"John," said the captain, "you're a fine soldier, and a young man of courage and honor. If you join our cause, I guarantee you an officer's commission."
Join the worldwide Magnificat family by subscribing now: Your prayer life will never be the same!
The cause was just, as Captain Magruder saw it. They would be fighting to protect a venerable confederation of states from invasion by a hostile power. It was March 1861, and Fort Sumter had been fired upon and seized by the men of South Carolina. The government in Washington would not stand for it. Invasion was inevitable.
The youth was twenty, tall, and clean shaven. He spoke English with a strange accent. His father had been executed by ministers of the Russian tsar for having taken part in a desperate attempt to free his native Poland from her grip. For Poland had been carved up for the ambitious monarchs of eastern Europe to dine upon, most notably the able and ravenous Frederick the Great of Prussia, and the equally able and depraved Catherine the Great of Russia. Such is greatness in this world.
The boy and his mother were permitted to visit him the day before the execution. He had been mewed up in a filthy hole for thirteen months, without once being allowed to wash or to change his clothing. The father wept and blessed them, and they parted, mother and son to leave their native land and their ancestral home for ever. She died soon after, and the boy made his way to America.
"Captain Magruder," said the youth, "I came here as an exile, without home or country. The United States has given me both. I will always be true to the government of my adoption. I will fight behind its flag, and if it should go down to defeat or disaster, I will go with it."
The men parted as friends. The youth was true to his words. He fought at some of the bloodiest battles the world had seen: Bull Run, Chancellorsville, Antietam, and Gettysburg. He was shot through the stomach and astonished the doctors by surviving — to rejoin the Union Army. He remembered little of the Catholic Faith of his boyhood, and he never returned to it, though he later became a national leader of Christian progressives, fighting for woman suffrage and against the liquor trade. His name was John Sobieski, the last survivor of the greatest royal line of Poland, a shadow, though a noble shadow, of the man who saved Europe from destruction.
The watchman on the tower
September 12, 1683. A sentinel climbs wearily to his post, overlooking the broad valley of the Danube, whose divided waters surround his city, Vienna. Her people are suffering from hunger and disease. They have been huddling within her walls for several months, while all about her swarm the armies of the Turkish sultan, six hundred thousand men, with their barbarous songs, their camels and elephants, and their battering rams that have already made breaches in the walls. The people have been waiting for help from Germany, help from France, help from any of the other European powers. Nothing. Their king and court have fled. The commander of the city has announced that if their last hope, Poland, does not come to rescue them, they will yield to the Turks. This is the date he has set for surrender.
And on this morning, the feast of the Holy Name of Mary, the sentinel sees something new in the distance — men on horseback, and the dragon-banners of the Polish king! It's a small army, no more than one man for every six of the Turks. But one Polish warrior was worth far more than that. "He is here, John Sobieski is here," he cries, and the defenders of the city take up arms again, and the women rejoice and flock to the churches to pray.
John Sobieski had broken the teeth of the Turks at the battle of Choczim, twelve years before. His name was a tower of strength. Even so, the Germans in his army rose in mutiny. Why should they hurl themselves into the maw of so numerous an enemy?
So Sobieski the king rose to speak.
"We are to fight a battle today, not for spoliation and plunder, but for the cross. While we contend with an army apparently so overwhelming in numbers, yet encamped around, about, and above us are the invisible hosts of heaven, who will bring confusion to the foe and victory to our arms. This day, by the blessing of almighty God and the Christian's Christ and Redeemer, we are to crush yonder exultant foe, and write such a page in the world's history that will cause mankind to glorify the cross in all ages to come."
Down upon the overweening and careless Turkish army swept the cavalry of this good and brave man, King John III Sobieski. There was an eclipse of the sun that day, and to the superstitious Turks it was as if the Polish king blazed out in glory against the darkness. The sultan's force was demolished. Turkish armies would never again threaten western Europe.
The archbishop of Vienna met the king on the next morning, and before the joyful crowds he declared, "There was a man sent from God, whose name was John."
No good deed goes unpunished
The king summed up his campaign by piously revising Caesar's boast: Veni, vidi, Deus vicit — I came, I saw; God conquered.
That was no empty piety, no political posturing for the masses. John Sobieski had no lust for empire. He gave Europe back to Europe, and Austria back to Austria.
So how did the crowned heads of Europe repay the Poles who had saved them from the tidal wave of the Turks?
It's hard for us to imagine, but when the king's sixth great-grandson John was fighting for the Union in the Civil war, Poland was for many people as vague and fabulous as Atlantis. The colonel said he met a woman who thought that it was somewhere in China. Others thought, with good reason, that it was somewhere in Russia.
At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, after the defeat of Napoleon, in whose armies against the Russians many Polish soldiers fought, the partition was sealed for a century. England and the nations of western Europe forgot that for two hundred years their liberties were secured against Turkish invastions by the Poles. They sold out the partitioners, with Russia getting the lion's share and calling it a Polish "kingdom," though it was ruled by the tsar's ministers, who tried to obliterate Polish culture.
Some still remember
Meanwhile, one faraway nation, not yet a world power, did value the Polish fight for liberty. One month after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a young Polish man newly arrived in Philadelphia offered his services to the Continental Army. His name was Tadeusz Kościuszko — a name well known to schoolchildren in the days when Americans still revered their forefathers. He was an engineer, and George Washington asked him to build a fortress at some strategic point along the Hudson River. Kościuszko chose a site called West Point.
He was a great hero of the Revolutionary War, but his accomplishments upon the battlefield were exceeded by what he later accomplished by means of his friendship with Thomas Jefferson. He had been trained in a military school in France, and so he naturally urged his beloved Americans to establish a similar school for the training of officers. They finally did so — at West Point. When a grateful Congress raised him to the rank of brigadier general, with back pay, Kościuszko set the money aside to be given at his death for the emancipation of slaves and their training. Jefferson was named the executor of his will.
Salvation from the forgotten land
Kościuszko returned to Poland in 1794, to fight the powers threatening to partition his native land. In this attempt he was thwarted by temporizing noblemen, who persuaded the Polish government to appeal to the heads of Europe, rather than to entrust themselves to Kościuszko's initial military victory. They lost their freedom for a hundred years. Kościuszko's remains lie in the royal Wawel Castle, where, among many other Polish kings, John Ill Sobieski had ruled.
Nations do not normally rise from the ashes. Frederick's Prussia died, and will never be seen again. Poland died, but she rose again. Or rather Poland never died, because Poland was more than a geographical area or a form of government or a style of music or cookery or whatever else we now call culture. Poland was Catholic. Poland had the Faith.
When Henryk Sienkiewicz came to visit America in 1876, the centenary of our independence, he had not yet written With Fire and Sword, his trilogy of novels about the battles of the Poles against the Turks. He had not yet written Quo Vadis?, his epic about the first Christians and their testament of faith in the face of Roman persecution. But consider that in him, as in the Poles generally, lay hidden that ardent love of liberty, which was a love for their homeland, and a love for God and his Church.
The Poles loved America, when America loved true liberty, and that brings us to another Polish warrior, who honored John Sobieski and Tadeusz Kościuszko, who treasured Sienkiewicz, and who had suffered under the yoke of a now-godless Russia. He would have had opportunity, as a youth, to visit the tombs of Sobieski and Kościuszko, because Wawel Castle is in Kraków, where this athletic and passionate young man would one day rule as archbishop.
He too visited America, as Pope John Paul II, filling Yankee Stadium with cheering crowds. He called upon Americans to remember what it is to be a nation under God, and to remember that true liberty is inseparable from virtue. In a few short years, the back of the Russian bear — considered indomitable by know-it-alls of our time — would be broken, and Poland would be free again, thanks in large part to this soldier in the white robes.
Whether America will be free remains to be seen. For John Paul II came not to beg aid from us, but to offer himself for us, as King John had done long ago for the Christian world.
Join the worldwide Magnificat family by subscribing now: Your prayer life will never be the same!
To read Professor Esolen's work each month in Magnificat, along with daily Mass texts, other fine essays, art commentaries, meditations, and daily prayers inspired by the Liturgy of the Hours, visit www.magnificat.com to subscribe or to request a complimentary copy.
Anthony 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 Life, Ironies 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.Copyright © 2016 Magnificat
back to top