The American Revolution in South Carolina

Lt. Colonel John Laurens


John Laurens was born at Charleston, South Carolina, on the 28th of October 1754. He was educated in England, and on his return to America in 1777, in the height of the revolutionary struggle, he joined George Washington's staff. He soon gained his commander's confidence, which he reciprocated with the most devoted attachment, and was entrusted with the delicate duties of a confidential secretary, which he performed with much tact and skill. He was present in all Washington's battles, from Brandywine to Yorktown, and his gallantry on every occasion has gained him the title of "the Bayard of the Revolution."

Laurens displayed bravery even to rashness in the storming of the Chew mansion at Germantown; at Monmouth, where he saved Washington's life, and was himself severely wounded; and at Coosahatchie, where, with a handful of men, he defended a pass against a large English force under General Augustine Prevost, and was again wounded. He fought a duel against General Charles Lee, and wounded him, on account of that officer's disrespectful conduct towards Washington.

Laurens distinguished himself further at Savannah, and at the siege of Charleston in 1780. After the capture of Charleston by the English, he rejoined Washington, and was selected by him as a special envoy to appeal to the king of France for supplies for the relief of the American armies, which had been brought by prolonged service and scanty pay to the verge of dissolution. The more active cooperation of the French fleets with the land forces in Virginia, which was one result of his mission, brought about the disaster of Cornwallis at Yorktown.

Laurens lost no time in rejoining the army, and at Yorktown was at the head of an American storming party which captured an advanced redoubt. Laurens was designated with the vicomte de Noailles to arrange the terms of the surrender, which virtually ended the war, although desultory skirmishing, especially in the South, attended the months of delay before peace was formally concluded. In one of these trifling affairs on the 27th of August 1782, Oh the Combahee river, Laurens exposed himself needlessly and was killed. Washington lamented deeply the death of Laurens, saying of him, "He had not a fault that I could discover, unless it were intrepidity bordering upon rashness."

His father was Henry Laurens, President of the Continental Congress.

Soldier, diplomat. Laurens was born in Charleston on October 28, 1754, the son of prominent merchant and planter Henry Laurens and his wife, Eleanor Ball. After studying under tutors in Charleston, Laurens traveled to London in 1771 for further schooling. He first enrolled in Richard Clarke’s school for Carolina boys before moving to Geneva, Switzerland, in May 1772. Laurens lived in Geneva, a city noted for its republicanism and excellence in education, until August 1774, when he returned to London to study law in the Middle Temple at the Inns of Court.

In December 1776, Laurens sailed to Charleston to enlist in the war for independence. He left behind in England his pregnant wife, Martha Manning, whom he had secretly married earlier in the year. The following summer he traveled to Philadelphia with his father, who had been elected to the Continental Congress. Laurens joined General George Washington’s staff and became the best friend of fellow aide, Alexander Hamilton. In the forefront at the battles of Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth, Laurens won a reputation for reckless bravery.

After the British shifted military operations to the South, Laurens proposed that South Carolina arm slaves and grant them freedom in return for their military service. In March 1779, Congress approved his idea and commissioned him lieutenant colonel. Elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives, Laurens introduced his black regiment plan in 1779 and 1780, and met overwhelming defeat each time. His belief that blacks shared a similar nature with whites and could aspire to freedom in a republican society would set Laurens apart from all other prominent South Carolinians in the Revolutionary period.

At the same time, Laurens continued his military service. When the British threatened Charleston in May 1779, he opposed Governor John Rutledge’s offer to surrender the city on the condition that the state be allowed to remain neutral for the duration of the war. That fall Laurens commanded an infantry column in the failed assault on Savannah. Captured when Charleston surrendered in May 1780, he was exchanged in November.

In December 1780 Congress appointed Laurens special minister to France. He arrived in France in March 1781. In a whirlwind two-month mission, he obtained a loan from the Netherlands, military supplies, and French assurances that their navy would operate in American waters that year. Laurens finished his diplomatic duties in time to join Washington at Yorktown, where the timely arrival of the French fleet secured a decisive American victory. Laurens represented the American army in negotiating the British surrender.

Laurens returned to South Carolina and made a final attempt to secure approval of his black regiment plan. At Jacksonborough in early 1782, the House again decisively rejected his proposal, though the debate was heated. Laurens served under General Nathanael Greene and spent his final months operating a spy network that gathered intelligence of British activities in Charleston. On August 27, 1782, he was killed in a skirmish on the Combahee River.

Biography from Benson J. Lossing in his Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution [with minor edits]:

John Laurens was a son of Henry Laurens, president of the Continental Congress in 1777. He joined the army early in 1777 and was wounded in the battle of Germantown. He continued in the army (with the exception of a few months) under the immediate command of Washington until the surrender of Cornwallis, in which event he was a conspicuous participant as one of the commissioners appointed to arrange the terms.

Early in 1782, he was sent on a special mission to France to solicit a loan of money and to procure arms. He was successful and on his returne received the thanks of Congress. Within three days after his arrival in Philadelphia he had settled all matters with Congress and departed for the army in the South under Greene.

There he did good service and was killed on the Combahee on August 27, 1782, when he was but twenty-nine years of age. Washington, who made him his aid, loved him as a child. He declared that he could discover no fault in him, unless it was intrepidity, bordering on rashness. "Poor Laurens," wrote Greene, "has fallen in a paltry little skirmish. You knew his temper, and I predicted his fate. The love of military glory made him seek it upon occasions unworthy his rank. The state will feel his loss."

He was buried upon the plantation of Mrs. Stock, in whose family he spent the evening previous to his death in cheerful conversation. A small inclosure without a stone marks his grave.

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