Since it opened to traffic on April 11, 1960, millions of vehicles traveling the I-87 Northway have passed over the Mohawk River on what they think are called on “The Twin Bridges.” That bridge however, is really named for a Polish-American hero of the American Revolution – Taddeus Kosciusko.
Andrzej Tadeusz Bonawentura Kościuszko (Taddeus Kosciusko is the Anglicized version) was born to minor Polish nobility on February 4, 1746 and educated at the School for Knights in Warsaw. There, he studied not only military science but also history, philosophy, Latin, French, German, geography, and engineering. He completed his studies in France attending lectures at the Academy of Fine Arts and at military schools.
Because Poland was dominated by its larger neighbors Prussia and Russia, ambitious young men such as Kosciusko found opportunities lacking and immigrated to America in 1776. His military skills were sorely needed in the Continental Army which was composed mostly of farmers and he was immediately given a commission as a Colonel of Engineers and later promoted to head engineer of the Army.
He was soon attached to the Northern Army in response to British General John Burgoyne’s impending invasion from Canada. Assigned to assess the defenses of Fort Ticonderoga, he recommended that a battery of artillery be placed on Mount Independence, which overlooked the Fort. The commander ignored this advice and the British captured the Fort on July 6th, 1777 after placing their own artillery on Mount Defiance.
As the Patriots retreated south from the Fort, Kosciusko destroyed bridges, felled trees and dammed streams to help provide time to regroup and select a good defensive position from which to meet the British invasion. That place was around Saratoga (old Saratoga, now known as Schuylerville).
Kosciusko’s array of defensive positions, particularly on Bemis Heights overlooking the Hudson River, frustrated the British Army when they attached on September 19 and again on October 7, 1777. When Burgoyne realized he could not proceed and was unable to return to Canada due to the approaching winter, he surrendered.
General Horatio Gates, the Commander at Saratoga, later wrote that “the great tacticians of the campaign were the hills and forests which a young Polish engineer was skillful enough to select for my encampment.” If the Battles of Saratoga was the turning point of the American Revolution, then Taddeus Kosciusko was at the hub of the turn.
Other sites where Kosciusko applied his talents were at Peebles Island at the confluence of the Mohawk and the Hudson in Waterford and at West Point. His earthworks at Bemis Heights and Peebles Island can still be seen today while his plans for defending West Point were those that Benedict Arnold tried to sell to the British. After Saratoga, he transferred to the Southern Department as Chief Engineer and participated in most of the important battles in that area until Cornwallis’s surrender after the Battle of Yorktown in 1781.
At the conclusion of the war, a grateful Continental Congress promoted him to Brigadier General, granted American citizenship and gave him a land grant. He was also admitted to the prestigious Society of the Cincinnati and the American Philosophical Society.
Prior to returning to his native Poland, he wrote to his good friend Thomas Jefferson, “I hereby authorize my friend Thomas Jefferson to employ the whole thereof [his estate] in purchasing Negroes from among his own or any other and giving them liberty in my name.” Unfortunately, Jefferson did not carry out Kosciusko’s wishes.
In Poland, Kosciusko led opposition to Russian interference in the internal affairs of Poland. When war broke out with Russia (referred to as Kosciusko’s Uprising), he won many battles but eventually was wounded and captured. Released in 1796, he traveled throughout Europe until his death in 1817.
The poet Byron said that “Kosciusko was that sound that crashes in a tyrant’s ear” and Jefferson pronounced him “as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known.”
Next time you cross his bridge, shout out a hardy dziekuje! (Thank You!)
Paul Perreault has been the Malta Town Historian since 2009. He served as principal in the Ballston Spa School District from 1978 until 1998 and as a history teacher at Shenendehowa High School from 1967 until 1975. He is the editor of the Gristmill, published quarterly by the Saratoga County History Center.
Illustrations from above: The “Twin Bridges” (officially “Taddeus Kosciusko Bidge” over the Mohawk River on Interstate 87 in Saratoga County; a portrait of Tadeusz Kościuszko wearing the Eagle of the Society of the Cincinnati, awarded him by George Washington (portrait by Karl Gottlieb Schweikart); Portrait of Kościuszko as a member of the Warsaw Cadet Corps by Kazimierz Wojniakowski; and a Polish postage stamp from 1938 showing Kościuszko with saber (left), Thomas Paine and George Washington.
This essay is presented by the Saratoga County History Roundtable and the Saratoga County History Center. Follow them on Twitter and Facebook.
David Cranston says
The last name of the man in the article, who the bridge over the Mohawk River was named after, is spelled Kosciuzko (the letter “z” near the end rather than the letter “s”). I believe the letter “s” is the anglicized spelling. A bridge over Newtown Creek between Brooklyn and Queens was dedicated to the same man in 1940 but it uses the original Polish spelling of Kosciuzko. Many people assume a creek as being up to about 50′ wide. Newtown Creek may be a creek, but it is about 200′ wide. The bridge over this “creek” is about 6000′ feet long because longer approaches are needed. Fully loaded trucks need a longer approach so they can climb up incline over the creek, which has shipping traffic, without slowing highway traffic appreciably.
I’m not sure if the spelling of the Mohawk River bridge was originally suppose to be “…zko” and it was changed to “…sko” by someone at NYS-DOT before the original paperwork was submitted because they thought the original spelling was incorrect, or they spelled it “…sko” on purpose so as not to confuse it with the Bridge over Newtown Creek.
Most people around the Capital District pronounce the man’s name as “KAH-zi-U-sko”. In NYC the pronunciation is more in line with the original Polish spelling and they pronounce his name as “kuh-SHOOS-koh”.
BTW… I use to drive over this bridge daily on my way to NYS-DOT for 43 years. I’m retired now. Back in the days when I had a CB, many CB’ers and others often referred to the bridge as The Dolly Parton Bridge.
Paul Huey says
After extensive research, I can find no document actually linking Kosciuzko to the construction of the earthworks on Peebles Island. It is possible, but it is only a presumption.
David Cranston says
For what its worth:
On the nystateparks website, search for the letters “kos” without the quote marks.
I don’t know how accurate the information is on the above web sites.
Paul Huey says
I have searched the records for years and can find no document that indicates Kościuszko designed or built the Peebles Island earthworks, or that he was ever actually there or on Van Schaick Island in 1777.
Paul Huey says
Historians in the 19th century apparently assume Kosciusko built the American fortification in 1777 prior to Saratoga. I think Sparks says Kosciusko built American fortifications at Moses Creek during their retreat. I just discovered in my file notes from a biography of Kosciusko written by John Armstrong dated July 1, 1818. The original is in the Library of Congress, and the handwriting is very difficult to read. Armstrong says “In the retreat of the American army Kosciusko was distinguished for activity and courage and upon him was the choice of camps & posts and everything connected with fortification. The last position taken by the Army when commanded by Gen. Schuyler was on an island in the Hudson near the mouth of the Mohawk river and within a few miles of Albany.” This, again, is only a secondary source, but it is possible Sparks and Armstrong obtained information from veterans, many of whom were still living.
Natalie Oshins says
In NY city many people pronounce the bridge as “kos key us ko”.
David Gibson says
Thank you for more of the American story of Andrzej Tadeusz Bonawentura Kościuszko, and also learning of his patriotic courage back in Poland against the Russians.
I have read that a U.S. President Zachary Taylor c. 1850 remained for an hour in very hot summer weather to commemorate Taddeus Kosciuszko at the Washington Monument then under construction. So, he is also honored there. Pres Taylor was bareheaded, I read, became dehydrated, so when he returned to the White House after that ceremony drank too much contaminated water and died of cholera within a week.
James S.Kaplan says
Kosciusko was certainly critical to the American victory at Saratoga as General
Horatio. Gates would have been the first to recognize. he came to America reportedly after he unsuccessfully tried to elope with his commander’s daughter.
in poland and joined the Continental army. He was assigned to the Contin
tal forces in Northern New York and Gates immediately recognized that he was a first rate European trained militarry engineer. who he put in charge of the fortifications att Bemis Beights which proved critical to. the American. victory at Saratoga..
He remained friendly with Gates throughout his life and in 1800
when Gates was making his successful
run for New York State Assemnbly in
New York City which led to the election of Thomas Jefferson and the rise of the New York State Democratic party. he had an. extended stay at Gates estate on
23 rd Street and Madison Avenue. in Manhattan.
Unfortunately like Gates his importance in American history is often underrated. I am not certain how many
people who drive over these bridges
realize how well deserved it just thqt he is recognized. in their name. In any event I know of no bridge in New York Staye or elsewhere named in
honor of General Horattio Gates.
N. Couture says
Historical references go out of their way to frame Gates as incompetent.
It was Gates who replaced Schuyler, who was George Washington’s buddy, after the fall of Ticonderoga. Historical accounts involving Gates, it seems to me, do not credit him for taking decisive action at Saratoga, but rather Arnold. But then there was the battle of Camden, SC in 1781 that sealed Gates’ historical fate, as he was described in accounts as having fled the battle field. It may have been just an effort to discredit him historically for being a rival to Washington. Gates had the most powerful enemy in American government and as a result, he got tanked. But his image does adorn the U.S. Capitol rotunda in the painting Surrender of General Burgoyne.
James S. Kaplan says
Unfortunately most accounts of Gates life end with his defeat at the Battje of Camden in 1780 and his alleged disgrace thereafter in Virginia while Washington and Adams his former colleagues led the new nation.
These accounts ignore. his subsequent
move to New York City in 1790
where he was a leader of the Society
of Cincinnati and later became affiliated
with Marinus Willet and ,Aaron Burr and the
Tammany Society. In the New York City elections iof 1800 at the age of 72 his successful candidacy for the New York State Assembly led to the election of Thomas Jefferson over John Adam’s and the demise of the Federalist party and George Washington protege Alexander Hamilton.
Gates’s role twenty five years after the Revolution in 1800 in creating and defending democracy was arguably as
important as his role as the commanding
General at Saratoga.
Every year the Lower Manhattan Historical Association. which was instrumental in marking his unmarked grave in Trinity Churchyard in 2012, holds its Saratoga/ Yorktown celebration
on the anniversary of the American victories at Saratoga and Yorktown. Wreaths are lain on the graves of General Gates, Marinus Willet, and Alexander Hamilton in New York’s Trinity Churchyard