Few still know who Casimir Pulaski is
(Continued from Current Stories page) -
But for many people in Wisconsin and elsewhere, Pulaski Day is frequently overlooked. “From my own perspective, I’m not sure that many people in Wisconsin pay much attention to Pulaski Day, or his importance,” said Spencer Brayton, a history major at his hometown University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. “I think that may be particularly true for younger people.
“I didn’t think about Pulaski much myself, until I got older,” continued Brayton. “Unless there’s something in a local paper, I don’t think Pulaski rings a bell with a lot of people.”
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, nearly ten percent of Wisconsin residents have some level of Polish ancestry, the highest in the nation. Nearby, Illinois is second only to New York with nearly one million Polish-Americans, while Michigan ranks fourth with over 854,000.
Polish immigrants began settling in Wisconsin around 1855, many of them in Milwaukee. Other Wisconsin communities with high numbers of Poles included Stevens Point, Antigo, Two Rivers, Berlin, Marinette, and Menasha.
“Certainly, the Polish are an important part of our state culture, especially in central Wisconsin,” said Brayton, the Director of Lumpkin Learning Commons at Blackburn College. “That significance remains, and is still felt in many ways. I think the Polish brought a hard-working mentality with them that still resonates.”
Born March 4, 1747, Pulaski was a member of Polish nobility who fled his homeland amid a failed uprising against Russian authority. He was introduced in France to American diplomat Benjamin Franklin, who sent him to the Revolutionary cause.
“He was one of the first major foreigners to volunteer his services to the Americans,” said Lorys. “He came at a time when the United States was really not winning the war, and he wanted to help.”
In America, Pulaski quickly distinguished himself at the battle of Brandywine in September 1777, which led to a promotion to brigadier general by commanding general George Washington. He later fought well around Philadelphia and molded American horse soldiers into an effective fighting force. Some refer to Pulaski as “the father of American cavalry.”
Subsequently ordered south, Pulaski’s success continued at Charleston. He was mortally wounded in action around Savannah, Ga., on Oct. 9, 1779.
Pulaski’s valor and willingness to fight for American independence made him a revered figure among Polish-Americans, and today his name graces landmarks across the nation. At least six towns and seven counties across America carry his name, including Pulaski, Wis., a community of 3,500 near Green Bay that holds one of the largest Polish celebrations in the nation each July.
Statues of Pulaski are found in numerous American cities, including in Wisconsin. In Pulaski Park in Milwaukee, a six-foot bronze likeness on a 17-foot granite pedestal stands in his honor, while in Stevens Point, a bust of Pulaski atop a marble foundation in a green space near downtown was dedicated in 1929.
A number of schools nationwide, including a high school in Milwaukee, bear his name, and an annual parade in Milwaukee celebrates Pulaski and Polish heritage.
Pulaski is also honored with various bridges, including spans in Brooklyn and Jersey City, and several streets and roads. Visitors to Rhode Island will find Casimir Pulaski State Park, while a U.S. Navy submarine was named for him in 1964.
To honor the sesquicentennial of his death in 1929, Congress authorized each October 11 as “General Pulaski Memorial Day.” In 2009, Pulaski posthumously became the seventh person to be awarded honorary American citizenship by Congress.
In 1977, the state of Illinois designated the first Monday in March as Casimir Pulaski Day. A formal declaration was made 1986, and schools were given the option of observing the holiday. Many Illinois public schools are closed on Pulaski Day, though the holiday, as well as Columbus Day, was recently taken off the calendar in the Chicago public school system amid protest.
Elsewhere, Kentucky lawfully recognizes “General Pulaski’s Day” on October 11, the date of his death. In Indiana, where large concentrations of Polish-Americans are found in the northern part of the state, the governor issues an annual proclamation to commemorate Pulaski. Annual parades in Buffalo and New York City are held, and “Pulaski Days” are celebrated each October in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Still, Casimir Pulaski Day gets little respect among the masses. Some snicker at the holiday, and few non-Poles pay much attention to Pulaski or his legacy.
“Some of that is our fault,” said Lorys of Polish-Americans. “We really haven’t done enough to sell ourselves and make people aware. But it’s a two-way street. We need people to want to learn about Pulaski, to be willing to be educated on him.”
While designees of other holidays, such as Martin Luther King, Christopher Columbus, and famous Presidents, are familiar to American schoolchildren, Pulaski is barely covered in many curriculums.
“I wish more schools did something to commemorate Pulaski,” remarked Lorys, whose museum has supplied learning tools on Pulaski to educators. “Again, it goes back to how much material they may have available. But I think that if teachers don’t have individual class time, schools could have an assembly, where videos or lectures on Pulaski are offered.”
The little that is taught on Pulaski rarely leaves an imprint. Kelsey Moreland, 24, of Rantoul, Ill., only remembers Pulaski as “a Polish guy.”
“I went to private school, and we had to write a paper on Pulaski several times. But we never had the day off,” Moreland laughed. “I still really don’t know anything about him.”
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or email@example.com.