Walerian Sulakowski

The Civil War in America lasted for more than four years, from 12 April 1861 to 26 May 1865. It was fought on land and sea over an area larger than the whole of Europe, A total of four million soldiers fought in the war, on the two sides. Two hundred-odd battles and more than a thousand skirmishes took place. 93,443 Northern soldiers fell in battle and 210,400 died of disease (typhoid, dysentery and malaria); and historians estimate that the South’s losses were comparable. This was the first time that railroads, armored ships, balloons, mines, hand grenades or photographic cameras had been used on a mass scale, and the idea of introducing submarines was also considered. This was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, wars of the 19th century. There were Poles fighting on both sides, for the Union in the North or the Confederacy in the South. My partial investigations of the archives seem to suggest that there were about 1,500 Poles fighting for the North, while about 800 wore the grey uniform of the Confederacy. In both armies, a few of them — like Włodzimierz Krzyżanowski and Józef Karge— reached the highest rank and distinguished themselves by exceptional feats.

One of the outstanding volunteers in the rebel states was Walerian Sulakowski (1827—73). His name has gone down in the history of this war for two reasons: first, because he proved exceptionally able as a constructor of fortifications, and secondly, because he had a brave and reckless plan to form a Polish army to save the languishing Confederate States.

Sulakowski was born in Poland in a gentry family. When he arrived in the United States he had already taken part in the 1848 Revolution in Hungary where he had been an officer in Lajos Kossuth’s staff. In America, he settled in New Orleans where he worked as an engineer.

He enlisted in the Southern Army on 15 September 1861. It is difficult to say what persuaded him to join the Confederate ranks. From letters and papers that have been preserved we can only say that he did not support the continuation of slavery, and neither did he believe the theory of covenant — that every state was sovereign and had the right to secede whenever it wanted, because individual states were older than the Union which they had created. Perhaps the reason was simply his residence in New Orleans, in the territory of one of the rebel states, Louisiana. For the attitudes of many people, as is always the case in civil war, were determined not only by basic issues of ideology and beliefs bat also secondary matters like place of residence, the behavior of others* round about, or perhaps absence of any particular view of their own.

When he decided to take part in the war, Sulakowski joined the Polish brigade, organized in New Orleans by Kacper Tochman (Gaspar) from Virginia. Tochman had taken part in the November Insurrection in Poland,, and had later been in France where he played an active role in Polish organizations, before moving to America in 1837. Here he at first became, very seriously involved in presenting Polish matters to the Americans. He spoke of the fate of the Polish people, of the murder of a nation by the partitions, and sought to win the support of American public opinion and politicians for efforts to rebuild the Polish Commonwealth. Having- obtained many warm and sympathetic resolutions from a great number of states, Tochman ended his activity. He settled in Virginia and began to practice as a lawyer. When he began to organize the Polish brigade he counted on receiving the rank of general, which, however, he was not. accorded, and which shortly dissuaded him from further service in the Confederate ranks.

When he came to New Orleans, Tochman expected to recruit for his. brigade both Americans, and — above all — immigrants from Europe: Poles, Germans, French and Irish. Sulakowski took up this offer of Tochman’s, and decided to serve in an international unit. He received the command of the First Regiment, and later the Thirteenth, and then the Fourteenth. Sulakowski formed his regiment at Camp Pulaski, near New Orleans, and soon turned his varied group into an efficient, brave and bellicose fighting force — which was to be tried and tested in- later battles and skirmishes, particularly in the Seven Days’ Battle fought from 25 June 1862 in Virginia.

Sulakowski’s regiment went into battle in September 1861. He was sent to the Virginian Peninsula, where he set up his quarters at Ship Point, near Yorktown. Sulakowski was in fact at this stage commander of the Seventh Brigade, for this post had been entrusted to him by General John Magruder, who was in command of this army. Magruder was one of the outstanding officers of the South, and managed to deal the Union painful blows, while also being skilled in defensive warfare. Here on the peninsula, aware of the attacking power of the enemy, he decided to defend his army by building fortifications. And it was Walerian Sulakowski who proved most successful in this, designing and building effective barriers. They resisted the attack of the Army of the Potomac, the chief forces of the North, for many months. The chief engineer of the Union army, General G. Barnard, wrote in his report alter observing the Pole’s work stretched out from Yorktown to Warwick, that this was one of the most extensive defensive systems known in modern times.

On the battlefield Sulakowski proved to be not only a skilled constructor of fortifications, but also a talented commander. He managed to keep a tight rein on his men, but at the same time to show that he cared about the soldiers’ welfare. He took pains to ensure food and supplies for them. He chose the best possible places for winter quarters. He aroused respect and even fear in his brigade, and as his biographer, Francis C. Kajencki, wrote, he was not loved by the soldiers. He had similarly cold relations with his brother-officers. Only Magruder liked him, and highly prized his knowledge and professional skills.

In early 1862, to be more precise on 15 February, Sulakowski resigned as colonel of the Fourteenth Regiment. He wished to return to civilian life. This step was opposed by Magruder, who tried to retain him, as can be seen in a letter that he wrote to the Inspector General of the War Department: „I deem his resignation at this critical moment to be extremely detrimental to the service and the interest of my command, and consequently have to request that his resignation be not accepted. He is an officer of the highest merit.”
Sulakowski however did not withdraw his letter of resignation, and firmly opposed attempts to keep him. He laid out the motives for his behavior in a letter to General Benjamin F. Butler on 5 June 1862.
In his letter to Butler, he wrote that from the moment that he had left the army, he had neither by deed nor word betrayed the cause of the Confederate States. Moreover, he had in conversations and at meetings reassured all those who had doubts about the correctness of fighting this war. For many people were observing the defeat of the South and considered that it was unnecessary to shed the blood of one nation. Sulakowski assured his correspondent that he would not go over to the Northern side, and that he would not seek a post for himself there. He was however concerned about the morale of the ordinary Confederate soldiers and pointed out that many of them were in Confederate uniform and fighting for the South only because of fear of the revenge of the North. If it were not for their fear of the armies of Lincoln, they would throw down their arms and go home. The President of the Confederacy and his men had not won the trust of a large part of the inhabitants of the South, and he himself did not like Jefferson Davis. In conclusion Sulakowski repeated that he would not return to service in the Confederate Army.

Was it only this motive — that he understood the position of the South — that decided him to leave the army and his rank of colonel, and become a civilian again? I think so. He was aware of the general situation, the distribution of forces, the potential of each side and the end result of the conflict. He understood the significance of the fact that all the centers of production of iron, steel, textiles and armaments were in the hands of the Federal Government. The major part of foreign trade passed through ports to the North of the Potomac, and even the majority of goods for the South came by way of wholesalers in Northern towns. More than two thirds of the national capital was in the North. The North had an absolute monopoly on science and qualified labor — so essential in running a war. The Secretary of State in Lincoln’s government, William H. Seward, was right when he warned the planters that they had the choice of reconciling themselves to their fate either without loss of blood, or in the fire of battle.

Sulakowski’s letter to Benjamin F. Butler shows clearly that he saw things differently from the leaders of the Confederacy. For they thought that since they controlled the raw materials necessary for Northern industry, they would be able to ruin the industrialized states if they decided to use force of arms. This was expressed less than a year before the secession by Senator James H. Hammond from South Carolina: „I firmly believe that the slave-holding South is now the controlling power of the world; that no other power would face us in hostility. Cotton, rice, tobacco, and naval stores command the world; and we have the sense to know it and are sufficiently Teutonic to carry it out success¬fully. The North without us would be a motherless calf, bleating about, and dying of mange and starvation.”

The Southern politicians also believed that their control over raw- materials supplies would persuade England and France to recognize the- independence of the Southern States, extend financial help to them, defend the freedom of the seas, and enable them to exchange their surplus products for military supplies. They counted on these states supporting their best business interests, but they also expected political sympathy. They knew that the English aristocracy, and also the Emperor of the French, Napoleon III, welcomed the prospect of the break-up of the American republic, of a fiasco for this irritating democratic ex¬periment. The statesmen of the South expected that the Confederacy would stretch as far as the Ohio River, and that with the aid of Missouri they would control the Mississippi valley, the granary of the whole country. They also placed a great deal of stress on inner dissension in the Northern ranks, which they expected considerably to weaken the Union. Not much more than one third of the electorate voted For Lincoln. Within his party, he had had to cope with a strong opposition, which was not concerned with the issue of slavery, but was occupied primarily with such problems as the protective tariff, grants of virgin land etc.

These people believed that the less said about slavery the better. And in addition, the Republicans at the helm of government were weak because the federal treasury was empty, there were enormous debts and the army and navy were in a pitiable condition. And finally, when they weighed up the relative strength of the two sides, the swaggering planters took into account their low opinion of Northerners in general, claiming that they would not fight with „people smeared with the taint of trade”. In this way the Southerners under-rated the importance of the numerical superiority of their opponents. They were self-confident and pointed to historical antecedents when in many cases a small and brave army had managed to defeat a larger enemy, as the colonists had once defeated the powerful forces of Great Britain.
But as we know, all these calculations by the Southern politicians ended in defeat. Nonetheless, in mid-1862 they were still far from foreseeing this, and were trying to take full advantage of their potential strength. Above all, they were trying to make use of human resources, and particularly people with qualifications and talents. Therefore in the fall, another offer was made to Sulakowski. General Magruder wanted to have him on the new front in the Far West, for he had been made commander of the district of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. And Sulakowski accepted this offer. On 22 December 1862 he again became a colonel in the Confederate Army.

At this time, the largest town and port of the South, New Orleans, had already fallen to the North, The territory in the hands of the Confederate Army had been halved. The states of Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas, usually known as Trans-Mississippi, were no longer the key area. The struggle there between small units or the two sides did not make much impact on the development o: the war. The more so that the Union fleet was now in command of the seas The chief task of Magruder’s army was therefore to retain control tor the South of certain forts, towns and districts.

Sulakowski rendered exceptional services here contributed to the defense of the major port of Galveston. Next be helped to build fortifications on the Sabine Pass, and indeed to strengthen the whole Texas coast. This project was also highly praised, for he carried out his duties well. Experts who saw his work did not spare their praise for him in their reports. J.B. Johnson, the Assistant Inspector General of the Southern Army, after inspecting work carried out by Walerian Sulakowski, wrote in a report to his superior officer, General Samuel Copper: „This department is admirably conducted and the fortifications at Velasco, Quintana, Galveston and Sabine Pass reflect great credit to Colonel Sulakowski and his associates,'”

For his part, Magruder, who always had the highest regard for his colonel, applied on 20 December 1863 to the Governor of Texas, Pendleton E. Murrah, to confer the rank of Brigadier General on the Pole. He motivated this as follows: „I would also again suggest the name of Colonel V. Sulakowski to Your Excellency. His abilities as an engineer have already been fully proved, and now that active operations are about to commence in the field, I would be glad to give him an important command with troops, knowing that his abilities as a strategist and tactician are equal to those which he has displayed as an engineer.”

The Texas legislature might have indeed promoted him to the rank of general, were it not for Sulakowski’s decision to leave the field of battle and serve the Confederate cause in another way which seemed to him more effective. When word of the failure of the January Insurrection reached the Confederate States, Sulakowski — like Tochman and another Pole, Józef Smoliński — put forward the idea of bringing over the Poles who had escaped to France and enrolling them in the ranks of the Southern Army. He believed that these emigrés would not hesitate to fight in the Confederate Army, all the more so in that the North currently had very close relations with Tsarist Russia. Indeed, Russia was the only European state, apart from Switzerland, which from the first came out in support of Lincoln’s government.

Sulakowski thought that the only difficulty would be with transport, even though the Confederate ships occasionally succeeded in audaciously breaking the Northern blockade. He was therefore justified in believing that many Poles would manage to reach the South, where they would be formed into a Polish Legion, five thousand strong. These men would be rewarded for their service by being granted citizenship of the Confederate States, and a plot of land.

In June 1863, Sulakowski submitted his plan to General Magruder, who accepted it. The commander of the whole district of Mississippi, General Edward Kirby Smith, was equally well-disposed towards, or even enthu¬siastic about, the project. He considered that Poles were excellent soldiers and would serve the Confederacy well. He promised Sulakowski im¬mediate promotion to the rank of Brigadier General if he carried through his plan.

Sulakowski however was never able to do this. He had problems in getting to Europe, in obtaining the necessary funds, and —- most important — he himself changed his mind, and in fact resigned from the idea of continuing his mission. He left Galveston and reached Matamoros in Mexico, and then Havana. And there he told the Vice-consul representing Lincoln’s government that he was ready to go over to the Union side, handing over all materials at his disposal on the fortifications of the Texas coast, including such towns as Galveston and Houston, After making his position plain, and giving assurances that he would not return to serve in the Southern Army, he went to New York and from there to Europe, to London. Here however, he immediately reported to the Confederate representative, telling him that although he had broken with the rebels, he was still prepared to serve the South. He wished to carry through his project of recruiting Polish volunteers, obviously if President Davis was still interested in his proposal. When however the authorities in Richmond failed for a long time to reply, and did not take up a de¬finite standpoint, Sulakowski returned to Havana. Here he again told the consul from Washington that he had in no way changed his opinions, was still on the side of the Union, and had done nothing hostile to the United States of America. He moreover asked for permission to take his sick wife from New Orleans to Mexico. This request was to a limited degree acceded to; permission was granted for a visit to New Orleans and his return to Havana, although his journey was fairly carefully observed and all his movements checked.
When he returned to Cuba, the Confederacy fell. On 9 April 1865, the commander- in – chief of the Southern Army, that outstanding soldier, General Robert E. Lee, signed his capitulation to the commander-in-chief of the Northern Army, the equally brilliant genera!. Ulysses S. Grant.

After the war. Sulakowski returned to New Orleans and continued to work as an engineer. He was by then a widower, and married the daughter of a rich and important merchant. In time he changed his pro¬fession, and became a surveyor for the United States Land Office in Louisiana. He died at the age of 46, of an apoplexy. The New Orleans Times wrote in an obituary- on 20 June 1873: „The chivalric Polish exile’s death was sudden; but, doubtless, so he would have preferred to die, not being able to fall on the field in defense of his native land.”

The heroism, toil and feats of Northern soldiers are commemorated in the United States with statues, academic studies, popular books, lite¬rature, music, sculpture, film and legend The soldiers of the South are remembered in a more modest way, and are written and spoken about in quieter tones. But should the figure of Walerian Sulakowski , who roved about so much in the course of this war, be left on the sidelines? Is it possible to find an unambiguous assessment of his role? The words of Ulysses S. Grant after the capitulation of Robert E. Lee, when the latter was compelled to stop the stormy demonstrations of his soldiers, may be appropriate here: „The war is over. The rebels are our countrymen again.” The more so, that when a choice had be made was not only people like Sulakowski who lost their way, but abo members of the most exalted American circles. Thus, for example Mrs. Lincoln’s three brothers gave their lives in the Confederate cause, while close relations of Mrs. Davis, the wife of the Confederate President, were soldiers in the Northern Army, The nephew of the commander-in-chief of the Confederate armies, General Robert E. Lee, was one of the commanders of the „Union armed forces, and of the two Crittenden, brothers who were both generals, one was on the side of Washington, and the other of Richmond. Even General Robert E. Lee himself hesitated before deciding to- defend the Old South.

1. Maria J. E. Copson-Niecjio. The Poles in. America from- the 1830’s to 1870’s. Some Reflection on the Possibilities of Research, in: Poles in America. Bicenten¬nial Essays, ed. Frank Mocha, Stevens Point 1978.
2. Francis C. Kajencki, The Louisiana Tiger, in: Louisiana History. Winter 1974. vol. XV, no. 1.
3.War of Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Washington, D. C.. 1880—1901, vol, 70¬4.
4. New Orleans Times, 20 June 1873.
5. Edward P. Alexander, Military Memoirs of a Confederate, Bloomington 1962.
6. The West Point Atlas of American Wars, New York 1959. vol. I.
7. Edwin C. Rozwenc, ed., The Causes of the America Civil War, Boston 1961.
8. Frank E. Vandiver. Rebel Brass: The Confederate Command System, Baton Rouge 1956.
9. Bell I. Wiley, The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy.

„To New York, Chicago, and San Francisco” book by Bogdan Grzeloński.

Interpress,1986 ISBN 83-223-2054X