The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 14

Author: Archibald Alison  | Date: A.D. 1794

The Downfall of Poland

A.D. 1794


That the French Revolution was not more actively interfered with by the powers of Eastern Europe was largely due to the fact that they were all busy with a spoliation of their own. When Kosciuszko, the great Polish patriot and hero, failed in his endeavor to rescue his country from foreign thraldom, the doom of the ancient kingdom was sealed. In the following year (1795) the third and final partition of Poland-between Russia, Austria, and Prussia-was made. This destruction of a heroic nationality was bewailed by the friends of liberty throughout the world, and it was told in passionate regret how "Freedom shrieked, as Kosciuszko fell."

Although brave and liberty-loving, the people of Poland had not kept pace with political progress among the more advanced nations. In the fourteenth century Poland had risen to her greatest power. Her political character, from ancient days, was peculiar, being at once monarchical and republican. But she had a feudalism of her own, which survived long after the European feudal system was outgrown by other nations. Her political system was cumbrous and lacking in unity. The first partition, by the powers above named (1772), left her in still worse disorder. A new constitution proved unsatisfactory, one party favoring it, another seeking to overthrow it. Russian interference was invoked, the Polish patriots resisted, but in 1792 they were defeated, and Russia, with Prussia, made the second partition of Poland in 1793.

In 1794 Kosciuszko was made commander-in-chief and dictator of Poland. The insurrection began with the murder of the Russians in Warsaw. But the Poles suffered from their own dissensions as before, and met with the disaster that led to their national extinction.

THERE is a certain degree of calamity which overwhelms the courage; but there is another, which, by reducing men to desperation, sometimes leads to the greatest and most glorious enterprises. To this latter state the Poles were now reduced. Abandoned by all the world, distracted with internal divisions, destitute alike of fortresses and resources, crushed in the grasp of gigantic enemies, the patriots of that unhappy country, consulting only their own courage, resolved to make a last effort to deliver it from its enemies. In the midst of their internal convulsions, and through all the prostration of their national strength, the Poles had never lost their individual courage, or the ennobling feelings of civil independence. They were still the redoubtable hussars who broke the Mussulman ranks under the walls of Vienna, and carried the Polish eagles in triumph to the towers of the Kremlin; whose national cry had so often made the Osmanlis tremble, and who had boasted in their hours of triumph that if the heaven itself were to fall they would support it on the points of their lances. A band of patriots at War-saw resolved at all hazards to attempt the restoration of their independence, and they made choice of Kosciuszko, who was then at Leipsic, to direct their efforts.1

This illustrious hero, who had received the rudiments of military education in France, had afterward served, not without glory, in the war of Independence in America. Uniting to Polish enthusiasm French ability, the ardent friend of liberty and the enlightened advocate for order, brave, loyal, and generous, he was in every way qualified to head the last struggle of the oldest republic in existence for its national independence. But a nearer approach to the scene of danger convinced him that the hour for action had not yet arrived. The passions, indeed, were awakened; the national enthusiasm was full; but the means of resistance were inconsiderable, and the old divisions of the Republic were not so healed as to afford the prospect of the whole national strength being exerted in its defence. But the public indignation could brook no delay; several regiments stationed at Pultusk revolted, and moved toward Gallcia; and Kosciuszko, albeit despairing of success, determined not to be absent in the hour of danger, hastened to Cracow, where on March 3d he closed the gates and proclaimed the insurrection.

Having, by means of the regiments which had revolted, and the junction of some bodies of armed peasants-imperfectly armed, indeed, but full of enthusiasm-collected a force of five thousand men, Kosciuszko left Cracow, and boldly advanced into the open country. He encountered a body of three thou’ sand Russians at Raslowice, and, after an obstinate engagement, succeeded in routing it with great slaughter. This action, inconsiderable in itself, had important consequences; the Polish peasants exchanged their scythes for the arms found on the field of battle, and the insurrection, encouraged by this first gleam of success, soon communicated itself to the adjoining provinces. In vain Stanislaus disavowed the acts of his subjects; the flame of independence spread with the rapidity of lightning, and soon all the freemen in Poland were in arms. Warsaw was the first great point where the flame broke out. The intelligence of the success at Raslowice was received there on April 12th and occasioned the most violent agitation. For some days afterward it was evident that an explosion was at hand; and at length, at daybreak on the morning of the 17th, the brigade of Polish guards, under the direction of their officers, attacked the governor’s house and the arsenal, and was speedily joined by the populace. The Russian and Prussian troops in the neighborhood of the capital were about seven thousand men; and after a prolonged and obstinate contest in the streets for thirty-six hours, they were driven across the Vistula with the loss of above three thousand men in killed and prisoners, and the flag of independence was hoisted on the towers of Warsaw.

One of the most embarrassing circumstances in the situation of the Russians was the presence of above sixteen thousand Poles in their ranks, who were known to sympathize strongly with these heroic efforts of their fellow-citizens. Orders were immediately despatched to Suvaroff to assemble a corps and disarm the Polish troops scattered in Podolia before they could unite in any common measures for their defence. By the energy and activity of this great commander, the Poles were disarmed brigade after brigade, and above twelve thousand men reduced to a state of inaction without much difficulty-a most important operation, not only by destroying the nucleus of a powerful army, but by stifling the commencement of the insurrection in Volhynia and Podolia. How different might have been the fate of Poland and Europe had they been enabled to join the ranks of their countrymen!

Kosciuszko and his countrymen did everything that courage or energy could suggest to put on foot a formidable force to resist their adversaries; a provisional government was established and in a short time a force of forty thousand men was raised. But this force, though highly honorable to the patriotism of the Poles, was inconsiderable when compared with the vast armies which Russia and Prussia could bring up for their subjugation. Small as the army was, its maintenance was too great an effort for the resources of the kingdom, which, torn by intestine factions, without commerce, harbors, or manufactures; having no national credit, and no industrious class of citizens but the Jews, now felt the fatal effects of its long career of democratic anarchy. The population of the country, composed entirely of unruly gentlemen and ignorant serfs, was totally unable at that time to furnish those numerous supplies of intelligent officers which are requisite for the formation of an efficient military force; while the nobility, however formidable on horseback in the Hungarian or Turkish wars, were less to be relied on in a contest with regular troops, where infantry and artillery constituted the great strength of the army, and courage was unavailing without the aid of science and military discipline.

The central position of Poland, in the midst of its enemies, would have afforded great military advantages, had its inhabitants assessed a force capable of turning it to account; that is, if they had had, like Frederick the Great in the Seven Years’ War, a hundred fifty thousand regular troops-which the population of the country could easily have maintained-and a few well-fortified towns, to arrest the enemy in one quarter, while the bulk of the national force was precipitated upon them in an other. The glorious stand made by the nation in 1831, with only thirty thousand regular soldiers at the commencement of the insurrection, and no fortifications but those of Warsaw and Modlin, proves what immense advantages this central positioin affords, and what opportunities it offers to military genius eke that of Skrynecki to inflict the most severe wounds even on a superior and well-conducted antagonist. But all these advantages were wanting to Kosciuszko; and it augments our admiration of his talents, and of the heroism of his countrymen, that with such inconsiderable means they made so honorable a stand for their national independence.

No sooner was the King of Prussia informed of the revolution at Warsaw than he moved forward at the head of thirty thousand men to besiege that city; while Suvaroff, with forty thousand veterans, was preparing to enter the southeastern parts of the kingdom. Aware of the necessity of striking a blow before the enemy’s forces were united, Kosciuszko advanced with twelve thousand men to attack the Russian General, Denisoff; but, upon approaching his corps, he discovered that it had united to the army commanded by the King in person. Unable to face such superior forces, he immediately retired, but was attacked next morning at daybreak near Sekoczyre by the allies, and after a gallant resistance his army was routed, and Cracow fell into the hands of the conquerors. This check was the more severely felt, as about the same time General Zayonscheck was defeated at Chelne and obliged to recross the Vistula, leaving the whole country on the right bank of that river in the hands of the Russians.

These disasters produced a great impression at Warsaw; the people as usual ascribed them to treachery, and insisted that the leaders should be brought to punishment; and although the chiefs escaped, several persons in an inferior situation were arrested and thrown into prison. Apprehensive of some subterfuge if the accused were regularly brought to trial, the burghers assembled in tumultuous bodies, forced the prisons, erected scaffolds in the streets, and after the manner of the assassins of September 2d, put above twelve persons to death with their own hands. These excesses affected with the most profound grief the pure heart of Kosciuszko; he flew to the capital, restored order, and delivered over to punishment the leaders of the revolt. But the resources of the country were evidently unequal to the struggle; the paper money, which had been issued in their extremity, was at a frightful discount; and the sacrifices required of the nation were, on that account, the more severely felt, so that hardly a hope of ultimate success remained.

The combined Russian and Prussian armies, about thirty-five thousand strong, now advanced against the capital, where Kosciuszko occupied an intrenched camp with twenty-five thousand men. During the whole of July and August the besiegers were engaged in fruitless attempts to drive the Poles into the city; and at length a great convoy, with artillery and stores fob a regular siege, which was ascending the Vistula, having been captured by a gentleman named Minewsky at the head of a body of peasants, the King of Prussia raised the siege, leaving a portion of his sick and stores in the hands of the patriots. After this success the insurrection spread immensely and the Poles mustered nearly eighty thousand men under arms. But they were scattered over too extensive a line of country in order to make head against their numerous enemies-a policy tempting by the prospect it holds forth of exciting an extensive insurrection, but ruinous in the end, by exposing the patriotic forces to the risk of being beaten in detail. Scarcely had the Poles recovered from their intoxication at the raising of the siege of Warsaw when intelligence was received of the defeat of Sizakowsky, who commanded a corps of ten thousand men beyond the Bug, by the Russian grand army under Suvaroff. This celebrated General, to whom the principal conduct of the war was now committed, followed up his successes with the utmost vigor. The retreating column was again assailed on the 19th by the victorious Russians, and after a glorious resistance driven into the woods between Janoff and Biala, with the loss of four thousand men and twenty-eight pieces of cannon. Scarcely three thousand Poles, with Sizakowsky at their head, escaped into Siedlice.

Upon receiving the accounts of this disaster, Kosciuszko resolved, by drawing together all his detachments, to fall upon Fersen before he joined Suvaroff and the other corps which were advancing against the capital. With this view he ordered General Poninsky to join him, and marched with all his disposable forces to attack the Russian General, who was stationed at Maccowice; but fortune on this occasion cruelly deceived the Poles. Arrived in the neighborhood of Fersen’s position he found that Poninsky had not yet come up; and the Russian commander, overjoyed at this circumstance, resolved immediately to attack him. In vain Kosciuszko despatched courier after courier to Poninsky to advance to his relief. The first was intercepted by the Cossacks, and the second did not reach that leader in time to enable him to take a decisive part in the approaching combat. Nevertheless the Polish commander, aware of the danger of retreating with inexperienced troops in presence of a disciplined and superior enemy, determined to give battle on the following day, and drew up his little army with as much skill as the circumstances would admit.

The forces on the opposite sides in this action, which decided the fate of Poland, were nearly equal in point of numbers; but the advantages of discipline and equipment were decisively on the side of the Russians. Kosciuszko commanded about ten thousand men, a part of whom were recently raised and imperfectly disciplined; while Fersen was at the head of twelve thousand veterans, including a most formidable body of cavalry. Nevertheless, the Poles in the centre and right wing made a glorious defence; but the left, which Poninsky should have supported, having been overwhelmed by the cavalry under Denisoff, the whole army was, after a severe struggle, thrown into confusion. Kosciuczko, Sizakowsky, and other gallant chiefs in vain made the most heroic efforts to rally the broken troops. They were wounded, struck down, and made prisoners by the Cossacks who swarmed over the field of battle; while the remains of the army, now reduced to seven thousand men, fell back in confusion toward Warsaw.

After the fall of Kosciuszko, who sustained in his single person the fortunes of the Republic, nothing but a series of disasters overtook the Pole The Austrians, taking advantage of the general confusion, entered Galicia, and occupied the palatine ates of Lublin and Sandomir; while Suvaroff, pressing forward toward the capital, defeated Mokronowsky, who, at the head of twelve thousand men, strove to retard the advance of that redoubtable commander. In vain the Poles made the utmost efforts; they were routed with the loss of four thousand men; and the patriots, though now despairing of success, resolved to sell their lives dearly, and shut themselves up in Warsaw to await the approach of the conqueror. Suvaroff was soon at the gates of Praga, the eastern suburb of that capital, where twenty-six thousand men and one hundred pieces of cannon defended the bridge of the Vistula and the approach to the capital. To assault such a position with forces hardly superior was evidently a hazardous enterprise; but the approach of winter, rendering it indispensable that if anything was done at all it should be immediately attempted, Suvaroff, who was habituated to successful assaults in the Turkish wars, resolved to storm the city. On November 2d the Russians made their appearance before the glacis of Praga, and Suvaroff, having in great haste completed three powerful batteries and breached the defences with imposing celerity, made his dispositions for a general assault on the following day.

The conquerors of Ismail advanced to the attack in the sameorder which they had adopted on that memorable occasion. Seven columns at daybreak approached the ramparts, rapidly filled up the ditches with their fascines, broke down the defences, and pouring into the intrenched camp carried destruction into the ranks of the Poles. In vain the defenders did their utmost to resist the torrent. The wooden houses of Praga speedily took fire, and amid the shouts of the victors and the cries of the inhabitants the Polish battalions were borne backward to the edge of the Vistula. The multitude of fugitives speedily broke down the bridges; and the citizens of Warsaw beheld with unavailing anguish their defenders on the other side perishing in the flames, or by the sword of the conquerors. Ten thousand soldiers fell on the spot, nine thousand were made prisoners, and above twelve thousand citizens, of every age and sex, were put to the sword-a dreadful instance of carnage which has left a lasting stain on the name of Suvaroff and which Russia expiated in the conflagration of Moscow. The tragedy was at an end. Warsaw capitulated two days afterward; the detached parties of the patriots melted away, and Poland was no more. On November 6th Suvaroff made his triumphant entry into the blood-stained capital. King Stanislaus was sent into Russia, where he ended his days in captivity, and the final partition of the monarchy was effected.

1Thaddeus Kosciuszko was born in 1755, of a poor but noble family, and received the first elements of his education in the corps of cadets at Warsaw. There he was early distinguished by his diligence, ability, and progress in mathematical science, insomuch that he was selected as one of the four students annually chosen at that institution to travel at the expense of the State. He went abroad, accordingly, and spent several years in France, chiefly engaged in military studies; from whence he returned in 1778, with ideas of freedom and independence unhappily far in advance of his country at that period. As war did not seem likely at that period in the north of Europe, he set sail for America, then beginning the war of Independence, and was employed by Washington as his adjutant, and distinguished himself greatly in that contest beside Lafayette, Lameth, Dumas, and so many of the other ardent and enhusiastic spirits from the Old World. He returned to Europe on the termination of the war, decorated with the order of Cincinnatus, and lived in retirement till 1789, when, as King Stanislaus was adopting some steps with a view to the assertion of national independence, he was appointed major-general by the Polish Diet. In 1791 he joined with enthusiasm in the formation of the Constitution which was proclaimed on May 5th of that year.-ED.


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Chicago: Archibald Alison, "The Downfall of Poland," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 14 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed April 1, 2023,

MLA: Alison, Archibald. "The Downfall of Poland." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 14, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 1 Apr. 2023.

Harvard: Alison, A, 'The Downfall of Poland' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 14. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 1 April 2023, from