From Zero to Hero and Back
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From Zero to Hero and Back

Rumor has it that this Pole was responsible for America’s acquisition of Alaska and later became the territory’s first American administrator. That may not be true, but Włodzimierz Bonawentura Krzyżanowski’s American adventure was full of brilliant ups and painful downs, and he always got back on his feet.

The future Union Army general Włodzimierz Krzyżanowski had no shortage of role models. He was born in 1824 in Poland into a family of veterans of the struggle for Polish independence. His father and two uncles fought for Napoleon, while his brother took part in the November Uprising of 1830. Following the death of his father, the young Włodzimierz moved to the city of Poznań, where he attended St. Mary Magdalene Gymnasium. As it happened, the school was a hotbed of plotting. Włodzimierz could not pass up on the opportunity to join his classmates in the Polish resistance movement that led to the outbreak of an uprising against the Prussian authorities. But the uprising failed, and like many of his co-conspirators, Włodzimierz had to flee the Prussian crackdown on the insurgents. Hungry for adventure, he opted for a promising destination (correctly, as it later turned out): the New World, the United States of America.

After graduating in the U.S., our hero found work in Virginia, where he applied his civil engineering skills to help build the railroads to the west. It was at this point that an extraordinarily beneficial set of circumstances launched him into the country’s elite. Włodzimierz met General Burnett—and, more importantly, his daughter, whom he soon married. The couple moved to Washington, where Krzyżanowski leveraged his connections to start his own company, and quickly became a wealthy man.

But his story heats up in in 1860, when Krzyżanowski backed Abraham Lincoln’s presidential bid, possibly tipping the scales in his favor. Lincoln’s victory, in turn, sparked the outbreak of the Civil War. Krzyżanowski heard the call to arms and immediately enlisted in the Union Army. He would soon prove his skills as a leader. By July 11, 1861, Confederate forces had made it to the outskirts of Washington, D.C., and were preparing to attack. Krzyżanowski recruited a company of fellow immigrants, and together they helped repel the enemy. Following the battle, Włodzimierz founded the 58th New York Infantry Regiment, also known as the Polish Legion, which he commanded as Colonel.

Over the course of the protracted, bloody, fratricidal war, Krzyżanowski and his regiment fought in many now-famous battles, including Bull Run, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. Union commanders must have been impressed with his achievements, because in 1865 he was promoted to Brigadier General.

But the war finally came to an end, and with it the demand for generals. Krzyżanowski ran into financial trouble. Lucky for him, he had made some friends in the army. With their help, he was appointed head of an IRS office in Georgia. He remained there until 1872, when he became a special agent in the Treasury Department, tasked with combating smuggling and supervising customs officers in New Orleans. Krzyżanowski once again earned the approval of his superiors, who sent him to Alaska to investigate reports of illegal trade being conducted in the frost-bound territory recently purchased from the Russian Empire. He was an avid journal keeper, and it was the poor translation of these entries by the local Polish immigrant community that likely gave rise to the rumor that Włodzimierz Krzyżanowski had bought Alaska from Russia and had become its governor. None of this was true. After completing his assignment for the U.S. government, Krzyżanowski settled in San Francisco, before returning to Washington in 1878 to assume a position at the Treasury Department. He died in 1887 in New York, having lived a fruitful and adventurous life in his adopted country.

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