Gen. Casimir Pulaski was a Revolutionary War hero known as the “father of the American cavalry.” But a recent discovery has given his legacy a new significance.
Two decades of scientific, forensic and historical research evidence, featured in a Monday night episode of the Smithsonian Channel’s “America’s Hidden Stories,” has revealed that the military hero might have actually been intersex.
Virginia Estabrook, an anthropologist at Georgia Southern University who helped identify Pulaski’s remains, noted that “there’s a lot of erasure of intersex people over a long period of time.” While historical records show Pulaski was identified and raised as male from birth, and lived as a man, Estabrook said that this new discovery could make him a foundational figure for intersex individuals.
Pulaski is “somebody who was a historical figure, we know a lot about his life,” Estabrook said. “He’s got a story, he’s got a presence. He’s got highways and roads and national holidays named after him.”
Intersex individuals have biological variations that do not fit typical categories of male or female. The variations can be chromosomal or differences in a person’s genitalia, hormones or sex organs. Intersex traits can manifest in a variety of ways, some less detectable than others, and members of the intersex community have several ways of identifying their gender.
As much as 1.7 percent of the world’s population are born with intersex traits, the Intersex Campaign for Equality estimates, and the United Nations points out that these individuals are often stigmatized and abused.
Pulaski was born into nobility in Warsaw, in what was then the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. There, he began his military career before Benjamin Franklin ultimately recommended that he join the American Revolution on the other side of the sea. Pulaski reached Massachusetts in July 1777, and made a name for himself only a few months later at the Battle of Brandywine, where he was credited with leading a charge that helped save George Washington’s life and the Continental Army from a disastrous defeat.
He stood 5-foot-1 to 5-foot-4, and appears in portraits with dark hair, a strong brow and a slender mustache.
“He was small but also incredibly strong, and incredibly skilled,” Maj. Douglas Shores, author of “Kasimierz Pulaski: General of Two Nations,” says in the Smithsonian Channel documentary. “And was willing to lead people by example, lead out in front.”
Washington made Pulaski a general, and the young commander set to work remaking the Colonial cavalry. He died after being wounded at the Siege of Savannah, Ga., in 1779, where revolutionary forces suffered a resounding defeat. However, Pulaski’s death at 34 solidified his reputation as an American military hero.
What became of his body fueled a scholarly mystery as old as the United States. According to one story, it was buried at sea. Another historical record said he had been buried at a Georgia plantation, was later exhumed and reburied in the 19th century in the base of a Savannah monument erected in his honor.
By 1996, the monument had fallen into disrepair and was scheduled to be restored, giving a team of researchers a chance to see whether his remains were there. When they opened the monument, they discovered a corroded metal box that contained a skeleton, the skull gazing up at them. Now, they had to determine whether it was Pulaski’s.
When examining the remains, forensic anthropologist Karen Burns realized that the pelvic bone appeared to be that of a woman. It seemed to rule out the possibility that the bones belonged to the father of the American cavalry.
But there were other indicators that pointed to Pulaski: similar height and age, scarring in the pelvis that indicated extensive horseback riding and an injury on the hand that matched one he had sustained in battle.
The county coroner, who was a member of the research team, remembered a condition called congenital adrenal hyperplasia, where the adrenal glands cause the body to produce excess androgen, a male sex hormone. The condition can lead to a person exhibiting mixed sexual characteristics. An illustration in the coroner’s textbook showed features similar to those Pulaski bore in paintings.
Researchers took a bone sample from a deceased Polish relative of Pulaski’s in an attempt to confirm the skeleton’s identity, but DNA technology had not advanced to the point where a match could be determined from the samples. The case went cold.
The remains were reburied in 2005 and were attributed to Pulaski despite the lack of conclusiveness.
Burns died in 2012, with the identity of the bones still unanswered. But a new generation of researchers, including Estabrook, carried on the investigation. A new round of mitochondrial DNA tests in 2018 showed a match between the skeleton and Pulaski’s deceased Polish relative.
The skeleton belonged to Pulaski. But what to make of the pelvis that appeared to be that of a woman? The scientists concluded that he may have been intersex, which would have accounted for the discrepancy.
“What we do know is that we have a disconnect between what we see in the skeleton and what we know about Pulaski’s life,” Estabrook said. She noted that there was little research on how intersex conditions impacted skeletal development, and that the Pulaski case was a sign of the work that needs to be done in this field.
The findings help bring new significance to the life of a soldier who already occupied a distinguished place in history. That he was able to rise up the ranks of the Continental Army is a remarkable achievement, said Hida Viloria, an intersex and non-binary activist and author, in the documentary.
“I think that Pulaski being intersex doesn’t impact or change his legacy at all,” Viloria said. “If anything, I think it enhances it.”