Before the Civil War he was already a veteran freedom-fighter. Born of Polish nobility he participated in an ill-fated Polish insurrection while he was a college student. First cousin to famous composer, Frederic Chopin, he later fled to New York, was penniless but learned to speak English and became a civil engineer in Virginia. At the war’s beginning, he raised his own fighting unit in Washington, DC. When its term of service expired, he went to New York to head up what became known as the Polish Legion.
At Gettysburg he had to endure the enemy fire of two armies: the guns of the Confederates and the words of bigotry from American-born Union army soldiers. His men met the same prejudice as Schurz’s Germans after the battle of Chancellorsville, a battle that was lost, not because of “foreigners,” but because of bad leadership. His unit, made up of Poles, Germans, Czechs, Hungarians, as well as native New Yorkers and Ohio farmers, were determined to succeed in the next battle, to prove their valor and to seek revenge on the enemy.
Hurt by falling from his horse, he refused treatment so he could rally his men from what appeared to be a hopeless engagement on the field. They were outnumbered and were being massacred, but not before they succeeded in driving back one enemy unit from Georgia. One Rebel soldier observed that Krzyzanowski’s men “fight harder in their own country than they do in Virginia.” But this small victory was momentary. The Rebels came back with overwhelming fire within twenty yards of the Polish Legion. Their commander was able to organize a retreat even though his troops were determined to fight it out to the last man. Confederate General Gordon marveled at the efficiency of Krzyzanowski’s movements to the rear.
Krzyzanowski placed his men in a new position, offering temporary relief until enemy cannon fire began decimating what was left of his meager unit. When the bombardment was over, he still had enough men left to support the Union bigots who were engaged in hand-to-hand combat. In an act of selfless glory, he and his men rose above the prejudices of Union men under attack to aid them in their brief but desperate struggle. The addition of his small Polish Legion helped to turn the tide, and a Confederate assault was halted. The Union army was able to hold a position that was crucial to final victory.
Despite heavy losses and the prejudice he had to endure, Krzyzanowski demonstrated that his men were as brave and as American as anyone on the field that day.
After he died in 1887, his body was removed from New York fifty years later for reburial near his old home in Washington, DC. These were some of the remarks made at a special ceremony to honor him:
“General Krzyzanowski, whose patriotism we commemorate today, is another link to bind us to the people from which he came in the full tide of youthful promise when shadows lay over the land which gave him birth. It is high privilege to bear witness to the debt which this country owes to men of Polish blood. . . .
“These are the thoughts and reflections that come to mind today as we consign to Arlington National Cemetery the honored dust of a son of Poland who faithfully served the country of his adoption. General Krzyzanowski was the embodiment of the Polish ideal of liberty. . . .”
These words were spoken in 1937 by Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States.
You can succeed in spite of prejudice.
There may be little you can do in the short run to combat discrimination; Krzyzanowski’s actions did nothing to lessen the prejudice against his men. Over the long term you can influence others to weaken it. It took a hundred years to go from institutional slavery to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but most Americans have recognized discrimination as wrong based on ethnicity, gender, skin color and religion. Americans are growing in acceptance of each other in spite of efforts by those few who want to influence racial and ethnic groups to remain separate.
Never, never, never, give up!
Krzyzanowski never gave up. He was clearly fixed on a goal and nothing was going to keep him down. When your new plan is taking a beating from punches you did not expect, gather what resources you have left and develop a new plan of action. Always keep the door of possibilities open. With no attempt at subtlety Winston Churchill once advised a group of students, “Never, never, never give up!” Not giving up is influencing others not to quit, that success is within your grasp.
Copyright 2012 Paul Lloyd Hemphill
The Definition OF Leadership