On March 24, 1794, following the Second Partition of Poland, Tadeusz Kościuszko, a veteran of the American Revolutionary War, announced a general uprising in a speech in the Kraków town square and assumed the powers of Commander in Chief of all Polish forces.
During the second half of the 18th century, the once mighty Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth started facing many internal problems as King Stanisław August Poniatowski, hand-picked by Empress Catherine II of Russia, spent his reign torn between his desire to implement reforms and his perceived necessity of remaining in subordinate relationship with his Russian sponsors.
Fighting to preserve Poland’s independence, an association of nobles known as the Bar Confederation rebelled against Russia and the Polish liege before being brought under control in 1772. This led to the First Partition of Poland, which saw the Commonwealth lose about 30% of its territory and half of its population to the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia and the Habsburg Monarchy.
The 3 May Constitution
Still the largest state on the continent, the Commonwealth found itself in an increasingly perilous situation. By 1790, it was forced into an alliance with its enemy, Prussia, which gave the federation false hope that it might have at last found an ally that would shield it while the Great Four-Year Sejm enacted a series of political and economic reforms aimed at strengthening the country.
The resulting Constitution of 3 May 1791, often described as Europe’s first modern written national constitution, and the world’s second, after the United States’, established a constitutional monarchy, strengthened the bourgeoisie and abolished many of the nobility’s privileges as well as many of the old laws of serfdom.
But, once again angered by what was seen as radical republican Jacobin-style reforms, Catherine the Great, invited by the Targowica Confederation, an alliance of pro-Russian Polish nobles who wished to restore the privileges they had lost under the new Constitution, invaded Poland in 1792, triggering the so-called War in Defence of the Constitution.
The Second Partition of Poland
Abandoned by their Prussian allies, the Polish pro-Constitution forces, commanded by Prince Józef Poniatowski and a veteran of the American Revolutionary War, Tadeusz Kościuszko, were badly outnumbered. And despite Polish victories at the battles of Zieleńce and of Dubienka, the Russian army kept advancing, forcing the Polish forces to retreat towards the Vistula.
With the outcome of the war still undecided and despite the fact that Poniatowski and Kościuszko had reasonable chances of defending the Vistula river line, Stanisław August, giving in to the Russian Empress’ demand, signed a ceasefire and joined the Targowica Confederation.
In January 1793, a second partitioning treaty was signed, which ceded all of Poland’s eastern provinces to Russia as well as a large portion of Greater Poland to Prussia. Ratified by a coerced Sejm in a short-lived attempt to prevent the complete annexation of Poland, the treaty amputated the country of about 307,000 square kilometres, reducing the Commonwealth to one-third of its original size.
The king’s capitulation was a hard blow for Kościuszko, who had not lost a single battle in the campaign. After spending some time in Germany and France, trying to gain support for the Polish cause, he clandestinely crossed the Polish border to meet with sympathetic high-ranking officers in the residual Polish forces, most of which had been disbanded or incorporated into the Russian army.
But the situation in Poland was changing rapidly, and when Tsarist agents began arresting notable Polish politicians and military commanders in Warsaw, Kościuszko was forced to execute his plan earlier than he had intended and set off for Kraków in March 1794. He entered the city on the night of the 23rd, and the next morning, in the Main Square, he announced a general uprising.
Assuming the powers of Commander in Chief of all Polish forces, Kościuszko issued an act of mobilisation, requiring that every five houses in Lesser Poland delegate at least one able male soldier to the uprising. Gathering an army of 6,000 men, which included 4,000 regular soldiers and 2,000 new recruits, largely composed of peasant “scythemen”, Kościuszko marched on Warsaw.
The Battle of Racławice and the Warsaw Insurrection
In an attempt to swiftly crush the uprising, Catherine the Great immedialy ordered the corps of Major General Fiodor Denisov to attack Kraków. But when the two armies met on April 4, near the village of Racławice, Kościuszko’s forces defeated the numerically and technically superior Imperial army. And although the strategic importance of the battle was close to none, the news of the victory spread fast and soon other parts of Poland joined the revolutionaries.
On April 17, led by Kościuszko’s envoys, who had been laying the groundwork for an insurrection in Warsaw since early 1793, Polish forces and a national militia, formed of several thousand volunteers and armed with rifles from the Warsaw Arsenal, surprised the Russian garrison in the Polish capital. Within two days, the last pockets of Russian resistance had surrendered and the city was secured.
In May 1794, Kościuszko issued an act that became known as the “Proclamation of Połaniec”, in which he partially abolished serfdom in Poland, granted civil liberty to all peasants and provided them with state help against abuses by the nobility. Although the new law was boycotted by much of the upper class, it succeeded in attracting many more peasants to the ranks of the uprising.
Prussia joins the war
But by early June, the Prussians had begun actively aiding the Russians. After being defeated by a joint Russo-Prussian army at the battles of Szczekociny and Chełm, Kościuszko’s forces withdrew towards Warsaw and started to fortify the city. After capturing Kraków unopposed, the Prussian and Russian armies, commanded by King Frederick William II of Prussia himself, laid siege to Warsaw.
To relieve the pressure on Polish capital, Kościuszko ordered an uprising in Greater Poland, which achieved some success and succeeded in disrupting the Prussian lines. And by September, after two months of intense fighting, the Prussian king withdrew his troops. He was soon followed by the Russian commander, who lifted the siege.But the war was far from over.
The Russians equipped a second army under the command of General Alexander Suvorov and ordered it to immediatly join up with the corps still encamped near Warsaw. In an attempt to prevent both armies from joining forces, Kościuszko mobilised two regiments from Warsaw and engaged the Russian contingent at the Battle of Maciejowice, where Kościuszko was wounded and captured.
Kościuszko captured and the massacre of Praga
While Kościuszko was being taken to St. Petersburg, where he was to be imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress, the now united Russian army began making their way towards Warsaw, where internal struggles for power and the demoralisation of the city’s population prevented General Józef Zajączek from finishing the fortifications in time.
Upon reaching the outskirts of Warsaw on November 3, the Russian army started an artillery barrage of the Polish defences, making Józef Zajączek believe that they were preparing for a long siege. But in the early hours of the following morning, the Russian troops silently reached their positions just outside of the field fortifications and launched an all-out assault.
After four hours of brutal hand-to-hand fighting, the 22,000-strong Russian forces broke through the Polish defences and into the right-bank suburb of Praga. As the battle spread to the streets, the insurgents hid in civilian houses, vowing to fight to the last man, and the Russian troops engaged in massive violence against the civilian population. It is believed that approximately 20,000 Praga residents were slaughtered that day.
The Third Partition of Poland
The Battle of Praga spelled the end the uprising. To spare Warsaw the fate of its eastern suburb, General Tomasz Wawrzecki decided to withdraw his remaining forces southwards, leaving Warsaw to be captured by the Russians with little or no opposition. He surrendered ten days later.
Soon after, Austrian, Prussian, and Russian representatives met to officially dissolve the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, giving the Habsburg Monarchy control of the Western Galicia and Southern Masovia territories, while Prussia received Podlachia, the remainder of Masovia, and Warsaw, and Russia the remaining land, including Vilnius.
This Third Partition of Poland ended the existence of an independent Polish and Lithuanian state for the next 123 years.
What about Kościuszko?
Kościuszko was eventually pardoned and set free by Tsar Paul I, following the death of Catherine the Great in 1796. He left for the United States in 1797 before returning to Europe, where he remained politically active in Polish émigré circles in Paris. Disliking Napoleon for his dictatorial aspirations and not convinved by the French Emperor’s support of Polish sovereignty, Kościuszko refused the command of his Polish Legions.
After the fall of Napoleon, Kościuszko met with Russia’s Tsar Alexander I, who hoped that the Polish veteran could be convinced to return to Poland, where the Tsar planned to create a new, Russian-allied Polish state. But once more, Kościuszko refused, not believing that the so-called Congress Kingdom of Poland was in any way a restoration of Polish sovereignty.
Suffering from poor health and old wounds, Kościuszko died at age 71, on October 15, 1817, in Switzerland, after falling from a horse, developing a fever, and suffering a stroke a few days later.
A close friend of Thomas Jefferson’s, with whom he shared ideals of human rights, Kościuszko dedicated in his will his U.S. assets to the education and freedom of the U.S. slaves. But the execution of his testament later proved difficult, and the funds were never used for the purpose Kościuszko intended…
Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.
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