200 years later, Polish hero still fights for recognition

October 01, 1990|By William F. Zorzi Jr.

They turned out along Eastern Avenue yesterday to see a parade. It didn't much matter who the parade was commemorating. Few of the onlookers in Highlandtown had any idea who Casimir Pulaski was, even though Baltimore city's fathers named a street and a highway after him.

"I didn't know him," came a matter-of-fact response from Margaret J. Leon, sweeping up debris from the gutter in front of her house in the 2300 block of Eastern Avenue after the parade had passed.

"Only Pulaski I know is . . . a big lawyer downtown," said Bill Reel, 62, a retired house painter from Fells Point who watched the procession from a set of shaded steps leading to Patterson Park.

Wrong Pulaski.

"He's probably a politician or something," guessed Donna Upright, 36, of the 2000 block of Portugal Street nearby, who brought her three children to see the parade.

Sort of. His role in history did have a political edge to it.

"Something Polish. They had Polish associations in the parade," deduced Sherri A. Felts, 19, of the 2300 block Eastern Avenue. "A Polish president? Senator? King?"

Close. He was Polish, and he was a nobleman.

Kari L. Felts, Sherri's 14-year-old sister and a ninth-grader at Woodlawn High School, believed old Casimir had "something to do with Congress, something to do with social studies."

Nix Congress and definitely social studies.

Based on the number of veterans groups marching yesterday, Mark B. McCoy, 29, Ms. Felts' fiance, thought Pulaski had to be BTC "a troop leader. A sergeant?"

Well, he was in the Army.

Casimir Pulaski, in fact, was "a Polish general," said an informed May A. Wardell, 72, of Dundalk, who credited her Baltimore public school teachers in Highlandtown -- the center of the city's Polish community -- for imparting that tidbit of history to her "many years ago."

But he was not just any Polish general. Brigadier General Pulaski is among the greatest Polish-American heroes -- a --ing and flamboyant Polish nobleman and patriot who became the father of the American cavalry at the age of 30 during the Revolutionary War.

He died Oct. 11, 1779, after being wounded while leading a charge of what was known as "Pulaski's Maryland Legion" against British troops during the siege of Savannah, Ga.

The parade and wreath-laying at his monument in Patterson Park that commemorate his death are part of an annual Pulaski Day rite in which the city's Polish-American community revels. The Polish-American Citizens Committee for years has kept his memory alive -- bolstered in the last six years by the Gen. Joseph Haller American Legion Post No. 95, one of the largest Polish-American veterans groups'

"Pulaski Day is important to all Americans, because it represents the ethnic background, the melting pot, of all America," said Joseph J. Kaczynski, Post No. 95's adjutant and past commander.

But General Pulaski's ties to Baltimore are particularly strong, speakers pointed out yesterday.

He spent three months here in the spring of 1778 at a rooming house at Baltimore and Grant streets (between Light and Calvert streets), recruiting men for the Continental Army's first cavalry unit after Gen. George Washington, with Congress' blessing, hand-picked him to organize the nation's horse soldiers.

Most of the men who fought their way down the East Coast to Savannah -- initially three units of infantry and three of cavalry -- were Baltimoreans.

Julian Dziurdzik, consul general of the Republic of Poland, reminded onlookers that Pulaski began the fight for freedom in Poland as a young man when, at the age of 20, he joined members of other wealthy families to form the Confederation of Barr in an unsuccessful attempt to liberate his nation from Russian domination.

The irony of that was not lost on some 200 Polish-Americans attending the Patterson Park ceremony this year -- the first time in more than 50 years that Poland has been free from the domination of either the Nazi or Soviet governments.

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