Historical Tales: 8—Russian - Charles Morris

Kosciusko and the Fall of Poland

Of the several nations that made up the Europe of the eighteenth century, one, the kingdom of Poland, vanished before the nineteenth century began, Destitute of a strong central government, the scene of continual anarchy among the turbulent nobles, possessing no national frontiers and no national middle class, its population being made up of nobles, serfs, and foreigners, it lay at the mercy of the ambitious surrounding kingdoms, by which it was finally absorbed. On three successive occasions was the territory of the feeble nation divided between its foes, the first partition being made in 1772, between Russia, Prussia, and Austria; the second in 1793, between Russia and Prussia; and the third and final in 1795, in which Russia, Prussia, and Austria again took part, all that remained of the country being now distributed and the ancient kingdom of Poland effaced from the map of Europe.

Only one vigorous attempt was made to save the imperiled realm, that of the illustrious Kosciusko, who, though he failed in his patriotic purpose, made his name famous as the noblest of the Poles. When he appeared at the head of its armies, Poland was in a desperate strait. Some of its own nobles had been bought by Russian gold, Russian armies had overrun the land, and a Prussian force was marching to their aid. At Grodno the Russian general proudly took his seat on that throne which he was striving to overthrow. The defenders of Poland had been dispersed, their property confiscated, their families reduced to poverty. The Russians, swarming through the kingdom, committed the greatest excesses, while Warsaw, which had fallen into their hands, was governed with arrogant barbarity. Such was the state of affairs when some of the most patriotic of the nobles assembled and sent to Kosciusko, asking him to put himself at their head.

As a young man this valiant Pole had aided in the war for American independence. In 1792 he took part in the war for the defence of his native land. But he declared that there could be no hope of success unless the peasants were given their liberty. Hitherto they had been treated in Poland like slaves. It was with these despised serfs that this effort was made.

In 1794 the insurrection broke out. Kosciusko, finding that the country was ripe for revolt against its oppressors, hastened from Italy, whither he had retired, and appeared at Cracow, where he was hailed as the coming deliverer of the land. The only troops in arms were a small force of about four thousand in all, who were joined by about three hundred peasants armed with scythes. These were soon met by an army of seven thousand Russians, whom they put to flight after a sharp engagement.

The news of this battle stirred the Russian general in command at Warsaw to active measures. All whom he suspected of favoring the insurrection were arrested. The result was different from what he had expected. The city blazed into insurrection, two thousand Russians fell before the onslaught of the incensed patriots, and their general saved himself only by flight.

The outbreak at Warsaw was followed by one at Vilna, the capital of Lithuania, the Russians here being all taken prisoners. Three Polish regiments mustered into the Russian service deserted to the army of their compatriots, and far and wide over the country the flames of insurrection spread.

Kosciusko rapidly increased his forces by recruiting the peasantry, whose dress he wore and whose food ho shared in. But these men distrusted the nobles, who had so long oppressed them, while many of the latter, eager to retain their valued prerogatives, worked against the patriot cause, in which they were aided by King Stanislaus, who had been subsidized by Russian gold.

To put down this effort of despair on the part of the Poles, Catharine of Russia sent fresh armies to Poland, led by her ablest generals. Prussians and Austrians also joined in the movement for enslavement, Frederick William of Prussia fighting at the head of his troops against the Polish patriot. Kosciusko had established a provisional government, and faced his foes boldly in the field. Defeated, he fell back on Warsaw, where he valiantly maintained himself until threatened by two new Russian armies, whom he marched out to meet, in the hope of preventing their junction.

The decisive battle took place at Maciejowice, in October, 1794. Kosciusko, though pressed by superior forces, fought with the greatest valor and desperation. His men at length, overpowered by numbers, were in great part cut to pieces or obliged to yield, while their leader, covered with wounds, fell into the hands of his foes. It is said that he exclaimed, on seeing all hopes at an end, "Finis Poloniee!" In the words of the poet Byron, "Freedom shrieked when Kosciusko fell."

Warsaw still held out. Here all who had escaped from the field took refuge, occupying Praga, the eastern suburb of the city, where twenty-six thousand Poles, with over one hundred cannon and mortars, defended the bridges over the Vistula. Suwarrow, the greatest of the Russian generals, was quickly at the city gates. He was weaker, both in men and in guns, than the defenders of the city; but with his wonted impetuosity he resolved to employ the same tactics which he had more than once used against the Turks, and seek to carry the Polish lines at the bayonet's point.

After a two days' cannonade, he ordered the assault at daybreak of November 4. A desperate conflict continued during the five succeeding hours, ending in the carrying of the trenches and the defeat of the garrison. The Russians now poured into the suburb, where a scene of frightful carnage began. Not only men in arms, but old men, women, and children were ruthlessly slaughtered, the wooden houses set on fire, the bridges broken down, and the throng of helpless people who sought to escape into the city driven ruthlessly into the waters of the Vistula. In this butchery not only ten thousand soldiers, but twelve thousand citizens of every age and sex were remorselessly slain.

On the following day the city capitulated, and on the 6th the Russian victors marched into its streets. It was, as Kosciusko had said, "the end of Poland." The troops were disarmed, the officers were seized as prisoners, and the feeble king was nominally raised again to the head of the kingdom, so soon to be swept from existence. For a year Suwarrow held a military court in Warsaw, far eclipsing the king in the splendor of his surroundings. By the close of 1795 all was at an end. The small remnant left of the kingdom was parted between the greedy aspirants, and on the 1st of January, 1796, Warsaw was handed over to Prussia, to whose share of the spoils it appertained.

In this arbitrary manner was a kingdom which had an area of nearly three hundred thousand square miles and a population of twelve millions, and whose history dated back to the tenth century, removed from the map of the world, while the heavy hand of oppression fell upon all who dared to speak or act in its behalf. One bold stroke for freedom was afterwards made, but it ended as before, and Poland is now but a name.