Historic Highlights: Many downstaters still have no idea who Casimir Pulaski is

Illinois began celebrating holiday in 1977

The state of Illinois made a formal declaration for Casimir Pulaski Day in 1986. Thirty-seven years later, most residents, particularly downstate, still have no idea who he is.

“I know he’s Polish,” said Mikayla Rodgers, 19, a sophomore at the University of Illinois-Springfield. “And that’s about it. I don’t know anything else.”

“Isn’t he the Polish guy who helped train some of our troops in the Revolution?” pondered Alex Scherer, 32, of Carlinville. “I really don’t know anything other than that.”

Rodgers and Scherer are hardly alone. Of all the holidays on the calendar, Casimir Pulaski Day seems to get the least respect, mainly because most people know so little about him.

“I think he’s Polish, and we get the day off for him, sometimes,” said Nadia Kahl, 45, who’s originally from Sycamore. “Other than that, I have no idea.”

Illinois boasts nearly one million residents of Polish descent, second only to New York. Most are in the Chicago area, home to numerous Polish-American organizations and churches. There are also sizable numbers of Polish-Americans in Michigan and Wisconsin.

“Holidays like Casimir Pulaski Day are ways for communities to celebrate their heroes,” said Jan Lorys, director of the Polish Museum of America in Chicago. “It’s a very significant day for the Polish.”

Casimir 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 War cause.

Just who was Casimir Pulaski?

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 Gen. 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, Georgia, on Oct. 9, 1779.

Many locales named for him

Pulaski’s valor and willingness to fight for American independence made him a revered figure among Polish-Americans, and today his name graces landmarks nationwide. At least six towns and seven counties across America carry his name, including Mount Pulaski, a community of 1,600 residents in Logan County, and Pulaski County in extreme southern Illinois.

Statues of Pulaski are found in numerous American cities, and there are many parks celebrating Pulaski, including a state park in Rhode Island. A number of schools bear his name. Pulaski also is honored with various bridges, including spans in Brooklyn and Jersey City, and several streets and roads.

A stretch of Interstate 65 in northwestern Indiana is designated “Casimir Pulaski Memorial Highway.” The governor of Indiana issues an annual proclamation in his honor, and several municipalities in northern Indiana carry Polish names, including Kosciusko County and the town of Warsaw.

To honor the sesquicentennial of his death in 1929, Congress authorized each Oct. 11 as “General Pulaski Memorial Day.” That is the date chosen by some municipalities to honor Pulaski. 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. The formal declaration was made in 1986, and schools were given the option of observing the holiday. Many Illinois public schools are closed on Pulaski Day, though less take the day than in past years.

For a lot of Illinoisans, the holiday is all they recognize about Pulaski. “I know we get the day off,” said Karen Beach, 72, who moved to Illinois from Virginia, “and that’s the only thing I can tell you about Casimir Pulaski.”

The holiday, as well as Columbus Day, was taken off the calendar in the Chicago public school system in recent years, amid protest.

Wisconsin, which has the highest number of Polish-American residents, designated March 4 as “Pulaski Day,” though most places are open for business. Kentucky also lawfully recognizes “General Pulaski’s Day.” Annual parades in Milwaukee, Buffalo and New York City are held, and “Pulaski Days” are celebrated each October in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

And still, no one remembers

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 schools. “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, 31, of Rantoul, 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, Illinois. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or ilcivilwar@yahoo.com.