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How the Church Has Changed the World: A Hero of Two Nations


If it were not for Roman Catholics, the colonies would probably have lost the Revolutionary War. 

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pułaskiKazimierz Pułaski

"Count," said the general, stumbling in a muddle of English and French, "you have come to this country to ride the horse in battle," and here he smiled sadly, "and our need is for — les bœufs — you understand?" "Oui, votre Excellence — les bœufs, cat-tle."  The snow lay deep around them as they walked from hut to hut, from low fire to low fire.  Some of the tracks were marked in blood, the blood of soldiers whose shoes had fallen apart.  The air was intensely cold and thick.  It would snow again.

A few thousand men were trying to outlast the terrible winter, while their enemies lived the high life in the great city thirty miles away.  Had that general pulled himself away from dinners and dances, he might have destroyed this rag-end of an army.

"Mon Général," said the young man, "is it that the Con-gress wishes you to die?  I have, dans la Pologne, known la trahison."  For the man, with his father, had fought to set his beloved Poland free from Russian domination, and there had always been opportunists in the Polish assembly who took their pay and their orders from Saint Petersburg.  He had failed in his enterprise, and that was why he was here, and he thought that here, just as in Poland, not everyone wanted to be free.

"I assure you, Count, the Congress is loyal."  But there they were in Pennsylvania, left to starve and die of exposure.  The colony itself had not contributed its fair share of men, while half of the people of Philadelphia were filling the enemy troops with beef and beer.

"I will find the cat-tle," said Count Casimir Pułaski, "I and the General Wayne."  "Mad Anthony," as they called him, was as fiery for battle as the count was, which meant that they didn't always get along.  And he mounted his horse, that dashing cavalier.

Irony upon irony

When young Pułaski fled his native land after years of gallantry — guerilla attacks against more numerous forces, holding the famous mountain fortress and monastery of Jasna Góra, even plotting to abduct the Russophile king — he came to the court of Louis XVI in France.  There he met Benjamin Franklin, the elderly scientist, ladies' man, bon vivant, and diplomat, and offered his sword to promote liberty and the American cause.

Father Carroll "could not point to any one Colony in which the Roman Catholic Church and clergy had such privileges as in Canada and he could point to only one, and that not his own, in which the individual Roman Catholic had the ordinary rights of a freeman."

Franklin was a yawning abyss of theological indifference, though he had supported heartily the Methodist evangelical George Whitefield, when he preached a series of revivals that some termed the "Great Awakening."  Franklin had also lobbied hard in London against the Québec Act (1774), which extended the boundaries of Québec far to the west and the south, beyond Lake Erie, and which granted freedom of religion to French Canadians.  The act appeared to the Protestant colonists to be intolerable.

Some features of the Act did not fit with the Enlightenment ideals of self-government.  So the Americans sent Franklin, Samuel Chase, and the devout Catholic Charles Carroll on a mission to Quebéc, bearing a letter drafted to persuade the French to join their cause.  The French were now "fellow-subjects and fellow-sufferers…devoted by the cruel edicts of a despotic administration to common ruin."  Without a trace of embarrassment, Americans whose countrymen traded in slaves invited the Catholics "to join with us in resolving to be free and in rejecting with disdain the fetters of slavery however artfully polished."  Carroll was joined by his brother John, a Jesuit priest trained at Saint-Omer, to try to persuade his fellow Jesuits up north.  But, as a Canadian judge would write, Father Carroll "could not point to any one Colony in which the Roman Catholic Church and clergy had such privileges as in Canada and he could point to only one, and that not his own, in which the individual Roman Catholic had the ordinary rights of a freeman."

So the mission failed, not least because the Catholic Bishop of Québec, Jean-Olivier Briand, held the line.  He knew that his church would fare better with the British, who needed them, than with the Americans, who despised them and whose papers were filled with anti-Catholic railing.  Paul Revere, for example, engraved a satirical cartoon called "The Mitred Minuet," with four grotesque Anglican bishops dancing around "The Québec Bill" on the floor, with Lord North looking on, and a grinning devil hovering over his shoulder.

Yet if it were not for Roman Catholics, the colonies would probably have lost the war.

The Battle of Brandywine Creek

Let's return to a battle that preceded the terrible winter at Valley Forge.  General Washington, normally cautious and shrewd, had cast the die, moving to crush the British General Howe's forces marching north toward Philadelphia.  He stationed his main force on the northern side of Brandywine Creek, expecting Howe to ford there.  But Howe had better information than Washington had.  He sent General Cornwallis to Chadds Ford, to the west, to carry out a false attack and draw the American forces in, while he made a long and undetected detour east and north, around to Washington's flank and rear.  When Washington discovered that he had been outmaneuvered, he hastily reposted some of his forces to meet Howe, sent an emergency notice to Nathanael Greene to race north for assistance, and then the full battle was engaged.  The Americans lost around thirteen hundred men and were put to flight.

Who saved them to fight another day?  Casimir Pułaski, for one.  The count's specialty was cavalry, and the American army desperately needed him.  Their horsemen were few and ill-trained.  Pułaski, working against time and the difficulties of making himself understood to farmers who spoke no French, had managed to knock together a half-decent cavalry, and it was they who covered George Washington, exposed to enemy fire, in his hasty retreat to the west.  Were it not for Pułaski, Washington would have been slain, or else captured and then hanged.

Yet if it were not for Roman Catholics, the colonies would probably have lost the war.

Pułaski was not the only foreigner to be promised, from France, a high commission in the American army, and Washington was usually suspicious of such — of men who knew nothing of the land, and who might be motivated more by personal ambition than by patriotism and piety.  But he seems not to have been suspicious of Pułaski, to whom he ceded a great deal of authority, and who, in turn, submitted graciously to the orders of "Votre Excellence," as he addressed him in his letters.  If the contribution of such men, many of them Catholic (Pułaski, Kościuszko, Lafayette, Rochambeau), escaped the notice of some, it did not escape that of the tolerant and great-hearted Washington.

By the way: there was an American general, a brilliant and daring tactician, who wrote a letter to the American people, excusing his volte-face by his horror of the "Romish" religion and Washington's embrace of assistance from Catholic France.  His name was Benedict Arnold.

The death of a hero

October 9, 1778, a foggy morning along the Savannah River.  The British have taken the war south, seizing Charleston and moving on to Georgia, occupying the port of Savannah and, by the labor of hundreds of black slaves, girding the city and its river with earthworks.  Meanwhile the French Comte d'Estaing, with troops of French and Haitians, has joined the American cause and laid siege to the city.  Pułaski is with him.

D'Estaing counted on reinforcements from Benjamin Lincoln, hastening overland from the east, and from French ships sailing up the river.  But the ships had been sunk or blocked, and now it was a land attack or nothing.  He decided to attack, hoping to surprise the British, but, just as at Brandywine, the British had inside information.  Pułaski led the cavalry charge, and was mortally wounded by grapeshot to the head.  He never regained consciousness.  The British commander Prevost gave the cavalrymen safe-conduct to bear their fallen leader from the field, such was his esteem for the courage and nobility of the Polish count.

Casimir Pułaski is honored as the founder of the American cavalry.  More than a dozen places in the United States are named for him, as is the old U.S. Route 40 in Delaware and Maryland, the Pulaski Highway.  A pillar in Savannah was erected in his memory, whose base features a relief sculpture of Pułaski on horseback, charging, as the nearby marker has it, "with customary ardor."  Perhaps the boldest representation stands in Washington, a giant bronze statue of Pułaski, again on his horse, bearing proudly the cap and the uniform of a hussar, such as he had always borne in America.  A grand bust stands on a memorial in Poland, at Częstochowa, with the inscription, in Polish, "Kazimierz Pułaski: 1747-1779.  Hero of the Polish and American Nations, Defender of Jasna Góra in the Years 1770-1772."  It is pleasant to consider that other Polish patriot, Bishop Karol Wojtyła, stopping by to say a prayer for the soul of his brave countryman.



Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: A Hero of Two Nations." Magnificat (March, 2019).

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The Author

esolen54smesolen7Anthony Esolen is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. He is the author of many books including: Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian LifeIronies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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