty, he was outlawed by Russia which led to his decision to travel to Paris.
While in Paris, Pulaski made the acquaintance of one Benjamin Franklin, a spokesperson for a fledgling country that was currently fighting for freedom from the oppression of a wealthy nation. Perhaps Pulaski saw a similar circumstance between the young colonies of the United States in their fight against the tyranny of England and that of his home country of Poland in regards to the much larger Russia.
Pulaski volunteered his services to the Revolutionary War of the United States. According to the Polish American Center website, Franklin was so impressed with Casimir Pulaski that he wrote to the Commander of the Continental Army, George Washington and spoke of Pulaski’s bravery.
Franklin described Pulaski as “an officer renowned throughout Europe for the courage and bravery he displayed in defense of his country’s freedom.”
Pulaski arrived in Philadelphia in 1777 and was later named by General Washington as the head of the American Cavalry. Pulaski was known as the “Father of the American Cavalry.” As head of the Cavalry, Pulaski trained his men using tactics that he had employed when fighting for the freedom of Poland.
It is interesting to note that Pulaski, who was Polish nobility and apparently wealthy in his own right, often personally funded equipment for his Cavalry. In a time when the Congress had very little in the way of funds, Pulaski chose to ensure the safety of his men and made sure they had the best equipment possible.
General Casimir Pulaski was mortally wounded by a cannon as he charged into battle during the Battle of Savannah on October 9, 1779. Pulaski fell to the ground. During this time, enemies would normally shoot their wounded opponents with a musket but instead, Pulaski’s enemies were impressed by the Pole’s courage and bravery. They allowed Pulaski to be carried from the battlefield. He died on October 15, 1779 at the age of 34.
A monument to General Casimir Pulaski was later erected in Savannah, Georgia in Monterey Square.
While there is a federally recognized day for Casimir Pulaski, General Pulaski Memorial Day, that marks Pulaski’s death in October, Illinois chose to designate a state holiday around Pulaski’s birthday. Schools in Illinois are closed and many state and county offices also close.
While Pulaski had no special connections with the state of Illinois (which did not exist during his service in the Revolutionary War), when the Illinois state legislature enacted a law in 1977 recognizing and observing Pulaski’s birthday, this may have been due to a very large Polish population in and around the city of Chicago. The Polish Museum of America is located in Chicago. The first official observation of Casimir Pulaski Day in Illinois was held in 1978.
As a student in Illinois schools myself, I and most of the other students asked the same question – Who the heck was Casimir Pulaski? Located on the calendar somewhere between holidays for Presidents and well-known personalities in history, Casimir Pulaski Day is often overlooked. Knowing about the history of this brave man who fought and died for a country not his own makes the day more important and meaningful.