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Was the Revolutionary War Hero Casimir Pulaski Intersex?

A new Smithsonian Channel documentary may affirm long-standing suspicions about the Polish fighter’s identity

Polish soldier and military commander Casimir Pulaski (1745 - 1779), circa 1775. From an original engraving by James Hopwood after a painting by Oleszkiewicz. (Kean Collection/Getty Images)
smithsonian.com

In the 1990s, researchers exhumed a set of human remains from a Savannah, Georgia, monument believed to belong to Casimir Pulaski, the swashbuckling Polish cavalryman who fought for the Americans during the Revolutionary War. The circumstances surrounding Pulaski’s death and burial in 1779 were murky, and for more than 150 years, doubts had swirled over whether his body was, in fact, the one that had been interred at the monument built in his honor. The researchers hoped to finally put the debate to rest. But what they found only deepened the mystery surrounding Pulaski’s identification.

The skeleton unearthed from the site appeared characteristically female—particularly the pelvic bones and delicate facial structure. It was possible, the researchers theorized, that the body buried at the monument was not Pulaski’s, as some had suspected. But many of the skeleton’s traits were consistent with Pulaski’s known features: the age of death, the height of the skeleton, a healed injury on the right hand, changes to the hip joints common in frequent riders. So the team came up with another theory: perhaps Pulaski was intersex.

Two decades ago, this hypothesis was difficult to prove. But a new investigation into the DNA of the contested remains, recently chronicled in a Smithsonian Channel documentary, suggests that the skeleton does indeed belong to Pulaski. This, in turn, leads experts to conclude that the Revolutionary War hero was intersex—a general term that the Intersex Society of North America writes applies to people who are born with “a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.”

Pulaski was born in Warsaw in 1745, and distinguished himself early on as a skilled fighter. He participated in efforts to push back against Russian interference in Poland’s independence, but eventually fled to France. There he met Benjamin Franklin, who recommended him to George Washington. By 1777, Pulaski had arrived in America, ready to assist the revolutionaries. During the Battle of Brandywine, he led a bold charge against the British, and has been credited with saving American forces as they retreated. Congress subsequently named him general and “chief of cavalry,” and Pulaski formed a legion of mixed corps that helped repel British troops from Charleston.

He was, in other words, living a “very masculine existence,” Virginia Hutton Estabrook, assistant professor of anthropology at Georgia Southern University, who was involved in the new investigation into Pulaski’s remains, tells Smithsonian.com.

In 1779, Gen. Casimir Pulaski's bold offensive outside Charleston, South Carolina, pushed British forces all the way back to Georgia.

The general’s life was cut short in October 1779, when, reports indicate, he was “mortally wounded” during a battle in Savannah. What happened next is not entirely clear. Some said Pulaski was taken onto a war ship, where he died and was then buried at sea. Others maintained that he had been transported to a French field hospital on a Savannah plantation, and it was there that he was buried. In the 1850s, those remains were taken from the plantation and buried at Pulaski’s Savannah monument. Even at the time many doubted that the exhumed body truly belonged to the courageous Polish warrior.

For the new group of researchers hoping to identify the contested remains, DNA analysis was a vital first step. “All of these discussions of Pulaski [being] intersex were super speculative when the easiest explanation was that it was just not Pulaski,” Estabrook says. Attempts to obtain DNA evidence from the body in the 1990s were not successful, but according to Estabrook, “some bone samples [were] set aside for future genetic analysis, in the hope that our ability to be able to extract DNA from fairly degraded skeletal samples might get better in time—which it turns out it did.”

Estabrook and her colleagues, among them graduate student Lisa Powell and Eastern Michigan University associate professor of anthropology Megan Moore, were able to use those preserved samples to compare the remains’ mitochondrial DNA—which is inherited from the mother—to that of a known Pulaski relative, who died in the 1800s. The results were a match. And with the genetic evidence suggesting that the remains were Pulaski’s, researchers’ suspicions about his intersex condition appeared to be affirmed.

Pulaski—and his contemporaries, for that matter—may not have known that he was different. He was baptized as a boy and presents as a man in portraits, with facial hair and a slightly receding hairline. According to Estabrook, there is “a lot of individual variation in how these conditions manifest in any person.” Intersex individuals may be born with ambiguous genitalia, but the condition also has less obvious variations; people who are intersex can, for instance, appear male or female, but have internal organs or hormones that “don’t match” their apparent sex.

An estimated 1.7 percent of the population is intersex. But in spite of the condition’s relative prevalence, little is known about how being intersex impacts skeletal development, as the confusion over Pulaski’s remains makes clear. “This just has not been of interest, at least as far as clinicians are concerned,” Estabrook says. “From an anthropological perspective, we don’t know what intersex looks like. We need to maybe start trying to figure out what intersex looks like and start putting that into our formula of how we interpret [skeletal remains].”

In many respects, revelations about Pulaski’s probable intersex condition have little bearing on his legacy as a war hero. “Pulaski is Pulaski is Pulaski,” Estabrook says. “What he did, his accomplishments don't change.”

“But,” she adds, “the importance of his story does.”

In light of the new evidence, Pulaski can be seen as a valiant representative of a group that has largely been erased from the historical record—not only through omission, but also through deliberate attempts to shoehorn intersex individuals into one gender or another, sometimes with surgeries that have been deemed unnecessary and damaging.

It makes Pulaski’s defining participation in America’s fight for independence take on another level of significance. “Intersex people were there,” Estabrook says. “They can be part of that story too.”

America’s Hidden Stories: The General Was Female? will reair on the Smithsonian Channel throughout the week. Check your listings.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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