Revolutionary Men–John Laurens

I recently read an editorial in my local newspaper about the current state of the pandemic in America, and the writer cautioned us not to become the John Laurens of the pandemic. So, of course, I needed to investigate the reference to the Revolutionary War. Here’s what I found out: 

John Laurens

John Laurens was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1754. His father, Henry, was owner of a successful rice plantation, and operated a hugely successful slave market in the United States. When John was sixteen years of age, his widowed father moved John and his two brothers to England to further their education. His two sisters remained in Charleston with an uncle. His father left the boys to gain their education in England and returned to Charleston. In October 1776, John married Martha Manning, a family friend in England, but was determined to return to his homeland of America and fight against the British. He left his legal studies and his pregnant wife in London with her family and returned to America in December 1776 to become a soldier and statesman during the Revolutionary War. 

His father was already a member of the Continental Congress and used his considerable influence to provide his headstrong son a plumb job as a volunteer aide-de-camp to General George Washington. In his position as aide-de-camp, he quickly became a loyal friend to Washington’s other aides, including Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette. He developed a reputation as having reckless courage, his first war action coming in the Battle of Brandywine in 1777. Lafayette spoke of his friend’s involvement thusly:  “It was not his fault that he was not killed or wounded [at Brandywine,] he did everything that was necessary to procure one or t’other.” He continued his brazen ways on the battlefield, suffering wounds at the Battle of Germantown in October 1777 as well as in every battle in which he participated. Following that battle, Washington elevated him to an official aide-de-camp, with the rank of lieutenant colonel. 

Battle of Germantown

John Laurens continued to make his mark on the battlefield as a firebrand. He had his horse shot out from under him at the start of the Battle of Monmouth in 1778 and was a participant in a duel against General Charles Lee, as a result of Lee making disparaging remarks against General Washington. Lee suffered a wound in the side by Lauren’s first shot before the duel was called. 

He was an outspoken critic of slavery, in direct opposition to his state’s position on the subject, not to mention that of his father. His belief was that blacks and whites shared a common nature in which both aspired to freedom. One of his notable achievements was to recruit slaves to fight for the Continental Army in exchange for their freedom once the war ended. He began this achievement by using the forty slaves he was slated to inherit as part of the first black brigade. The plans for recruiting 3,000 slaves was opposed by Laurens’ fellow South Carolinians and was rejected three times by the South Carolina House of Representatives. 

Laurens didn’t let a little setback like the South Carolina House of Representatives slow him down, however. He briefly became a prisoner of war during the fall of Charleston and later became a diplomat, thanks to his fluency in French, and convinced France to side with the colonies against the British. He returned to South Carolina and continued to serve in the Continental Army until the British had enough of the war. Discussions were underway for a treaty following the involvement of the French, and the defeat of General Cornwallis at Yorktown. Laurens was one of those who penned the terms of the surrender of the British, and although it wasn’t official until 1783, the fighting was finally grinding to a halt in America.

One of the last skirmishes happened in late August 1782, only weeks before the British withdrew their forces. Laurens had been on a sickbed, possibly suffering from malaria, when he heard of a foraging party of about 300 British soldiers about to descend on the area. Laurens was instructed to take a small force downriver and attack the enemy as they retreated. Instead of sleeping, Laurens and his men spent the evening in the company of ladies at a plantation house, and before dawn, left the plantation to head to take up his position. Unfortunately, the British had anticipated his movements, and Laurens found himself and his men in the middle of an ambush. Instead of drawing back and waiting for his reinforcements, only a few miles away, Laurens ordered an attack. As one of his men said, “(Laurens) wanted to do all himself, and have all the honor.” With Laurens leading the charge, the British attacked, mortally wounding John Laurens in what would become one of the final battles of the Revolutionary War. His father learned of his son’s death while in France negotiating the peace treaty that would officially end the war. Just as there must be a first to fall in any conflict, there is also a last. 

Painting depicting the assault on Redoubt 10, Battle of Yorktown, 1781. Courtesy of US Army Center of Military History

So, what does the life and times of John Laurens have to do with America’s current predicament? According to the editorial in the local paper, a vaccine for the pandemic is on the way, so we must treat it as if we are engaged in a battle. We should remain vigilant and not give into our desire for the company of others just yet. Let’s wait a few more months until we can all be given an inoculation and be safe. We’ve come too far to fail now.

Lacking the ability, at least for now, to attend a live performance of Hamilton, Becky Lower spends her days researching the men and women who played a part in the Revolutionary War. The final novel in her Revolutionary Way trilogy, A British Governess in America, will be released in January 2021, and moves the action from Boston and Philadelphia to Groton, Connecticut. Stay tuned to see how Patterson and Eleanor’s story plays out amid the explosive backdrop of Groton. She learned about this part of the war when she lived for a time in northern Ohio and saw all the references to the Firelands and discovered the connection between Ohio and Connecticut. For updates on the release of her final book in the trilogy, visit her website at