Governor’s House Laurens Room History
We hope you feel comfortable in the Laurens Room, which is named for the original owner of this home and his renowned family. This house was built in 1760 for James Laurens, a prominent Charles Towne merchant. The house was built on property owned by Dr. Samuel Carne that was once part of an 18th century orange garden, a site believed to have been a venue for concerts in colonial times. The property was just outside of the original city walls as may be seen in the below illustration. Designed by architect builders Miller & Fullerton, the interior of this home was graced with tall ceilings, a center stairway and two rooms symmetrically located on either side. The opulence and majesty of the house was a clear reflection of Laurens’ place in the community.
Schematic of original wall around Charles Towne
The original owner of this home, James Laurens, was born in 1728 and died while living in France in 1784. Unlike the rest of his family he did not have a taste for politics of the times. Instead he moved to England in 1775 and while there oversaw the well-being of his sister, Patsy, and his brother Henry’s three children. Not long after moving to England, James Laurens moved to Southern France to the small town of LeVigan in Cevennes where he died in 1784. Thereafter, his brother managed his estate and the sale of this home to Edward Rutledge.
James Laurens and his forebears were Calvinist Protestants known as Huguenots. His family fled France around the time the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685. It was in 1598 when the Edict of Nantes was granted by France’s King Henry IV in order to conclude 36 years of civil wars that were known as the Wars of Religion. During that period France was a Catholic state with few religious freedoms for Protestants. During the 17th Century Charles Towne became the home to a large enclave of French Huguenot seeking religious freedom.
James’ grandfather, Andre Laurens, left France in 1682 and eventually made his way to America, settling first in New York City and then Charles Towne. Andre’s son John married Hester (or Esther) Grasset, also a Huguenot refugee. John Laurens became a saddler, and his business eventually grew to be the largest of its kind in the colonies. John and Hester had three children – Henry, James and Martha “Patsy.” John Laurens died in 1747, bequeathing his children a considerable estate.
Henry Laurens (1724-1792)
Henry Laurens was born March 6, 1724 in Charles Town and died December 8, 1792 at his Mepkin Plantation along the Cooper River twenty miles outside of Charleston. At the age of twenty Henry was sent to London by his father to augment his business training by studying under Richard Oswald. At the time Oswald was advisor to the British government on trade regulations and the conduct of the American War of Independence. Oswald is best known as the British peace commissioner who in 1782 negotiated the Peace of Paris. Upon Henry Laurens return to America he became one of South Carolina’s most successful merchants, rice planters and political leaders during the Revolutionary War. A delegate to the Second Continental Congress, Laurens succeeded John Hancock as President of the Congress on November 1, 1777. He served as President during a difficult and arduous time for the American revolutionaries. Laurens acted as the President of the Congress until December 9, 1778 and left Congress in 1780. He was a signatory to the Articles of Confederation and President of the Continental Congress when the Articles were passed on November 15, 1777.
Prior to his political career Henry Laurens married Eleanor Ball, also of a South Carolina rice planter family. They married on June 25, 1750 and went on to have thirteen children, many of whom died in infancy or childhood. Eleanor died in 1770, one month after giving birth to their last child.
Henry Laurens served in the militia, as did most able-bodied men in his time. He rose to the rank of Lt. Colonel in the campaigns against the Cherokee Indians in 1757–1761 and during the French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Years’ War). While serving in the militia in 1757, Laurens was also elected to the colonial assembly. He was elected every year but one until the American Revolution replaced the assembly with a state Convention as an interim government (The year he missed was 1773, when he visited England to arrange for the formal education of his children). Laurens was named to the colony’s Council in 1764 and 1768, but declined both times. In 1772 he joined the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia that was first created in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin. It served as our nation’s first museum, national library and academy of science. It was through that membership that Laurens carried on extensive correspondence with other members and likely garnered recognition outside of South Carolina.
As the American Revolution neared, Laurens was at first inclined to support reconciliation with the British Crown. As conditions deteriorated, he came to fully support the American position. When South Carolina began to create a revolutionary government, Laurens was elected to the Provincial Congress, which first met in Charles Towne on January 9, 1775. He was elected President of the Committee of Safety, and presiding officer of that congress from June until March 1776. When South Carolina installed a fully independent government, he served as the first Vice-President of South Carolina from March 1776 to June 27, 1777. John Rutledge served as the first and only President of South Carolina.
After serving as the President of the Continental Congress, in the fall of 1779, Congress named Laurens their minister to the United Provinces (now the Netherlands). In early 1780 he took up that post and successfully negotiated much needed Dutch financial support for the war. Upon his return voyage from Amsterdam that fall, while off the banks of Newfoundland, the British frigate Vestal intercepted his ship the continental packet Mercury. Although his dispatches were tossed in the water, they were retrieved by the British, who discovered the draft of a possible U.S.-Dutch treaty. This prompted Britain to declare war on the Dutch Republic, becoming known as the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War.
Once in custody the British charged Laurens with treason, transported him to England as a political prisoner and after being lodged briefly in Scotland Yard, imprisoned him in the Tower of London in a Yeoman Warder’s house (he is the only American to have been held prisoner in the Tower). His imprisonment was protested by the Americans and lauded by the British. As Laurens recorded in his diary, on his arrival at the Tower, “the guards on parade [chose] the tune of Yankee Doodle, played, I suppose, in derision of me, [but instead the tune] filled my mind with a sublime contempt & rather made me cheerful.” Laurens spent his incarceration in relative comfort, but had to pay board and rent for his rooms, food and heating. For the most part, Laurens was treated as a gentleman in the Tower, without the physical hardships often faced by lesser prisoners during the war. As a prisoner he suffered small, calculated deprivations, such as being denied paper and pen for writing, but he was permitted visitors and enough latitude to sit for the 1781 portrait by Lemuel Francis Abbott. In this picture, the walls of the Tower are visible through the window, and Laurens’ sober expression is reinforced by the text of the letter in his hand: “I have acted the part of a faithful subject. I now go resolved still to labour for peace at the same time determined in the last event to stand or fall with my country. I have the honour to be Henry Laurens.”
Henry Laurens, by Lemuel Francis Abbott, 1781
During Laurens’ fifteen months of imprisonment his release was publically endorsed in England by his mentor and former business partner Richard Oswald. Bail was ultimately arranged on December 31, 1781 and Laurens was given liberty in exchange for the release of General Lord Cornwallis who was being held in America after his loss at Yorktown. After his release Laurens went on to continue his diplomatic work.
In 1783 Laurens was sent to Paris as one of the Peace Commissioners for the negotiations leading to the Treaty of Paris. While he was not a signatory of the primary treaty, he was instrumental in reaching the secondary accords that resolved issues related to the Netherlands and Spain. Richard Oswald was once again seen as instrumental as being able to work with Laurens as he was the principal negotiator for the British during the Paris peace talks. The United States delegation at the Treaty of Paris included John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens, and William Temple Franklin. … In the famous unfinished painting by Benjamin West, the British delegation refused to pose, and the painting was never completed. The treaty was ultimately signed by Americans John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and John Jay.
Treaty of Paris by Benjamin West
Laurens generally retired from public life in 1784. Upon his return home he found that the British occupying forces had burned the main home of his estate during the war. While the great house was rebuilt he and his family lived in an outbuilding. The rest of his life he worked to recover the estimated £40,000 that the revolution had cost him (equivalent to about $3,500,000 in 2000 values). Laurens was still sought to be involved in politics, but declined all three offers to participate in the Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the South Carolina State Assembly. He did serve in the South Carolina State Convention of 1788, where he voted to ratify the United States Constitution.
Henry Laurens Marker at Mepkin Plantation
Laurens died on December 8, 1792, at his estate, Mepkin. Laurens was said to have had a fear of being buried alive. In his will he stated he wished to be cremated with his ashes interred at his estate. It is reported that his was the first formal cremation in the United States. Afterward, the estate passed through several hands. Large portions of the estate still exist and are used today as a Trappist abbey.
Subsequent to Laurens’ death various legacies and honors were bestowed upon him. The city of Laurens and its surrounding county in South Carolina were named for him. The General Lachlan McIntosh, who worked for Laurens as a clerk named Fort Laurens, in Ohio, after him. Also, the town, and village, of Laurens, New York are named for him.
John Laurens (1754-1782)
John Laurens was born October 28, 1754 in Charles Towne and died August 27, 1782 during battle along the Combahee River north of Beaufort, South Carolina. Laurens was born to Henry Laurens and Eleanor Ball Laurens. He was the fourth of 13 children and the first to live to reach maturity. Many of his siblings died as children. He was raised in an atmosphere of luxury thanks to family inheritance and his father’s lucrative business ventures. The Laurens family at the time was one of the wealthiest in America.
Not long after the death of his mother in 1770, John and his brothers were sent to Geneva, Switzerland for their education. It was there he was introduced to the humanitarian ideas of equality that allowed John to develop strong feelings against slavery. After a brief time in Geneva the Laurens children traveled to England where John would study law and be overseen by his uncle and aunt. After reading Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, John desperately wanted to go back to America and join the Continental Army. He often wrote to his father back in Charles Towne asking to return home. Despite his father’s refusal, John was determined to return. As may be seen from correspondence in 1775 between his father, Henry, in Charles Town and his uncle, James, in London – young John was seen as being nothing less than a handful.
My Dear Brother,
I beg leave to refer you to the above duplicate of my Letter the 19th. Inst. per the Swallow particularly to that part relative to your Nephew J.L. [John Laurens]. In treat him, enjoin, command him to continue steady & diligent in his studies, Surely he must have undergone an amazing change since last October, if he is become so hardy as to disregard the advice of a Father & an Uncle who have ever been his friends. I had intended to have written very fully to himself by this opportunity but I fear I shall not be able to do so….Your expostulation therefore I trust will prevail upon him to be his own friend & to act the part which all his friends have a right to expect from him. If he enters upon the plan of life which he seemed to pant for when he wrote the 5th. July, I shall give him up for lost & he will very soon reproach himself for his want of duty & affection towards me, for abandoning his Brothers & Sisters, for disregarding the council of his Uncle, & for his deficiency of common understanding, in making such a choice. If these reflections prevail not over him, nothing will. He must have his own way & I must be content with the remembrance, that I had a Son.
Present my Love to my Dear Sister & the Children, My Dear Brother
Against his father’s wishes, John Laurens boarded a ship and traveled home via France, where he met and married Martha Manning, the daughter of one of Henry Laurens’ London agents. His marriage to Miss Manning was an honor match. She was nearly five months pregnant at their wedding and he never returned for her or met his daughter. She did try to meet with him in later years, while he was serving as a special envoy to France, but her plans fell through.
After departing France John Laurens arrived at Charleston in April 1777. Unable to dissuade his son from entering the war, Henry Laurens used his influence to obtain a position of honor that was thought to allow some degree of safety for him. John Laurens was invited to join General Washington’s staff as a volunteer aide-de-camp in early August 1777.
Upon joining Washington’s “military family,” Laurens met two other men that were similar to him: Alexander Hamilton and the recently arrived Marquis de Lafayette. This was an eventful time for the Continental Army and Washington’s aides-de-camp. The campaign for Philadelphia was under way and John Laurens got his first taste of battle at Brandywine on September 11, 1777. Lafayette saw Laurens that day and wrote about him, “It was not his fault that he was not killed or wounded[,] he did everything that was necessary to procure one or t’other.”
A few days later, on September 16, Laurens was present at the “Battle of the Clouds,” when British and American forces were squaring off against one another when a torrential downpour intervened. John wrote his father about the incident: “My old Sash rather disfigur’d by the heavy Rain which half drown’d us on our march (and which spoilt me a waistcoat and breeches and my uniform coat, clouding them with the dye wash’d out of my hat).”
On October 4, Laurens was involved in the Battle of Germantown, as Washington’s forces surprise-attacked the British north of Philadelphia. At one point, the Americans were stymied by a large stone mansion occupied by the enemy. After several attempts to take the building failed, Laurens and a French volunteer, the chevalier Duplessis-Mauduit, came up with their own daring plan. They gathered some straw to set on fire and placed it at the front door of the house. According to another officer’s account of Laurens’s actions that day, “He rushed up to the door of Chew’s House, which he forced partly open, and fighting with his sword with one hand, with the other he applied the wood work a flaming brand, and what is very remarkable, retired from under the tremendous fire of the house, with but a very slight wound.” Laurens was struck by a musket ball that went through his right shoulder. He made a sling for his arm from his uniform sash.
John Laurens established a courageous reputation for himself at the Battle of Germantown. However, he also made a name for himself as a rather rash young man. Washington certainly appreciated Laurens’s bravery in addition to his intelligence and writing skills. Therefore, two days after Germantown, on October 6, 1777, John Laurens was officially appointed an aide-de-camp to Washington with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. It was considered a miracle that Washington was able to keep him in an office for much of the war.
Upon his arrival at Valley Forge, Lieutenant Colonel Laurens, along with the rest of Washington’s aides-de-camp, went about the myriad duties of a staff officer. Their responsibilities mostly entailed writing and transcribing letters, but also included tracking expenses, acting as couriers or messengers, coordinating travel and lodging, preparing meetings and special assignments. In addition, young Laurens served as an unofficial liaison of sorts between his father Henry Laurens and General Washington. During this time, Henry Laurens was the President of the Continental Congress currently meeting at York, Pennsylvania. John was constantly keeping his father informed of the challenges, occurrences, and rumors of the Continental Army.
After the Continental Army suffered several defeats in the fall of 1777, some members of Congress expressed displeasure with Washington’s leadership. A number of Washington’s surrogate Generals (Gates, Mifflin and Conway) began writing letters to prominent leaders in Congress. The effort was seen as the “Conway Cabal” and after Washington got wind of the effort, responded with a letter of his own to Congress in January 1778. Embarrassed, Conway offered his resignation in March 1778 by way of apology, and was surprised and humiliated when Congress accepted the resignation. After General John Cadwalader wounded him in a duel defending Washington’s honor, Conway returned to France, where he died in exile in 1800.
During the time the “Conway Cabal” unfolded, John Laurens unwaveringly supported his Commander-in-Chief by penning letter after letter to his father, giving his critical opinions on Washington’s detractors, Generals Gates, Conway, and Mifflin. Henry Laurens had always admired Washington, and his son’s letters reinforced this confidence.
After a long and arduous winter at Valley Forge, Laurens marched with the rest of the Continental Army to face the British at the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse in New Jersey, at the end of June 1778. He was on the field during this engagement and despite his best efforts somehow managed to avoid being injured or mortally wounded. Following Monmouth, Laurens was detached from Washington’s staff and sent on a special assignment. Since he spoke French, Laurens acted as a liaison with the newly arrived French forces under the command of Count d’Estaing. He remained in this capacity during the campaign to recapture Newport, Rhode Island in August 1778.
December 1778 found Laurens involved in yet another escapade. Dueling at the time was a tradition that was illegal, but often pursued for the sake of maintaining a gentleman’s honor. Laurens known for his fiery disposition on the battle ground was unable to prevent himself from transitioning that same temperament to the dueling field. After the June 28, 1778 Battle of Monmouth led to the court martial of Gen. Charles Lee for incompetence, a public dispute arose between Lee, Laurens and Alexander Hamilton. Both Laurens and Hamilton testified against Lee during the court martial and Lee was found guilty on all three counts against him. Instead of a firing squad, Lee was seen as receiving a lenient sentence of suspension from the army for one year. Despite the leniency—he railed against his accusers. He disparaged Washington in personal letters and in the press he “spoke of General Washington in the grossest and most opprobrious terms of personal abuse.” Lee also personally insulted Hamilton and Laurens calling them “those dirty earwigs who will forever insinuate themselves near persons in high office.” Following the insults, Laurens challenged Lee to a duel where Hamilton serving as his second. The parties met for the duel on December 23, 1778, whereupon Lee proposed a deviation from the standard practice of dueling. Instead of walking 10 paces away from each other, turning, and firing, Lee suggested that they face each other and advance, firing at a distance that each deemed proper. They agreed that they would fire at a range of roughly six paces. During the first round of the dual, Lee’s shot was errant, but Laurens’s shot struck Lee in the side. Traditionally after the first round of a dual takes place, a second round follows after some negotiations. Lee initially favored proceeding with another shot. Laurens voiced his acceptance. The seconds protested, saying that it should end. Eventually cooler heads prevailed, and it was declared that honor had been satisfied and the duel was over. Lee later declared that Laurens’s conduct on this occasion was gentlemanly, and he had gained an “odd sort of respect for him.”
As the British campaign in the South gathered momentum in early 1779, Laurens yearned to return to South Carolina to aid in the defense of his home state. He received permission from Washington to do so in March, 1779 where in Orders the Commander-in-Chief wrote:
Lieutenant Colonel Laurens, who will have the honor of delivering you this, has served two Campaigns in my Family in quality of aide De camp … Though unwilling to part with him, I could not oppose his going to a place where he is called by such powerful motives, and where I am persuaded he will be extremely useful. I have therefore given him leave of absence ‘till a change of affairs will permit his return, when I shall be happy to see him resume his place in my family.
On his way to South Carolina, Laurens stopped by Philadelphia to petition Congress. He pressed for a cause that was one of his lifelong passions— freedom. His goal was to allow slaves to be freed through military service in the Continental Army.
John Laurens was an idealist who believed that the republican principles that Americans were fighting for were hypocritical if they continued to utilize slave labor. Laurens was strongly influenced by the growing abolitionist literature that circulated in England, while he was studying as a young man in Europe. “We have sunk the Africans & their descendants below the Standard of Humanity,” he wrote to his father Henry, “and almost render’d them incapable of that Blessing which equal Heaven bestow’d upon us all.”
The concept of freeing slaves was antithetical to those around him and more particularly hostile to the business interests that had created such phenomenal wealth for Laurens’ family fortune. Charleston, South Carolina was a primary point of entry for captured Africans shipped to America during most of the 18th century. John Laurens’ father, Charleston merchant Henry Laurens played a major role in the shipping and selling of many African slaves. Between 1751 and 1761 the firm of Austin & Laurens sold an estimated 7,800 African men, women, and children. Young men often sold for as much as £30 sterling each, young women £20, and children about £10 each. Consequently, after just one decade of selling human beings, Henry Laurens became one of the richest men in the British colonies of America.
Young John Laurens was extremely persistent in his efforts to change minds regarding the plight of American slaves. From his letters, we learn that he discussed this topic in some depth not only with his father, but also Washington, Hamilton, the Marquis de Lafayette and virtually anyone else who would listen. The responses he received were mixed. Some praised his enthusiasm, but offered cautionary advice. Others, such as the slave owning Washington, remained hesitant, fearing the economic and social upheaval such a measure would cause. Unfortunately for young Laurens, his concept never came to fruition during his lifetime. Nevertheless, he continued to pursue this idea until his death.
At some time in his thinking, Laurens began to recognize that freedom for all American slaves might never become a reality unless smaller steps occurred first. He began to pursue the concept of manumission. Knowing full well how important it was to have capable fighting men on the battlefield, Laurens envisioned enlisting slaves into the Continental Army. They would form their own “black battalions,” and in return, the enslaved soldiers would be offered their personal freedom. It was quite a radical idea, considering the times and the pedigree of who was making its presentation. It was something that Laurens believed in very strongly, as evidenced in the following excerpt from a letter to his father in 1778: “I had barely hinted to you, my dearest Father, my desire to augment the Continental Forces from an untried Source … [The raising of black battalions would] … advance those who are unjustly deprived of the Rights of Mankind [and] … reinforce the Defenders of Liberty with a number of gallant soldiers.”
When Laurens made his initial proposals to his father and the Continental Congress, the concept of manumission was rejected. Over time each side began to reconsider, believing that the British were already implementing a similar plan. In the spring of 1779, when the British began their campaign on the South, Laurens had started his return to defend his home state when he stopped in Philadelphia to petition Congress once again for his black battalions. This time with an even more viable threat and the support of his father – Congress reconsidered. He was thrilled when Congress approved him 3,000 black men, provided he could get permission from the colonies of Georgia and South Carolina. Congress authorized the payment of up to $1,000 to the slaveholders of Georgia and South Carolina for each slave who enlisted and it promised emancipation and $50 to each slave who served until the end of the war after turning in their firearm. With dire circumstances in the South, Congress resolved, “That it be recommended to the states of South Carolina and Georgia, if they shall think the same expedient, to take measures immediately for raising three thousand able bodied negroes.” Congress also suggested that the blacks be formed into separate battalions “according to the arrangements adopted for the main army, to be commanded by white commissioned and non-commissioned officers.”
When Laurens returned to Charleston and brought the proposal before the South Carolina state legislature, he was met with hostility and protest. One member of the Privy Council wrote, “We are much disgusted here at Congress recommending us to arm our Slaves … it was received with great resentment, as a very dangerous and impolitic Step.” Laurens tried multiple times to have the state legislature reconsider its position. Each time he failed with one member of the legislature writing “The measure for embodying the negroes… was received with horror by the planters, who figured to themselves terrible consequences.” Laurens was finally told that his plan should be “adopted only in the last extremity.”
Angry that the Continental Congress led by Henry Laurens had responded to their request for reinforcements with a scheme to free slaves, the South Carolina legislature threatened to surrender Charleston to the British with the condition that Charleston be allowed to remain neutral for the remainder of the war. The British refused the proposal, demanding Charleston’s complete surrender as prisoners of war. The threat of surrender at that time did not become necessary as American reinforcements arrived.
While in Philadelphia Congress had also given Laurens a regular commission in the army as a lieutenant colonel, which would give him authority to command troops in the field. Upon reaching Charleston and while he was doing his best to lobby the legislature, Laurens was put in charge of some rear guard troops. During a skirmish where Laurens and his men were in danger of being overrun by the enemy, Laurens ordered his inexperienced troops on an unnecessary charge. The Americans suffered casualties, Laurens’s horse was shot and he was wounded in the right arm. Afterwards, the locally revered and respected South Carolina commander, General William Moultrie, was infuriated when he found out what Laurens had done. Several other American officers felt similarly, while the citizens of Charleston regarded Laurens as a fearless hero. What the legislature didn’t recognize at that time was that “the last extremity” was already upon Charleston. Charleston fell in May 1780 with Lieutenant Colonel Laurens surrendering with 5,500 other American troops. As a prisoner of war, he was granted quite a bit of freedom, likely due to his father’s wealth and position. He was part of a prisoner exchange in November 1780 during the same time his father was held as a political prisoner in the Tower of London. A condition of Lt. Col. Laurens’ parole was that he was forbidden going forward to take part in the war.
After his exchange, John Laurens was selected by Washington and appointed by Congress to participate in an envoy with Thomas Paine to procure much needed war supplies and finance from France. He sailed from Boston February, 1781, and arrived at France in March. Laurens then headed for Paris, to carry out his task of assisting Benjamin Franklin in obtaining badly needed loans from France. Like John Adams, Laurens was an impatient and unorthodox diplomat. After six weeks elapsed with no results, the restless Laurens called on the French minister of foreign affairs, Charles Gravier, the Count of Vergennes. He desperately made demands for money, weapons, uniforms, and ammunition for the American cause. The Count of Vergennes replied, “Colonel Laurens, you are so recently from the Head Quarters of the American Army that you forget that you are no longer delivering the order of the Commander-in-Chief, but that you are addressing the minister of a monarch.” Not to be denied, Laurens ignored this dismissal by the Count and went directly to King Louis XVI. At a reception, where individuals were briefly brought before the King to merely bow and pay their respects, Laurens directly approached the King with his concerns. Despite the ruffling of feathers, Laurens was able to secure a ten million livre loan from the Dutch, underwritten by the French. He sailed back to America in August 1781, with money and two ships loaded with military supplies. He arrived just in time for the Battle of Yorktown.
The Battle of Yorktown Storming of Redoubt #10 by Eugene Lami
Upon arriving back in America, Laurens rejoined Washington’s staff and was given temporary command of a light infantry battalion. He participated in the dramatic night assault on British Redoubt # 10 on October 14, along with his close friend, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton, who commanded another light infantry battalion. The land forces of the Continental Army along with the efforts of the French and their navy combined to defeat the British at Yorktown. After two days, General Charles Cornwallis requested a ceasefire to discuss surrender. Cornwallis was the same general who led the British Campaign in the South that caused Charleston to become a captured city. John Laurens had just surrendered to Cornwallis seventeen months before, so the taste of retribution was to be savored by Laurens. He is to be painted with Alexander Hamilton standing together in the bottom right.
Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown by John Trumbull
Two commissioners were appointed by the allies to meet with the British representatives to work out terms: Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens and Louis-Marie, viscount de Noailles (Lafayette’s brother-in-law). Laurens and Noailles stipulated that the British and German Hessian forces must surrender as unconditional prisoners of war and that the Crown troops must march out of Yorktown with their flags cased (unable to be flown) and only certain music could be played by their bands. The British felt these were harsh terms, however Laurens pointed out that these were the exact same terms demanded by the British during the Siege of Charleston. Laurens insisted on these conditions, and they were finally met when the British and Hessian mercenaries surrendered on October 19, 1781. Two months later the defeated General Cornwallis would be used in a prisoner exchange to free John Laurens’ father, Henry Laurens, from the Tower of London on December 31, 1781.
Despite the resounding success at Yorktown, Lt. Col. Laurens did not consider the war to be concluded. He soon returned to South Carolina where he assisted General Nathanael Greene in driving out the remainder of the British forces, while also gathering intelligence through a spy network. He pushed one more time for his slave regiment to no avail. In spite of General Greene’s support, he was unable to garner convince the necessary parties to change their minds.
As the war came to a close, it seemed Laurens was certain to be one of the predominant leaders of the new nation. His good friend, Alexander Hamilton, who had resigned from the army after Yorktown and was appointed to the Continental Congress in 1782, wrote to Laurens:
Peace made, My Dear friend, a new scene opens. The object then will be to make our independence a blessing. To do this we must secure our union on solid foundations; a Herculean task and to effect which mountains of prejudice must be leveled! Quit your sword my friend, put on the toga, come to Congress. We know each others sentiments, our views are the same; we have fought side by side to make America free, let us hand in hand struggle to make her happy.
It was in August 1782, when Lieutenant Colonel Laurens was put in command of a detachment of troops organized to stop a British foraging party in Chehaw Neck along the Combahee River, south of Charleston. As usual, Laurens ignored his orders to maintain a defensive position, and instead sought out the British. Loyalists had notified the British of Laurens’ plans, and they had prepared an ambush. On the morning of August 27, 1782, Laurens was riding at the front of his troops when 140 British soldiers hiding in the grass rose and fired a murderous volley into the Americans. Laurens was not hit, so he refused to retreat or surrender. Instead decided to charge the enemy. On the next British volley, Laurens was struck by several musket balls and fell from his horse, mortally wounded. The Americans fled, but later returned to the site and retrieved Laurens’s body. He was buried the next day at a nearby plantation. The Royal Gazette newspaper in British-held Charleston wrote of Laurens:
By accounts from the country we learn, that Mr. John Laurens, a Lieutenant colonel in the rebel army, and son of Mr. Henry Laurens, now in London; was lately killed near Combahee river, in attempting to impede the operations of a detachment of his Majesty’s troops.
When we contemplate the character of this young gentleman, we have only to lament his great error on his outset in life, in espousing a public cause which was to be sustained by taking up arms against his Sovereign. Setting aside this single deviation from the path of rectitude, we know no one trait of his history which can tarnish his reputation as a man of honor, or affect his character as a gentleman.
… While we were thus marking the death of an enemy who was dangerous to our Cause from his abilities, we hope we shall stand excused for paying tribute at the same time to the moral excellencies of his character – Happy would it be for the distressed facilities of those persons who are to leave this garrison with his Majesty’s troops that another Laurens could be found.
General Greene announced Laurens’s death in his general orders: “The army has lost a brave officer and the public a worthy citizen.” General George Washington wrote of Laurens: “….in a word, he had not a fault that I ever could discover, unless intrepidity bordering upon rashness could come under that denomination; and to this he was excited by the purest motives.” Some of the most poignant words expressed of Laurens expressed not what he had accomplished, but how he would be missed. Alexander Hamilton said of 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? … I feel the loss of a friend I truly and most tenderly loved.”
Gravestone of John Laurens at Mepkin Plantation
Henry Laurens was devastated by the news of his son’s death. When informed he was in England, working to negotiate a peace treaty. Upon learning of John’s death, Henry soon returned to South Carolina and made arrangements to have his son’s body reburied on his Mepkin estate. John Laurens’s gravestone is inscribed with the fitting tribute
DULCE ET DECORUM EST PRO PATRIA MORI
“Sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s Country”
During various times Henry Laurens owned and kept as many as 300 slaves at his rice plantation on the Cooper River. While John Laurens and his father had contradictory opinions about slavery, there did come a time when Henry wrote his son questioning how he could push for freedom from Great Britain and not give his slaves the same right. Once Henry reinterred his son at Mepkin and after the war he freed all of his (then 260) slaves.
Posthumously John Laurens received numerous honors. The town and county of Laurens, South Carolina were named in honor of John and his father Henry Laurens. The county of Laurens in Georgia is named for John Laurens. Currently his character is portrayed in the hit Broadway musical show “Hamilton.”
Anthony Ramos performing as Laurens in “Hamilton”