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May 20, 2024

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The Confederate Poles

“Though it may at first seem surprising that the liberty-loving Poles should join forces with the slaveholders of the Confederacy against the emancipators of the North, the fact is readily explainable. In the first place, the Polish exiles did not all settle in the north; very many turned to the South to make their homes. In the second place, the federal government, fearing the intervention of any European power in the American Civil War, had shown favorable inclination towards Russia, when she was suppressing a rebellion in Poland. This alienated many Poles in America. Spurred by new-home ties or by old world antagonism, the Poles in the South entered the service of the Confederate army.”

So states author Joseph Wytrwal in his book, “Poles in American History and Tradition.” And, it is this Polish service in the Confederacy that is the topic of this week’s column.

In the Confederate army during the Civil War, many Polish officers made their contributions, but none was more distinguished than Major Gaspard Tochman.

Tochman was born in 1791 at Letowna, Poland. He received his education in Warsaw and entered the Polish infantry during the Revolution of 1831. For his repeated and distinguished services, he rose to the rank of Major and obtained the Gold Cross of the Polish Legion of Honor “Virtuti Militari.”

When the revolution failed, he sought refuge abroad in France and England. In 1837 he arrived in the United States. In 1843 he became naturalized, and two years later he was practicing law before the Supreme Court. In 1846 he even helped organize the Polish Slavonian Literary Association.

From 1847 to 1853, Tochman was employed as a lawyer for the Kosciuszko heirs in a litigation with the Russian Embassy of Washington, D.C. over the will of Thaddeus Kosciuszko. Prior to the Civil War, he was also a member of the Electoral College of Virginia.

However, he became disenchanted with the Northern policy regarding the white race of the South “preferring rather to become an exile a third time, and to abandon property, family and friends, rather than to become untrue to the great cause for which he had striven all his life – the principle of self-government.”

Tochman’s move to the South shocked and saddened not only his cohorts in the U.S. but also in Europe.

Finally, on May 1, 1861, when war was a certainty, Tochman offered his services to the new government of Jefferson Davis to raise 10 or 20 companies to be composed of persons of foreign birth, enlisting for the duration, to constitute a Polish brigade. Tochman’s offer to serve in military, diplomatic or civil capacity for the Confederate states was immediately accepted. In a little less than a week, Tochman received his authorization to raise 10 companies and form them into a brigade.

In less than six weeks, Tochman had enlisted 1,415 foreigners and placed them into four regiments under the command of Colonel Valery Sulakowski. Tochman even contributed a large sum of money to the raising of these regiments in order to equip them and purchase a battery of artillery for the brigade.

For his successful activity, Tochman had been promised the rank of brigadier general by the Secretary of War. But, when the recruitment was completed, Jefferson Davis did not back his secretary’s commitment. Tochman, denied the rank of brigadier general, halted his efforts to raise troops and withdrew from the service. He then sought monetary reparation for his sacrifices and the losses he had sustained in property, reputation and a 2 1/2 year family separation. Tochman won his case legally, but action on it was doomed to failure due to a dying Confederacy.

The regiment did encounter combat under the Tochman-Sulakowski leadership in Virginia for seven days of fighting with more than 900 men. When the campaign was over, all the companies were so decimated that not one was fit for immediate combat.

Gaspard Tochman returned to Spottsylvania, Virginia, after his efforts to procure the money had failed. He served, for a time, as a European state agent of immigration for the Virginia Bureau of Immigration. Tochman died in the same town on December 21, 1880.

Another example of how a Polonian spirit was wasted!

SEE YOU SOON, GOD BE WILLING