Tuesday, April 23, 2024
History

An “African Prince” and a Polish national hero together in the American War of Independence

Kościuszko at Racławice. By Jan Matejko, The National Museum in Kraków, Public Domain

While serving in the American Revolutionary War, Tadeusz Kościuszko, the man who was later to become Supreme Commander of the Polish National Armed Forces in the 1794 Kościuszko Uprising, formed an unusual friendship with his black orderly.

 

Łukasz Czarnecki

In the library in Stockbridge, in western Massachusetts, portraits of the town’s famous sons hang on the wall. Among a gallery full of white men, one figure stands out, that of a gray-haired black gentleman elegantly dressed in the garb of the first half of the 19th century. This is Agrippa Hull, a local legend, a black man who took part in the American War of Independence.

The man depicted in the portrait enjoyed considerable fame in the area in the 1830s and 1840s, being a living link to a glorious past. The local press presented the free black farmer as a role model for young people.

“Reader, if thou art young, imitate this man’s example, and you will live many years upon the earth and rejoice in them all,” a letter published in a local paper said in 1841.

Catherine Sedgwick, the daughter of local lawyer and congressman Thomas Sedgwick, with whom our hero worked for many years as a butler, described Hull as one of the most respectable farmers in the area. The man himself, who outlived both his first wife and the four children he had with her, being well into his 80s, said that in a sense he was a father to the people of the entire town. His memory has survived to this day.

Portrait of Agrippa Hull in the 1840s. By Unknown author, Public Domain

Interestingly, the story of Agrippa Hull is intertwined with the history of Poland. During the American Revolution, he served alongside a talented young officer from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, who, unable to find a place for himself in his declining homeland, had crossed the Atlantic. That man was Tadeusz Kościuszko.

For most of the American colonies’ War of Independence, Agrippa Hull served Kościuszko as an orderly. Shared misery, long marches, and work on the fortifications of successive insurgent redoubts brought the young black man and the Pole, who was a generation older than him, closer together. The bond forged between them in the fire of war proved to be extremely strong. For the rest of his life, Hull would reminisce about his time serving alongside Kościuszko, which he remembered as the greatest period of his life.

Agrippa Hull was born in 1759 in Northampton as the son of two freed slaves. A fog of mystery hovers over his origins. Throughout his life, Hull claimed he was the son of an African prince. Was it just an attempt to make himself relevant, a desperate move by a man who was relegated to the margins of society by an unjust system? It might seem so, but on the other hand, Hull’s neighbors remembered him as a man who was alien to all fanfare, but who was indeed endowed with a great sense of his own dignity.

Hull was not in the habit of crawling to anyone, and he responded to any attempts to tease him because of his skin color with a cutting joke. He did not hesitate to defend his honor even against people far more powerful than himself. For example, Stockbridge residents remembered how one day, as a middle-aged man, Hull accompanied his employer, Thomas Sedgwick, to mass at a local church. In this particular parish the pastor was Lemuel Haynes, a man of mixed race (which was unusual at the time for a pastor), the son of a slave and a Scottish woman. Haynes had escaped slavery, received an excellent education, and eventually gained ordination, in time gaining fame for his wisdom and action in the abolition movement. When Sedgwick and Hull were leaving the church after the service was over, the former addressed his servant with a mocking tone:

Well, how do you like nigger preaching?
Sir, he was half black and half white. I like my half, how did you like yours?Hull replied.

When Sedgwick, initially supportive of the abolition movement, changed his views 180 degrees over time, Kościuszko’s former orderly did not hesitate to abandon his post with him, concentrating entirely on cultivating the land he had spent years buying with the money earned with his work.

 

For freedom

After the outbreak of the American Revolution, young Agrippa Hull, who was still three weeks short of his 18th birthday, had enlisted in a unit of volunteers from Stockbridge (where he lived with his mother and stepfather after his father’s death). Many black residents of the colony saw in the revolutionary war a chance to gain freedom. Some fed the rebel troops, while others (more numerous) were tempted by the British government’s promise that any slave who fought under the royal banner would be granted freedom. Hull had no such dilemmas, having already been born a free man, and the family home was getting a little too small for him. He couldn’t get along with his mother’s new husband, and the rebel army tempted him with the promise of adventure and pay.

Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that Hull would not be given the opportunity to fight with weapons for American freedom (which, as he later found out, was to be only for the white, including slave owners) for the simple reason that he could not afford the equipment. According to the militia law, on which the formation of the American army was based, each soldier reporting to the recruiting station had to bring with him complete equipment, which included both utensils (e.g., a canteen), weapons (a musket) and tools for building fortifications (an ax). Congress pledged to reimburse the volunteers for the money spent, only that when it was all added up, it turned out that in order to fight for the fatherland, a patriot needed quite a large sum: £20 (worth $2,000 at today’s prices). Hull, who came from a poor family, had no such money. There was, however, a place for him in the ranks of the rebels, and the function assigned to him must have made him rather pessimistic about the social system of the future United States of America. He was made a servant (or to use military terms, an orderly) of General John Paterson.

Only a week after he enlisted, a meeting took place that was key to the rest of Hull’s life, and although he himself probably never realized it, it may also have influenced the history of Poland. Serving dinner to Paterson’s guests at Fort Ticonderoga, the young man placed one of the plates in front of a thirty-something man with a distinctive upturned nose, who in the course of the conversation at the table used rather clumsy English with an accent that Hull had never heard before: Tadeusz Kościuszko had only quite recently taken service in the rebellious colonists’ army.

What Hull thought of the visitor from Poland during their first meeting is unknown; it is likely that the young orderly did not even know much about where Kościuszko’s Poland lay. We know nothing about the relationship between the two men over the following two years, but as Paterson befriended Kościuszko, and they served for a time together at West Point, which had been fortified by the latter, there was probably plenty of opportunity for further contact. In May 1779, the American general seconded his orderly to serve alongside the Polish engineer. Hull subsequently spent 50 months of war with Kościuszko.

Portrait of Tadeusz Kościuszko shown wearing the eagle of the Society of the Cincinnati, awarded to him by General Washington. By Karl Gottlieb Schweikart, Public Domain

Hull’s spree

The daily routine of camp life looked depressing. Time and again, both Paterson and other commanders sent pleas to Congress for money and equipment. Not only did their soldiers receive no pay, but, as reported in alarming letters, they did not even have anything to clothe themselves in, lacking such basic items as shoes, shirts, and stockings. Hull’s former superior even wrote that a significant number of his men walked around half naked and were thus unfit for combat. Desertion and defeatism were rampant, and desperate soldiers could not even drown their sorrows, because alcohol was not available either.

Fortunately, at West Point itself, once the major engineering work was completed, the situation was no longer so dramatic. The fort, which was later to become America’s most famous military academy, was proof of Kościuszko’s engineering genius.

An incident occurred at West Point that Agrippa Hull liked to recount for the rest of his life. One day Colonel Kościuszko left for a few days to inspect the surrounding fortifications. He left his orderly in the log cabin he occupied, ordering him to keep an eye on his belongings. Hull took an unusual approach to the task, however. He first set the table with all the alcohol available in the Polish colonel’s quarters, also taking care of the appetizers, and then invited all the other black men – free and slave – working in the fortress. A wild spree began, with a lot of drinking, and an increasing number of emptied bottles of strong liquor, but the black orderly’s ideas for a party did not end there. Having the keys to his superior’s chests, he took out a Polish uniform, put it on and set off to dance wearing the uniform, complete with Kościuszko’s four-cornered hat adorned with ostrich feathers. The only thing missing for a complete set was officer boots: Kościuszko had taken these with him on the inspection. However, necessity being the mother of invention, barefoot Hull greased his feet and legs with black shoe polish, so that it would look as if he was wearing such boots. The joke was greatly enjoyed by fellow diners, who laughed and toasted “General Kosciuszko,” as they now titled their host.

Meanwhile, the real Kościuszko reached the Hudson River and, finding it too rough to cross, turned back to his quarters. As he approached his log cabin, he was probably startled by the chants and cheers coming from inside. What surprised him even more was that someone had set up a screen in front of the exit and the windows. The Pole jumped off his horse and peeked inside the building…. He watched the party for a while, laughing uproariously at the capers, then jumped in himself.

At this point, a great silence fell. Moments later, the shrieks of terrified revelers could be heard as they rushed to flee. One of Paterson’s biographers, who devoted some space to the incident in his biography of the general, wrote that had the Devil appeared among them, they would not have fled in greater terror.

Agrippa Hull himself, convinced that the commander would severely punish him, fell to the ground before him, crying out: “Whip me, kill me, Massa; do anything with me, Mr. General.” Kościuszko replied briefly: “Rise, Prince, it is beneath the dignity of an African prince to prostrate himself at the feet of anyone.” Having said these words, the Polish colonel, to Hull’s surprise, toasted him, and then they drank together at one table, having invited the other officers to the party.

Kościuszko statue in Lafayette Park, Washington, D.C. by Tadeusz Popiel (died 1910)
By AgnosticPreachersKid – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

 

Heading south

In August 1780, Tadeusz Kościuszko left for North Carolina, where he was to join the troops of General Horatio Gates. He was accompanied on the journey by his loyal orderly. For when the Pole announced that he was moving south, and asked the officers’ orderlies who wanted to accompany him, Hull was the only one to come forward. The young man had come to love his commander with all his heart.

The journey to North Carolina caused the men to suffer a lot of hardship. The Pole rode on horseback with other officers, but Hull went on foot. Before they reached their destination, his shoes had completely worn out. At General Gates’ camp, they were greeted by a frightening sight – total poverty reigned, and the soldiers suffered from a lack of virtually everything. Kościuszko and his orderly bravely fulfilled their duties nonetheless. By then, the Polish officer was not only building fortifications, but also leading his men into battle. And although his orderly was still not given the opportunity to fight, he faced equally hard work – he was directed to the field hospital, where he held down the wounded as surgeons amputated their limbs.

A book by Myong Cables telling the story of Agrippa Hull

For the next three years, until the end of hostilities, Kościuszko and Hull remained inseparable. When the revolutionary forces finally won a victory and the last British soldiers left the United States, it was parting time for our heroes as well. The Pole asked Agrippa to sail with him to Poland, but his orderly had already grown tired of the big world. Although he idolized his general (Kościuszko was promoted to brigadier general by the Continental Congress in 1783, ed.), he dreamed of returning to his quiet Stockbridge. The future Commander of the Polish National Armed Forces, who was himself homesick, fully understood these feelings. Bidding farewell to his faithful companion, he gave him a gold-encrusted pistol as a souvenir, which he had brought to America from Warsaw. Hull kept this gift until his death and displayed it as eagerly as he talked about his experiences at Kościuszko’s side, always ending his stories of the Polish officer by saying that he was truly a great man. They were given the opportunity to meet again in 1797, when Kościuszko again came to the US. Upon hearing that his beloved general was in New York, Hull set off hastily. After 14 years of separation, the two friends were able to enjoy each other’s company again.

It is possible that it was his acquaintance with Hull that inspired Kościuszko to make a bequest in his last will to serve the purpose of liberating, educating and providing a livelihood for as many American slaves as possible. Unfortunately, this will was never implemented. Appointed as his executor, Thomas Jefferson, himself a slave owner, washed his hands Pilate-like after the Pole’s death, and the matter of the thousands of dollars left by the Polish nobleman lay in the courts for the next several decades. None of the people to whom the money was supposed to go saw a single cent.

It is also possible that Kościuszko later extended his reflections about the fate of black slaves, provoked by his contact with Agrippa, to Polish peasants living in equally terrible conditions of serfdom. If so, then it can be said that the Polish Proclamation of Połaniec that granted civil liberties to all peasants in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth owed its issuance to some extent to an industrious and witty black farmer who for decades farmed his land in Stockbridge, in his spare time entertaining his neighbors with his tales of the Polish general.

 

This article was first published in Polish in the Historia Do Rzeczy monthly in January 2024