Lest the title of this week’s issue of Early Modern Times mislead you, I will not be offering ‘Dan Savage’ type advice on improving your sex lives. Instead, I’m referring to the recent news that Casimir Pulaski, a Polish general during the American Revolutionary wars, may have been female or intersex. Pulaski died of wounds from a 1779 battle in Savannah, Georgia (depicted above in a 20th-century painting); his bones had been placed in a box underneath a 19th-century monument to Pulaski which was being removed. Forensic anthropologists examining this ‘skeletal evidence’ confirmed that these were indeed Pulaski’s remains and concluded from the shape of the pelvic and other bones that the skeleton appears more female or intersex than male. Who was Casimir Pulaski, and how did he end up fighting for American independence?
In a 1976 article, written on the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, author Angela Pienkos characterises Pulaski as a ‘Polish, American and Ethnic Folk Hero.’ His Polish origins informed his support for colonial independence. The land of his birth was subject to Russian control, and the nobly born Pulaski joined the Confederation of Bar, founded in 1768, a Catholic and patriotic movement seeking to free Poland from Russian influence and anti-Catholic opposition within. In 1772, however, the Confederation was ‘Russian’ to a hasty conclusion after it attempted to abduct the Polish King Stanislaw. It was closing time for this Bar: foreign assistance dried up, and the crushin’ Russians put down the Confederation. Pulaski fled the country, spending time in the Ottoman Empire and western Europe before arriving in the ‘cheesy’ town of Marblehead, Massachusetts in July 1777.
Pulaski formed the idea of joining the American Revolution while in Europe, and met the Marquise de Lafayette–the wife of the famous French nobleman who assisted the Americans in their struggle against British control. She gave him a letter of introduction, and in America he became friends with her husband, who was reputedly a ‘Laf-ayette a minute.’ Through Lafayette, Pulaski came to the attention of General George Washington, who had the Pole appointed Brigadier-General of the Light Dragoons (presumably the American cousins of the flying reptiles native to Westeros and Essos in ‘Game of Thrones’, and perhaps ‘light’ due to the natural gas or helium in their fiery bellies instead of ‘Essos-oil’ ). Pulaski showed great skill in organising the American cavalry as well as bravery in the Battle of Haddonsfield, New Jersey, in late 1777 to early 1778. He must have shone as the ‘Pole star’ for the troops under his command.
In 1779, our intrepid general rallied to the defence of Charleston, South Carolina. His infantry was defeated by the more numerous British forces, but Pulaski’s fighting gave the revolutionary army time to send reinforcements. As a result, he was the man of the hour in the States below the Mason-Dixon life, and thus an honorary ‘South Pole’. He was thenceforth included in all the military planning at the highest levels of the army, thereby exercising great ‘Pul-aski’ in his new Pole-position and feeding his Pole-vaulting ambition. One can only imagine the amount of Pulaski-ssing from toadies.
The British retreated from the American South except for the stronghold of Savannah. Pulaski led his troops in a joint French and American attack in October 1779, but he was reportedly shot during the initial cavalry advance. As Pulaski’s officer Major Maciej Ragowski recounted in his memoirs, ‘We hurried like knights into the danger, but…a crossfire like a shower confused our ranks. I looked, O painful moment which is ever to be remembered! Pulaski was on the ground. I jumped from my horse, thinking that perhaps his wound was not serious, but, great misfortune, a shot had hit his leg and blood was also flowing from his chest, probably from another wound. As I got to my knees and tried to lift him he said in a faint voice, “Jesus, Mary, Joseph.” Further I do not know because in the same moment a carabine shot wounded me.’ Pulaski was taken to a ship off Charleston, and died from his wounds while perhaps being buried in a Casimir jacket. This was the Pole-ar cap to his short but glorious career in America.
Pulaski has long been honoured as a defender of American liberty and skillful organiser of the cavalry, surely due to his ‘horse-sense’ and equine-imity in battle. With the recent news based on examination of his skeleton, he may be remembered not just as an ‘ethnic folk hero’, but also a female or intersex hero–giving a new revolutionary meaning to early modern intersex-ionality–but potentially Pole-arizing socially conservative fans of Pulaski.
‘Til next week,
Head Choreographer, Early Modern Pole-Dancing Studies Program