Wlodzimierz … The Volunteer
Over the years I have spoken about some of our greatest patriots as well as some of the early Polish settlers who had come to America and distinguished themselves in various ways. My purpose in bringing all these historical facts to you is the hope that you will not only develop a sincere interest in your Polish heritage but also a resulting pride.
One area covered briefly but hardly an insignificant fact was the Polish contribution in the American Civil War. It was quite formidable in accomplishment if we take into consideration the fact that an estimated 5000 Poles participated out of a total Polish population of some 30,000!
Of these 5000, the names of Pulaski and Kosciuszko are perhaps the most well known; but there are at least a dozen others who have singled themselves out through heroic deeds and by other outstanding qualities. It is these men who I feel you should be acquainted with since they too are part of our historical heritage.
Not in any order of importance, the first Pole I would like to present to you is General Wlodzimierz Krzyzanowski. He was probably the most outstanding Polish figure in the American Civil War.
Born in Poland in 1854, his father was a noble land holder and veteran of the Napoleonic wars. His aunt was the mother of Frederic Chopin and he himself was first cousin to the pianist.
As a college student, Krzyzanowski was one of a vast body of Polish students who dreamed, talked and fought for Polish independence. As a matter of fact, the short lived Polish Insurrection of 1846, known as the “Spring of Nations” interrupted the college studies of young Krzyzanowski. As a result of his participation, he was obliged to flee from Poland and sail for New York.
His first years in America were somewhat of a struggle for existence. He managed, however, to complete his education and received a degree as an engineer. In this capacity, he made various engineering surveys in the south and was active in railroad building in the midwest states. As a matter of fact, many present day middle west railroads were originally mapped out by Krzyzanowski.
In 1854, he settled in Washington, married the niece of a military general and became a merchant as well as an active Republican.
Two days after President Lincoln’s proclamation of the Civil War, Krzyzanowski volunteered for service in the Union Army as an ordinary soldier. He quickly advanced to the rank of captain of his own company made up of Poles and Germans from the Washington area. The unit was called “Krzyzanowski’s Company”. Afterwards the Secretary of War asked him to form a foreign regiment of the infantry in New York. This he achieved in October 1861 with the rank of Colonel. The new unit became known as the 58th Volunteer Infantry Regiment of New York. It contained many nationalities but retained the name “Polish Legion”.
In June 1862 with bayonet in hand, General Krzyzanowski and his Polish legion distinguished themselves at the Battle at Cross Keys. The general then became a brigade commander of a number of artillery and infantry divisions and with these units he took part in the second battle of Bull Run and the disastrous battles of Chancellor-ville (May 1863) and Gettysburg (July 1863) repelling “frequent and fierce assaults of the enemy” fighting with equal bravery. In Bull Run he himself was wounded while having his horse shot from under him.
Krzyzanowski’s valor was so outstanding that his superiors recommended promotion and President Lincoln sent his nomination for brigadier general to the Senate but — and would you believe this! —– the Senate failed to confirm the nomination because none of the Senators could pronounce his name.
General Krzyzanowski also fought and defended the towns of Knoxville, Nashville and Chattanooga. In October 1864, he became the military governor of Alabama and in April 1865 assumed similar duties in Florida and Virginia.
After the Civil War was over, Krzyzanowski was voted the rank of brigadier general “for gallant and meritorious services.” He left the Army on October 1, 1865, with his health impaired. Upon his return to civilian life he was appointed the first American governor of Alaska. Then he occupied offices in the Department of the Treasury. Settling in California, he helped Helena Modrzejewska, the famous Polish-born Shakespearean actress, in her early American career. In California, he also met the great Polish novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz, the author of “Quo Vadis” and winner of the Nobel Prize in 1905.
In 1879 Krzyzanowski was customs inspector at Panama and in 1883 received an appointment in the customs office at New York, a post which he died at on January 30, 1887. Senator and Secretary of the Treasury and his companion during the Civil War, General Shurz, delivered the funeral oration at his grave in the Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
Many years after the death of General Krzyzanowski, in October 1937 to be exact, his remains and that of his wife were re-interred in the National Arlington Cemetery with great ceremony, highlighted by a radio address by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In his speech President Roosevelt expressed most eloquently the common bonds linking together the American and Polish nations saying . . . . “Throughout centuries and many storms, no matter whether the sun was shining or obscured by temporary clouds, Poland forever fought to carry high the light of Liberty. Since we treasure in common the same idea of Liberty, our friendship with the Polish nation has been of long standing and uninterrupted. It is an honor and privilege to bear witness now that the United States are indebted to the people of Polish blood.”
. . . SEE YOU SOON, GOD BE WILLING . . .