The history of Poles’ participation in the formation of the American Republic, especially participation in the American War of Independence, has been perfectly documented by Polish and non-Polish researchers. For example, there are extensive biographies of Tadeusz Kosciusko and Casimir Pulaski. Unfortunately the contribution of Poles in the period of the Civil War still remains a topic for broader discussion[1], particularly when it comes to the Confederacy. There are still no studies or monographs on the participation of such Poles as Waldemar Sulakowski, Kacper Tochman (Gaspar Tochman), Ignacy Szymanski or Hipolit Oladowski in the Southern army. It should be noted, that the number of Poles in the Union army reached about 3,000 while in the Southern army this number fluctuated around 1,000[2]. The difference to the detriment of the South is understandable. Most Polish emigrants settled in New England and industrial areas, where it was easier for them to take up lucrative jobs. Most ships from Europe called at ports in the North, mainly New York. They were mainly used by Poles emigrating for political reasons, not only for economic reasons. On the other hand, the largest number of Poles emigrated to the Southern states only in the 1850s. And they were mainly Silesians who fled because they didn’t want to serve in the army of Prussian invader. One of them was Kacper Tochman, a court lawyer, a participant in the November Uprising in Poland in 1830-1831 and a superviser in the proceedings regarding the inheritance of Tadeusz Kosciusko.

Currently, in Polish academic discourse, the only researchers who have addressed the topic of Poles’ participation in the American Civil War are two historians: Łukasz Niewiński and Piotr Derengowski. The works of these historians are an excellent introduction to the understanding of motivations of Poles in the ranks of both the Union and Confederate armies. Łukasz Niewiński is the author of a work extremely rich in source material:  “Relacje polskich uczestników wojny secesyjnej” (Relations of Polish participants of the Civil War). Niewiński’s book plays a similar role to James McPherson’s “For Cause and Comrade: Why Men Fought in the Civil War”. The difference is that it narrows its scope only to Polish reports. In turn, Piotr Derengowski undertook the topic of statistical analysis and registration data in the work “Polacy w wojnie secesyjnej 1861-1865” (Poles in the Civil War 1861-1865). Both authors are also pioneers in the Polish academic community when it comes to scientific articles on this topic. Another important work, that fills this research gap in the world is Mark F. Bielski’s “Sons of the White Eagle in the American Civil War: Divided Poles in a Divided Nation”. It helps to understand why Poles were so divided about this issue, just like the Americans. The fact that Poles were one of the smallest national groups fighting in the American Civil War makes their motivations even more significant.

Let us think about the most important thing. Why the motivations of Polish participants in the American Civil War are so important? What can we say from the point of view of historical truth? During the war, Poland – as a country – disappeared from the European map. It was under the occupation of Tsarist Russia. Therefore, Poles’ aspirations to regain independence coincided in a similar way with the cause of the South. Studying the letters and writings of Polish soldiers of the Southern army allows us to add another brick to the whole puzzle about the cause of the Civil War. Source texts allow to de-mythologize of the Yankee nationalist message, which reduces the complexity of the war only to slavery. We need more works like these ones. Primarily, works that would focus on sources – memories, diaries and letters of soldiers. The works of Niewiński and Derengowski mentioned here, clearly show that the main reasons why some Poles sided with the South were the principles of the American Republic. For example, Kacper Tochman who attempted to form a Polish brigade consisting of Poles from New Orleans and Texas, in the letter to the Polish Democratic Societies wrote:

 “The Confederate States in this conflict uphold this law of nature and fight to save these principles from the destruction of centralism. The motivations that led me to take the side of the Confederacy are the same as those that animate the Southern people – to preserve the principles on which the Constitution of the US was founded…”[3].

We can see that Tochman and other Poles fighting on the side of the South were motivated primarily by the defense of their natural rights to independence and the defense of constitutional principles.  It should be added that, observing the situation in Europe and based on the declarations of Polish participants in the Southern army, the Daily Richmond Enquirer wrote: “(…) the cause of Poland is the same cause for which the Confederates are now fighting”[4]. On the other hand, the Polish independence activist Ludwik Żychliński who decided to fight on the Union side, later wrote with bitterly that: “A native American from the North, he hates war and has no military courage, because he puts all his courage on merchant speculations and will fight only for money”[5].

His regret stemmed from observing the rhetoric the Yankees used to tempt immigrants to enlist in the army. He was struck by the intrusiveness with which the military agents of the North harassed recruits in drinking dens, cafes and public places[6]. About Confederates – Żychliński wrote that each of them was a soldier, ready to defend their land, wives and families. Żychliński’s observations also noted that the main cause for which Southerners used to fight was independence and the defense of freedom[7].

Coming back to the issue of motivations, we should say one more thing. The issue that also made some Poles decide to fight for the South was primarily the diplomatic relations of Abraham Lincoln with Tsar Alexander II. Russia occupied the Republic of Poland at that time. And it should be remembered that Lincoln’s administration diplomatically supported the Tsar in “bringing order in Warsaw” and officially did not oppose the suppresion of Polish January Uprising in 1863 (January Insurrection). Cassius Marcellus Clay for the Court of the Tsars, as Joseph Wieczerzak wrote, “poured salt on Polish wounds” and he tried to discredit the Polish cause for independence with Yankee’s propaganda, writing that the Union’s interests and sympathies are on the side of Russia against “reactionary, Catholic and despotic Poland![8]. Moreover, Lincoln’s friendly relations with Alexander II are no secret[9]. The myth of great liberators and emancipators clings to both of them. Lincoln of slaves and the Tsar of peasants (in 1861 by enfranchisement reform the 22,558 Russian peasants received personal freedom). To this day, in Russia, the myth of benevolent Tsar who abolished serfdom and gave the peasants freedom is being built, just like the myth in the US about Lincoln. The imperial ambitions of the Tsar and his despotic character are completely ignored not only by Russian historians. It should be mentioned that Tsar ordered the forced deportation of thousands of people (not just the Poles) to backbreaking and deadly exile to Siberia. For Poles, Lincoln’s lack of official support for the Polish cause was surprising considering the fact that most European states favored the Polish cause. Lincoln preferred “friendship” with a despot who could be helpful to him in possibly supporting the war in the South and Confederate naval blockade. Of course Russia supported the Union at the beginning of the American Civil War.

Polish historians Bogdan Grzelonski and Izabella Rusinowa point out another interesting aspect of the Polish initiative for the South. With the collapse of the January Uprising, Waldemar Sulakowski made efforts to bring the insurgents to the South to fight against the Union. Embittered by the attitude of Lincoln and Seward, the Poles were ready to support and fight for the South. The plan was submitted to General John Magruder and was accepted at Richmond. The Poles received a two-masted “Dodge” ship for their disposal. Unfortunately, the organized transport and the whole plan of Polish insurgents failed[10].

So finally, we should present, in short, the concept of freedom developed by Poles, which Mark F. Bielski discusses in his book[11]. Its main characteristic motto was “in the name of God, for our freedom and yours”. This motto contained all the motivations of Poles fighting on many fronts of the world while being aware that they had lost their own country’s independence. After over 128 years of partitions and Poland’s disappearance from the map, Poles managed to regain independence in 1918, after the World War I.


[1] As a curiosity, it can be pointed out that in Polish academic discourse, in textbooks and research, the phrase „American Civil War” is not used, only „War of Secession”.

[2] The researchers don’t agree on the actual numbers of Poles taking part in the Civil War. Some slightly overestimate them, others underestimate them.

[3] M. Haiman, Historia udziału Polaków w amerykańskiej wojnie domowej, Chicago 1928, p. 126.

[4] Cit. per.; D.G. Faust, The Creation of Confederate Nationalism. Ideology and Identity in the Civil War South, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge 1988, p. 13.

[5] L. Żychliński, Pamiętniki z wojny amerykańskiej 1862, Poznań N. Kamieński 1863.

[6] L. Żychliński, Przygody Wielkopolanina w Azyi i Ameryce. Po powstaniu z r. 1863 i przed nim, Poznań 1882, p. 43.

[7] L. Żychliński, Pamiętniki z wojny… op.cit.

[8] J. Wieczerzak, American Reactions to the Polish Insurrection of 1863, Polish American Studies Vol. 22 No. 2 (1965), p. 94.

[9] For example see; R.R. Franklin, Tsar Alexander II and President Abraham Lincoln: Unlikely Bedfellows? University of Hawai Hohonu 2012 Vol. 10.

[10] I. Rusinowa, B. Grzelonski, Polacy w wojnach amerykańskich 1775-1783, 1861-1865, Publishing House of the Ministry of National Defense, Warsaw 1973, p. 199-200.

[11] See the second chapter of Bielski’s work. Fully exhausts the understanding of freedom concepts among the Poles.

Karol Mazur

Karol Mazur has an MA in political science and is in postgraduate studies in political science at the Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences. He lives in Silesia, Poland.


  • Michael Turnage says:

    Itʻs comforting to see similar Southern sentiments from an outsider; in this case Polish immigrants who had nothing to do with antebellum Southern culture and idealogy. They saw first hand that our Cause was just.

  • sachaplin says:

    As I live in Virginia I was curious where the historical “Gaspar Tochman” marker (pictured in this article) was located. I contacted the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR) and received the following response:

    According to our internal database, the Gaspard Tochman marker is on county Route 621, ¼ mile south of Rte. 611 (not far from Locust Grove). The coordinates are 38.274149836, -77.76200899. In 2018, the marker was in bad condition. Have you by any chance visited this location and found the marker to be missing? 
    Thank you,

    Amanda Terrell
    Director, Community Services Division
    [email protected]
    (804) 482-8092

    So, if anyone reading this travels through Locust Grove, Virginia, please look for this marker and let DHR know its condition.

  • William Quinton Platt III says:

    Thank you.

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