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Portrait Of A Hero
Courtly, gallant, handsome, and bold, John Laurens seemed the perfect citizen-soldier of the Revolution. But why did he have to seek death so assiduously?
April 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 3
How a nation regards its past is itself a fact of considerable historical significance, and it will be interesting to observe the treatment of the Founding Fathers during the Bicentennial celebration. Indications are that in some quarters at least the military heroes of the Revolution may not fare very well. “They wrote in the old days,” Ernest Hemingway noted some years ago, “that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. But in modern war there is nothing sweet nor fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog for no good reason.” To men who have experienced the agony and frustration of American involvement in Vietnam—in fact, to virtually anyone who seriously considers the possibility of nuclear annihilation- that statement has to make a good deal of sense. Clearly, however, it does not represent the spirit with which some of our predecessors fought the Revolution, least of all John Laurens.
Personally one of the most attractive figures of his generation, John was born in South Carolina in 1754, the son of Henry Laurens, a leading local politician and merchant who eventually became president of the Continental Congress. John received a cosmopolitan education in Charleston, Geneva, and London, where he was enrolled at the Middle Temple. Though impatient to return to America at the outbreak of the Revolution, he remained in England because of his father’s desires until January, 1777, when he sailed for South Carolina. There he joined the Continental Army, in which he served throughout most of the war. He fought in the Battle of Brandywine, was wounded at Germantown, and spent the winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge on Washington’s staff. At Monmouth the following summer he escaped unscathed when his horse was shot from under him. A duel followed with General Charles Lee, who had reflected uncharitably upon Washington’s fitness to command. Laurens drew praise as well as blood from his antagonist. Meanwhile, during the late summer of 1778, he had served as a liaison officer between the French and American commands during the joint attack on Rhode Island. His linguistic ability made him popular with the French officers and useful to Washington, who spoke no French at all.
Nevertheless, Laurens was able to prevail upon his commander to send him back to South Carolina, where he hoped to raise and lead a regiment of blacks against the British in the South. Although the South Carolina legislature failed to approve his plan, he remained to help defend his native state against British incursions from Georgia. Unsuccessfully attempting to check General Augustine Prevost’s forces near the Savannah River, he was again severely wounded. Less than two weeks later, when Prevost’s rapid progress brought him to the fortifications of Charleston, Laurens was up and about and was one of the firmest advocates for continued resistance. This time the city held out. Then some four months later, when American and French forces attempted to oust the British from Savannah, Laurens was again present in an important role. Courage, however, proved insufficient to take the city or to defend Charleston against Sir Henry Clinton’s massive assault the following year. So John Laurens, along with more than five thousand of his fellow Americans, was captured on May 12, 1780. Unlike most of them, though, he was soon exchanged for a British prisoner and was therefore free to accept an assignment from the Continental Congress as special envoy to France. There, in the spring of 1781, his persistence and up-to-date information about the military situation in America helped to pry loose some two million dollars in French aid promised, but not yet delivered, to Benjamin Franklin.
Returning to Boston with the supplies and cash, Laurens rejoined Washington’s army in time to take part in the capture of Cornwallis’ forces at Yorktown. There he again distinguished himself for heroism in the famous bayonet assault commanded by Alexander Hamilton. Later he also had the satisfaction of conveying Washington’s demands for Cornwallis’ surrender under terms identical to those that Clinton had imposed upon the garrison of Charleston. Then serving as the officer in charge of prisoners, Laurens doubtless discovered a grim pleasure in receiving Lord Cornwallis, who was technically the constable of the Tower of London, where Laurens’ own father was still imprisoned after being captured on a diplomatic mission to Holland. Appropriately enough, too, Cornwallis was exchanged for Henry Laurens.
But this was after John had gone back to serve under Nathanael Greene in South Carolina, where, having lived through so much, he met his death in one of the last skirmishes of the war. Although Yorktown had made it clear that the British would end hostilities, neither Greene nor the governor of South Carolina wished to risk prolonging the occupation of Charleston by agreeing to a truce that would have permitted the garrison to draw supplies from the surrounding countryside. In turn, British expeditions sought to gather rice by force. Although the details of the reports differ, it is clear that Laurens was killed in an engagement on August 27, 1782, trying to counter one of these foraging parties. True to form, he appears to have been heroically leading his men against a force that outnumbered them perhaps as much as six to one.