When Poland rose up against Russian rule in 1830-1831, Gen. Józef Longin Sowiński was 54 years old, had “hoary locks,” was missing a leg “and was bowed down with years and anxiety for his country.”
But the veteran soldier “reanimated his exhausted strength at this critical moment,” according to The Polish Exile, Being an Historical, Statistical, Political, and Literary Account of Poland, a book published in 1833.
Sowiński, according to the old book, preferred “to die rather than witness the fall of his native land, if such a cruel option should be appointed him.” He fell on Sept. 6, 1831, helping defend Warsaw against Czar Nicholas I’s troops.
Sowiński went down in Polish history as a hero of the failed rebellion known as the November Uprising for the month it began in Warsaw in 1830. The popular revolt spread across Poland and even into parts of Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine. Outnumbered and outgunned, the rebels were finally crushed in October 1831.
Warsaw was the general’s hometown. Born in the city on March 15, 1777, he grew up to become a career soldier. He earned a lieutenant’s commission in the Polish army after he graduated from Warsaw’s prestigious Nobles Academy of the Corps of Cadets.
In 1794, he joined another unsuccessful Polish rebellion, this one led by Gen. Tadeusz Kościuszko, who had fought for the Americans in their war of independence from Great Britain. Kościuszko returned to Poland determined to help free his country from the Russian Empire.
In 1795, after the Kościuszko Uprising failed, Russia, Prussia and Austria partitioned Poland among themselves. Poland did not become a nation state again until 1918.
Persistence despite setbacks
Sowiński’s regiment was forced into the army of Prussia, which was allied with Russia against France, ruled by Napoleon Bonaparte. Sowiński proved to be a brave soldier.
Image: National Library Project, Poland.
He earned the Pour le Mérite, Prussia’s highest military medal, for bravery in combat against Napoleon at the battle of Eylau in East Prussia on Feb. 7-8, 1807. His Prussian division was part of a Russian army that fought Napoleon’s vaunted Grand Armee. Casualties were heavy on both sides; the battle proved inconclusive.
In 1811, Sowiński rejoined the Polish army after Napoleon proclaimed the Duchy of Warsaw. The duchy was only a puppet state of the French Empire, but Sowiński and other nationalist Poles, many of whom had fled to France to escape the Russians, hoped that Napoleon would ultimately help them establish an independent Poland.
Sowiński and a number of Polish troops joined Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1812. He was shot in the right leg at the Battle of Borodino near Moscow on Sept. 7. The wound required amputation above the knee.
Sowiński’s courage and sacrifice did not go unrewarded. He received the Virtuti Militari, Poland’s highest military decoration, and the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest award.
Following Napoleon’s ultimate defeat in 1815, Sowiński’s homeland was again carved up. Prussia grabbed western Poland. Russia took eastern Poland, calling it the Kingdom of Poland. Although it was officially independent of Russia, the czar actually ruled the Polish kingdom.
Sowiński stayed in the army, getting around on his good leg and a simple wooden prosthesis. The artificial limb consisted of a socket and a shaft that resembled a table leg, although it rotated back and forth.
Sowiński was named commander of the Warsaw Arsenal. He also was put in charge of an officer training school that is now the Polish National Defense University.
For 15 years, the Poles chafed under Russian domination. On Nov. 29, 1830, nationalists rebelled, led by young army officers. Despite his age and disability, Sowiński eagerly embraced the revolt. Because he was a veteran artillery general, Sowiński was appointed Warsaw’s artillery chief. He also headed what amounted to the rebel ministry of war. But Sowiński did not lead from behind a desk. He went to the front lines on the outskirts of Warsaw and took command of the city’s western defenses.
The Russians assaulted Warsaw with more than 78,000 men. The capital’s defenders numbered less than 35,000. The Russians also had the edge in artillery.
The white-haired Sowiński ordered his troops to dig in at the Jerusalem Gate in the Wola section of Warsaw. He oversaw the emplacements of cannons and the excavation of earthworks and trenches.
Fighting was bloody and bitter everywhere in the city, but ultimately the Russians overcame the defenders. Casualties were high among assaulters and defenders, Sowiński among the slain.
There are two versions of how the general perished. According to The Polish Exile, the commander of the Russian attackers in Sowiński’s sector ordered him to surrender.
The general did more than refuse. Sowiński defiantly aimed his pistol at the enemy and “fired…in his face, indignantly exclaiming, “There! There is the answer of a Polish general!’”
When the Russian officer fell dead, the “soldiers and the other Polish officers, encouraged by the example of their brave commander, defended themselves to the last extremity, till at length, overwhelmed by immense numbers, Sowiński and all the party were massacred,” the book said.
Other accounts claim he surrendered and was bayonetted to death by his Russian captors. The Russians claimed he was killed in action.
Either way, Sowiński’s supreme sacrifice was not forgotten. Juliusz Słowacki immortalized him in a poem, “Sowiński in the Wola Trenches.” His heroism was captured on canvas in a painting by Wojciech Kossak. In addition, the general was the subject of a ballad by Jacek Kaczmarski.
A bronze statue of Sowiński stands in a Warsaw park named for him. The park is on the site of his fortifications in the Warsaw uprising of 1830. His wooden prosthesis is on display at the Museum of the Polish Army in Warsaw.
Zaba F. The Polish Exile, Being an Historical, Statistical, Political, and Literary Account of Poland; Interspersed with Poetical Translations from the Polish. 1833. Edinburgh: J. and D. Collie.