Casimir Pulaski, Intersex Hero of the Revolutionary War

IMG-4780The Father of the American Cavalry was an intersex Polish count.

Casimir Pulaski, born in Warsaw in 1745, died on this day in 1779 due to injuries sustained during the Siege of Savannah, one of the bloodiest battles of the Revolutionary War.

He was only 34, but he’d already had an incredible life. Born into nobility, he began his military career as page to the Duke of Courland, and at the age of seventeen, became Starost of Zezulińce. In 1767, he and his father joined the Bar Confederation, an organization of Polish nobles opposed to Russian influence in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, particularly through King Stanislaw II. On his twenty-third birthday, he was promoted to colonel and commanded his own cavalry in the revolt against Russia. 

Over the next years, his independence would not endear him to the rebellion or to their opponents; Pulaski gained a reputation as a “loose cannon” and was ultimately accused of attempted regicide. Stripped of his honors as well as his fortune, Pulaski was sentenced to death but managed to escape to France in 1775. 

In Paris, he met Benjamin Franklin, who was impressed by his reputation for courage. The Revolutionary War was just beginning, and the Americans needed all the help they could get. To Washington, Franklin wrote: 

“Count Pulaski of Poland, an officer famous throughout Europe for his bravery and conduct in defense of the liberties of his country against the three great invading powers of Russia, Austria and Prussia (…)may be highly useful to our service.”

As for Pulaski, the cause appealed to him. He’d already spent his adult life rebelling against unjust foreign rule at home; why not fight for liberty abroad? 

Pulaski accepted Franklin’s invitation, later writing to George Washington:

“I come here where freedom is being defended, to serve it, and to live or die for it.”

Not only did he serve, but he was given the rank of brigadier general after saving Washington’s life at the Battle of Brandywine. An expert horseman, Pulaski organized and trained the American cavalry. He fought in the Battle of Germantown and spent the winter of 1777-8 at Valley Forge, scouting for supplies to feed the army. In 1778, he was named “Commander of the Horse” and formed his own cavalry unit, known as the Pulaski Cavalry Legion. 

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Pulaski wounded by grapeshot

He arrived in Charleston in early 1779, where he contracted malaria. By autumn, he had recovered well enough that he was able to lead the French and American cavalries against the British in the Siege of Savannah. He was mortally wounded by grapeshot on October 9th, 1779. Out of respect for his courage, the British held their fire while he was carried off the battlefield. 

Pulaski passed away two days later on the 11th. That grapeshot is now on display at the Georgia Historical Society in Savannah. A hero to his death, Pulaski became one of only eight Americans granted honorary citizenship.

Pulaski was a rebel to his bones—literally, as it so happens. Initially buried at the Greenwich Plantation near Thunderbolt, Pulaski’s remains were reinterred in a vault beneath the monument the city built for him from 1852-1855. It was finally examined more recently, when the monument underwent some necessary repairs.

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The Pulaski Monument, via the Library of Congress

To researchers’ surprise, Pulaski’s skeleton appeared to be female. It wasn’t a case of mistaken identity—the bones matched his age, height, and had the injuries he was known to have suffered. His DNA was compared to that of his grand-niece in 2019, confirming the bones belonged to Pulaski.

Was the Father of the American Cavalry a trans man? It’s more likely he was born intersex, possibly with a condition like congenital adrenal hyperplasia. There was no treatment for this at the time, so Pulaski’s parents would have been able to decide if he should be raised male or female. As a woman, he would have a hard time marrying and having children, but as a man, he could have an outstanding military career, and no one would ever know.

As far as we know, no one ever did; Pulaski kept to himself in his personal life, never married, and never had children. Quite aside from any physical differences he may have had, he didn’t have time. Instead, he became the Father of the American Cavalry, and his legacy is celebrated to this day. 

His monument in Savannah’s Monterey Square was designed in 1852 by Polish artist Robert Launitz. Of the design, Launitz wrote: 

“The monument is surmounted by a statue of Liberty embracing with her left arm the banner of the stars and stripes while her right hand is extending the laurel wreath. The love of liberty brought Pulaski to America. For love of liberty he fought and for liberty he lost his life, thus I thought that liberty should crown his monument and share with him the homage of the free.”

Jessica Cale

Sources

Michael Freeman. Savannah’s Monuments: The Untold Stories.

Ron Freeman. Savannah: People, Places, and Events.

Brigit Katz. Was the Revolutionary War Hero Casimir Pulaski Intersex? The Smithsonian.

Elizabeth Ries. Intersex Revolutionary War Hero Did Good Because Doctors Did No Harm. Nursing Clio.