Was Polish American revolutionary hero a heroine?

pulaski

Pulaski Day, when the Polish-American community celebrates their Polish-Americaness annually and named after a Polish general who had died at Savannah in 1779, might have to be soon renamed Pulaska Day:

Scientific researchers are arguing that examination of skeletal remains and DNA testing has found that a Revolutionary war hero dubbed ‘the father of the American cavalry’ was in fact biologically female.

Researchers from Georgia Southern University say they made the discovery about General Casimir Pulaski after years of research examining the general’s remains.

Their claims are laid out in a new documentary – The General Was Female? – on the Smithsonian Channel’s America’s Hidden Stories series, which airs next week.

The documentary suggests that Pulaski had an intersex condition known as congenital adrenal hyperplasia.

The condition results in genetic females producing excessive amounts of male steroid hormones that can lead to abnormal sexual development and make genitals appear more masculine.

‘That’s pretty much the only way to explain the combination of features that we see,’ Virginia Hutton Estabrook of Georgia Southern University told the Chicago Tribune.

In addition to the female-looking pelvis, researchers say the skeletal remains also had a more female facial structure and jaw.

(For a much earlier article suggesting the same conclusions, see here) Casimir (or Kazimierz) Pulaski is next to Thaddeus (or Tadeusz) Kosciuszko among the best known Poles of consequence in American history. Both exiles from Poland dominated and partitioned for the first time by Russia, Prussia and Austria-Hungary in 1772, Pulaski and Kosciuszko were among the first in a long line of Poles abroad fighting “for your freedom and ours”, motivated by the belief that liberty of the peoples was indivisible and that every successful struggle against tyranny and oppression anywhere in the world brought their own subjugated homeland a step closer to its own rebirth. Pulaski is known as the father of American cavalry, while Kosciuszko had taught the revolutionaries the art of fortification and founded the West Point. While Pulaski was only one of eight foreigners to have ever received a honorary US citizenship (posthumously), Kosciuszko returned to Poland to lead another glorious but failed uprising against Russia. And yes, this is the same Kosciuszko after whom Australia’s tallest peak was named (by the 19th century Polish explorer Strzelecki, after whom in turn one of Australia’s deserts is named).

As the article continues, Pulaski, as courageous as he was, was also a bit of a prima donna – I guess now we know not just metaphorically:

Like many foreign officers in the Continental Army, Pulaski caused animosity among his colleagues.

He was said to have demanded that only high-ranking generals such as George Washington and Marquis de Lafayette were in higher positions and that he reported directly to Congress.

Unable to speak much English, Pulaski only reluctantly took orders even from Washington and caused ructions with fellow officers in the revolutionary army.

One rival was Anthony Wayne, who believed Pulaski looked down on the fighting ability of American soldiers.

Pulaski also resented that American officers disliked taking orders from a foreigner.

He also lodged court martial proceedings against one his own commanders, Stephen Moylan, for disobeying his orders and punching a fellow Polish soldier.

After resigning his post as chief of cavalry in March 1778, Pulaski sought Congressional approval to raise his own cavalry made up of prisoners and deserters.

Pulaski was mortally wounded during a brave but foolhardy cavalry charge at the Battle of Savannah in Georgia in 1779.

It was said his enemies were so in awe of his bravery they allowed his body to taken from the battlefield and he died from a head wound on board the USS Wasp.

There have always of course been warrior queens and women warriors, but there is also a long history of women assuming male identities and joining armies, even if Wikipedia unkindly titles the relevant page “List of wartime cross-dressers”. Many a fascinating story in there, helped no doubt by the poor hygiene habits of the past, where an average person would rarely take off their clothes in front of others in the course of their lives.

Ironically, a firefighting tool, known as a Pulaski axe, combines an axe and an adze in one head. Though named after its inventor, another, later Pulaski, one can only smile at the historical irony in the tool’s essential duality. Casimir Pulaski, too – what an old battleaxe!

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