George Washington surrounded himself with the best and the brightest young men involved in the revolutionary cause. Alexander Hamilton, Tench Tilghman, Robert Harrison, the Marquis de Lafayette, James McHenry, and John Fitzgerald were a few of the talented people that served alongside Washington in his “family” at various times. One of them, John Laurens of South Carolina, seemed destined for greatness.
The son of a president of Congress, Henry Laurens, John was born into the life of a country gentleman. His father was a successful businessman, planter, and well-respected citizen of Charleston. John was taken to England for his education in 1771. A year later he went to Switzerland for further education but returned to England to read law after only two years of studying science and medicine. When differences between the colonies and mother country erupted into violence, John left his studiesand a wife and small childto return to South Carolina.
Young Laurens joined George Washington’s staff in August 1777, and was immediately popular with the gifted aides and secretaries that surrounded the commander in chief. In particular he had a close friendship with Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette. Hamilton became very fond of Laurens, as evidenced by the following letter:
Cold in my professions, warm in [my] friendships, I wish, my Dear Laurens, it m[ight] be in my power, by action rather than words, [to] convince you that I love you. I shall only tell you that ’till you bade us Adieu, I hardly knew the value you had taught my heart to set upon you. Indeed, my friend, it was not well done. You know the opinion I entertain of mankind, and how much it is my desire to preserve myself free from particular attachments, and to keep my happiness independent on the caprice of others. You sh[ould] not have taken advantage of my sensibility to ste[al] into my affections without my consent. But as you have done it and as we are generally indulgent to those we love, I shall not scruple to pardon the fraud you have committed, on condition that for my sake, if not for your own, you will always continue to merit the partiality, which you have so artfully instilled into [me].
Laurens spoke fluent French and helped Lafayette learn English.
Despite being a staff officer, Laurens put himself in the thick of combat at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777. “It was not his fault that he was not killed or wounded,” Lafayette told Henry Laurens, “he did every thing that was necessary to procure one or t’other.” Laurens was wounded at the Battle of Germantown on October 4, 1777, when he placed himself at the center of action in the unsuccessful attempt to set fire to the Chew House.
At Valley Forge, he assisted Baron von Steuben in training the American soldiers in European tactics and writing up a training manual. At the battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778, Laurens again exposed himself in the thick of the action and had a horse shot out from under him. In the aftermath of the battle, Laurens challenged Charles Lee to a duel over Lee’s comments about Washington and his reference to Washington’s supporters as “earwigs.” Lee was wounded in the encounter.
Laurens possessed an abolitionist’s heart and believed that the first step in freeing slaves would be allowing them to earn their freedom through service with the Continental Army. Using his father’s influence in Congress, Laurens managed to get that body to pass a resolution:
Resolved, That it be recommended to the Governing Powers of the States of South Carolina and Georgia, to consider of the Necessity, and Utility of arming [if they shall with Congress think it expedient to take measures for immediately] raising a force of able bodied Negroes, either for filling up the continental Battalions of those States, or for forming separate Corps, to be commanded by white Commissioned and Non Commissioned Officers, the commissioned officers to be appointed by the said governing Powers respectively, or for both purposes.
Laurens left Washington’s staff to serve in the south and recruit black soldiers for a regiment under the terms of the resolution of Congress. Unfortunately, Congress left the ultimate implementation of the resolution to the states of South Carolina and Georgia. Neither legislature supported the recruitment of black soldiers. Encouraged by Hamilton to return to the main army, a disappointed but determined Laurens answered:
Ternant will relate to you how many violent struggles I have had between duty and inclination—how much my heart was with you, while I appeared to be most actively employed here—but it appears to me that I shd be inexcusable in the light of a Citizen if I did not continue my utmost efforts for carrying the plan of black levies into execution, while there remains the smallest hope of success.
Laurens would continue his efforts but his dream of a regiment of slaves earning their freedom was to go unrealized.
Laurens was wounded again in a skirmish on the Coosawhatchie River on May 3, 1779. He led an infantry regiment during the disastrous Savannah Campaign of Benjamin Lincoln in September 1779. Captured during the British victory at Charleston on May 12, 1780, he was exchanged and went to Philadelphia.
In late 1780, Laurens was sent with Thomas Paine to France in order to secure loans and men for the upcoming campaign of 1781. Successful, he returned in time to rejoin the army for the defeat of the British at Yorktown. Laurens served under his friend Hamilton in the nighttime assault and capture of Redoubt Number 10. As an indication of the respect Washington had for the young man, Laurens was chosen as the leading negotiator in arriving at the terms of surrender.
Laurens was not satisfied with service in the main army as the action shifted to the Carolinas after Lord Cornwallis’ defeat. He joined Nathanael Greene’s army and served as an officer in the light infantry brigade under Mordecai Gist. Tasked with stopping British foraging expeditions outside Charleston, Laurens found himself engaged in small skirmishes and intelligence gathering operations.
On August 27, 1782, a British force of about five-hundred Tories and regulars headed up the Combahee River on an expedition to locate and capture supplies for the garrison of Charleston. Gist moved out to intercept them, sending Laurens with a party of fifty men and one cannon to reinforce a position in the British rear to cut off their retreat. The British learned of Laurens’ approach and laid an ambush in some tall grass along his route. Springing the ambush, the British fire quickly killed two Americans. One was John Laurens. Accounts differ on the details of the action but some report that Laurens was killed charging the enemy position. His men were forced to retreat and met Gist’s column moving up to support them. Unable to stop the British foraging, Gist stalked the enemy until their return to Charleston.
After his death, George Washington eulogized the young hero: “The Death of Colo Laurens I consider as a very heavy misfortune, not only as it affects the public at large; but particularly to his Family, and all his private Friends and Connections, to whom his amiable and useful Character had rendered him peculiarly dear.” Laurens’ comrade Alexander Hamilton sent a letter to the Marquis de Lafayette: “Poor Laurens; he has fallen a sacrifice to his ardor in a trifling skirmish in South Carolina. You know how truly I loved him and will judge how much I regret him.” In a letter to Nathanael Greene, Hamilton further revealed his sincere feelings:
I feel the deepest affliction at the news we have just received of the loss of our dear and [inesti]mable friend Laurens. His career of virtue is at an end. How strangely are human affairs conducted, that so many excellent qualities could not ensure a more happy fate? The world will feel the loss of a man who has left few like him behind, and America of a citizen whose heart realized that patriotism of which others only talk. I feel the loss of a friend I truly and most tenderly loved, and one of a very small number.
Buried near the battlefield, Laurens’ remains were later moved to his father’s plantation. Upon his headstone are engraved these words: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mort, loosely translated as “it is sweet and fitting to die for your country.” Years later, Washington noted with sadness Laurens’ personality:
that it is my firm belief his merits & worth richly entitle him to the whole picture: no man possessed more of the amor patria—in a word, he had not a fault that I ever could discover, unless intripidity bordering upon rashness, could come under that denomination; & to this he was excited by the purest motives.
Laurens’ probably placed himself in a position of danger too many times and his death deprived the new nation of a talented, intelligent, and energetic man.
George Washington to Nathanael Greene, October 18, 1782, John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, Volume 25, August 11, 1782- December 31, 1782 (Washington, United States Government Printing Office, 1938), 271.
Hamilton to Greene, October 12, 1782. Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-03-02-0090.
Washington to William Gordon, March 8, 1785, W.W. Abbot, ed., The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, vol. 2, 18 July 1784 – 18 May 1785, (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992), 412.