Today in history, John Laurens, who was a Revolutionary War hero and a close confidante of George Washington, was killed in the Battle of the Combahee River. He was also a southerner far ahead of his time who came up with a scheme to offer some slaves the hope of freedom.
Laurens was born in Charleston, S.C., to an affluent family on October 28, 1754. His father, Henry Laurens, was politically active and eventually served as president of the Continental Congress. The elder Laurens was also a partner in one of the largest slave trading houses in North America.
In 1771, John Laurens moved to England with his father and received much of his formal education in that country. He also attended school in Geneva, Switzerland for two years.
When the colonies declared independence, John Laurens returned to America, determined to join the Continental Army. With his father’s connections, John Laurens was assigned to George Washington’s staff as an aide-de-camp. He quickly became a key member of Washington’s inner circle and developed close friendships with Alexander Hamilton and Marquis de Lafayette.
Despite being a member of Washington’s staff, Laurens served on the front lines in several battles and gained a reputation as a reckless soldier. After the Battle of Brandywine, Lafayette told John’s father “It was not his fault that he was not killed or wounded. He did every thing that was necessary to procure one or t’other.” Weeks later, Laurens was wounded in the Battle of Germantown.
Laurens was born into the southern slave culture but he grew to despise the institution. He was likely influenced by abolitionist literature while living in England. Laurens came to believe that black and white people were inherently the same as white people and deserved the same liberties. He also thought that the republican principles the colonists were fighting for were not compatible with slavery. He wrote, “We Americans at least in the Southern Colonies, cannot contend with a good Grace, for Liberty, until we shall have enfranchised our Slaves.”
Laurens didn’t just talk about ending slavery; he came up with a scheme to gain at least some slaves their freedom. With his father’s influence, Laurens persuaded the Continental Congress to pass a resolution authorizing the formation of a regiment of slaves to fight against the British. In return for their service, the slaves would gain their freedom. Laurens went south in an attempt to recruit 3,000 slaves to the cause, but his efforts were stymied by the state governments in Georgia and South Carolina.
Laurens continued to fight on the front lines, getting wounded once again during a skirmish on the Coosawhatchie River and then captured during the British victory at Charleston in May 1780.
Laurens was released in a prisoner exchange and was sent with Thomas Paine to France where he helped secure French financing for the war. Upon his return, fought in the key American victory at Yorktown.
Fighting continued in South Carolina even after Lord Cornwallis’ defeat. Laurens joined Nathanael Greene’s army and served as an officer in the light infantry brigade under Mordecai Gist, engaging in skirmishes with British units and organized bands of Tories. This would lead to Laurens’ demise.
On Aug. 27, 1782, Laurens was with a detachment of 50 men and got caught in an ambush outside Charleston.
Hamilton sent a letter to Lafayette expressing his dismay over Laurens’ death.
“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.”