John Laurens led the attack that secured victory at Yorktown, but his prescient dream of emancipating America’s slaves would elude him.
On the night of October 14, 1781, American light infantry attacked a key redoubt on the left flank of the British line outside the small Virginia tobacco port of Yorktown. Colonel Alexander Hamilton led the 400-man frontal assault. But it was his best friend, Colonel John Laurens, who struck the crucial blow.
The South Carolina soldier led an 80-man detachment that slipped behind the redoubt in the darkness, before the frontal attack began. Then, as Hamilton and his men fought bayonet to bayonet on the parapet, Laurens and his soldiers stormed into the redoubt and captured British commander James Campbell. The mortified major ordered his men to surrender, and resistance collapsed.
The Americans rushed their cannons into the redoubt and were soon enfilading the main British fortifications. Three days later, the enemy asked for terms, and General George Washington chose Laurens to be the American representative at the surrender negotiations. Britain’s best field army glumly capitulated just two days later, and a delighted Marquis de Lafayette wrote to friends in France, “The play, sir, is over.”
Six months prior to Yorktown, when the American cause seemed on the brink of collapse, Washington had sent Laurens to Paris to plead for an emergency loan of 25 million livres— about $200 million modern dollars. The bilingual Laurens got almost half the money, plus tons of desperately needed uniforms and weapons from the harried French, who stood on the brink of national bankruptcy. Young Colonel Laurens was unquestionably one of General Washington’s most valued aides; in 1781 he outshone his friend and fellow aide, Hamilton.
Almost theatrically handsome, the 27-year-old Laurens had a rare combination of gifts. He had repeatedly proven himself a fearless soldier, mingling self-confidence with a passionate idealism. For him, the Revolution was a crusade to transform the world. He wanted to see those soaring words in the Declaration of Independence about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness become a reality shared by all Americans.
While Hamilton resigned from the Army to study law in Albany, Laurens rode south to fight for his most daring dream—the abolition of slavery. This ambition was doubly amazing in light of his father’s career: Henry Laurens was the largest—and richest—slave trader in South Carolina.
Contrary to the Marquis de Lafayette’s burbling optimism, the Revolution was by no means over in 1781. The British still had 25,000 men on American soil. Well-armed garrisons occupied New York, Savannah and Charleston and from these enclaves launched savage attacks. Just one month after the British defeat at Yorktown, Loyalist Major William Cunningham led 300 horsemen on a rampage through the heart of South Carolina, massacring dozens of Patriots.
John Laurens had an answer to these spasms of violence. He wanted South Carolina to free 3,000 slaves and enlist them in the American Army that was besieging Charleston. With this reinforcement, the Patriots would have enough men to drive the British into the sea and work similar magic in Savannah. The example set by these black freedom fighters would, Laurens believed, convince his fellow Southerners that slavery could and should be gradually abolished.
In 1778, during the winter at Valley Forge, the colonel had discussed this idea with George Washington and with his father, Henry Laurens, who was president of the Continental Congress at the time. Both men told the colonel they agreed with him in principle, but doubted that any Southern legislator would approve arming slaves. The fear of an insurrection and a race war haunted too many minds. In South Carolina, where black slaves outnumbered whites in many counties, this fear was especially acute.
John Laurens had shelved his proposal, though he disagreed with both men. His conviction deepened when the British shifted the war to the South in 1779, conquering Georgia and invading South Carolina. In 1780 they captured Charleston and the 5,000-strong Southern army. A few months later they routed another force sent to rescue the Southerners. Rebels under such guerrilla leaders as Francis “the Swamp Fox” Marion continued to resist them, igniting a savage civil war between Loyalists and Patriots.
Laurens hoped the bitter lessons of the last two years would make his native state more receptive to his proposal to create a black brigade. A new Southern commander, General Nathanael Greene, had driven the British from the interior of the state, but his thousand-man force was too weak to assault well-fortified Charleston.
South Carolina Governor John Rutledge was familiar with Laurens’ proposal. He had opposed it when Laurens pressed the issue in 1779, backed by a resolution passed by the Continental Congress. However, the governor diplomatically told Laurens he would let the next legislature, up for election in December 1781, make the decision. The colonel promptly declared himself a legislative candidate and was easily elected.
Laurens introduced his proposal for black regiments with a new clause he hoped would take opponents by surprise. Rutledge was urging confiscation of the lands and slaves of hundreds of Loyalists who had joined the British in the previous two years of carnage. Why not raise the black regiments from the thousands of slaves the state was about to seize?
For a while, it looked as if the young colonel was mustering strong support from South Carolinians both inside and outside the legislature. Rutledge described the debate as a “hard battle” that at times made him “very much alarmed.” Perhaps the most pivotal speech was made by former Continental Congressman Aedanus Burke, who claimed the plan was aimed at the emancipation of all the slaves in South Carolina. Burke predicted this would lead to the amalgamation of the two races, something South Carolinians feared even more than a race war.
Laurens’ proposal was put to a vote. A pleased Governor Rutledge touted the result: “About 12 or 15 were for it & about 100 against it—I now hope it will rest for ever & a day.”
In a bitter letter to General Washington, Laurens attributed his defeat to “the howlings of a triple-headed monster in which prejudice, avarice & pusillanimity were united.” Washington tried to console his young aide with the observations of an older man who had discarded any and all illusions about human nature. In many ways, it is one of the most important letters Washington ever wrote, casting a revealing light on the later years of the American Revolution:
The spirit of freedom, which at the commencement of this contest would have gladly sacrificed every thing to the attainment of its object, has long since subsided, and every selfish passion has taken its place. It is not the public but the private interest which influences the generality of mankind, nor can the Americans any longer boast of an exception.
Laurens found General Greene equally sympathetic to his idea. He had backed Laurens with letters to Governor Rutledge, testifying to how badly he needed the black recruits in his army. To console him, Greene offered Laurens command of the light infantry. He would be responsible for repelling British foragers as well as more serious forays into the countryside. Hoping some local military glory would give him the prestige he needed to win support for his black regiments, the unhappy colonel accepted with alacrity.
Greene moved his army to the Ashley River lowlands outside Charleston, where drinking water was more abundant. Alas, so were mosquitoes. During the next few months as many as 200 of Greene’s men died of malaria, and hundreds more were stricken. The outbreak left the Americans all but impotent when it came to stopping the British from raiding the countryside for provisions.
Assuming the rebels were no longer a threat, the British maintained a galley on the Ashley River. The ship regularly sent its crew ashore “to plunder and distress the inhabitants,” Greene wrote. The sailors were also undoubtedly gathering intelligence from Loyalist spies. One dark night, Laurens ordered a captain and 14 light infantrymen to launch a surprise attack. They captured most of the 40-man crew and sank the galley. Greene was delighted with the exploit. “No enterprise this war has exceeded it,” he told a friend.
But Laurens had few opportunities for similar coups. “The present is an idle, insipid time,” he told Greene. The colonel had other reasons for being depressed. In the spring of 1782, he had received heartbreaking news from Europe. Before the Revolution, he had been studying law in London and had an affair with Martha Manning, the attractive daughter of his father’s business agent. The young woman had become pregnant, and John married her to protect her honor. A few months later, before the child was born, Laurens sailed to America to join Washington’s Army. Now he learned Martha had heard about his 1781 trip to Paris and had rushed to France, hoping to see him. By the time she arrived, John was on his way back to America. The distressed young woman had fallen ill and died in Lisle.
Further darkening Laurens’ mood was Greene’s decision to send the light troops to the rear to obtain forage for their horses. Some of Laurens’ officers had ignored a recently passed law barring soldiers from taking food from civilians. Their actions in turn drew a public rebuke from the South Carolina government. Laurens thought the civilians were showing a deplorable lack of sympathy for his men, adding to an already gloomy view of his native state’s patriotism.
Greene worried about the colonel’s state of mind. Laurens, the general told one correspondent, acted as if the withdrawal of his troops were a punishment. “[He] wishes to fight much more than I wish he should,” Greene wrote.
The campaign, Laurens told a friend, “has become perfectly insipid.” The word apparently summed up a great deal of his life in 1782. His dream of black emancipation was receding into the mists of the impossible. The governor of New York had recently appointed his friend Hamilton to Congress. Meanwhile, Laurens was trapped in South Carolina, bickering over whether his troops were taking too much food from local farmers.
Greene decided to make Laurens his intelligence officer. With about a dozen men as a guard, the colonel took a post midway between the two armies and was soon sending Greene a stream of valuable information. The job was only moderately dangerous. The lines between the two armies were porous, and Laurens had so many personal connections on both sides, information virtually fell into his lap. The colonel was soon bored with his new assignment.
Congressman Hamilton wrote a letter that did little to raise Laurens’ spirits. He reported the latest rumors from Paris, two or three months late, of course. The British were negotiating a peace treaty. Though there were “obstacles,” Hamilton was inclined to believe the war was ending. “A new scene opens,” he wrote. The next challenge was to “make independence a blessing.” That would require the creation of “solid foundations” for the federal union, a task that called for leveling “mountains of prejudice” against a strong federal government.
Hamilton urged Laurens to “quit your sword…put on the toga and come to Congress.… We have fought side by side to make America free; let us hand in hand struggle to make her happy.” Hamilton signed this appeal, “Yrs for ever.” He had no idea it was the last letter he would write to his best friend.
Laurens soon established from his many sources that the British were planning to evacuate Charleston. Only a lack of ships prevented an immediate withdrawal. This was extremely valuable information. It relieved Greene of his constant fear that the enemy was planning a surprise attack. But the war, such as it was, continued. The British still needed food and forage.
On August 21, 1782, the king’s men launched a major foraging expedition, supported by more than a dozen ships. Laurens’ spies told him exactly where they were going. Greene ordered his new light infantry commander, General Mordecai Gist, to “strike at them wherever you may meet them.” Laurens learned of Greene’s orders and decided to join the prospective fray, ignoring a bout of malaria that had laid him low for several days.
Five days later, Laurens joined Gist’s men on the north side of the Combahee River south of Charleston. Some 300 British regulars were foraging on the plantations along the river. Gist had arrived the previous day and worked out a plan of attack. He would hit the British at daybreak on August 27 and drive them into their boats. As they retreated downriver, he hoped to bombard them with a howitzer from a bluff at the river’s mouth.
Laurens asked to command the 50 men assigned to defend the howitzer, which the British were likely to attack by land. Gist agreed, and everyone adjourned to nearby houses to get some rest. Laurens led his men to the Stock family plantation, where he was the life of a party the Stocks threw for him and the captain in command of the howitzer. Laurens was in an ebullient mood at the prospect of seeing action the next day. He urged Mrs. Stock and her daughters to watch the show from a scaffold with a river view.
At dawn Gist’s men surged across the Combahee to attack the Redcoats, but found nothing but stripped houses and cold campfires. A network of Loyalist spies had tipped off the British, who boarded their ships not long after midnight and headed downriver toward the sea. Gist instantly realized the enemy probably knew about the plan to bombard them from the bluff and would likely send men ashore to make sure the howitzer was put out of commission.
The general sent a horseman pounding down the road to warn Laurens, followed by 150 light infantrymen and dragoons. But he was much too late to avert the unfolding tragedy. By the time Laurens arrived at the neck of land leading to the bluff, 150 British infantrymen were lying in wait amid underbrush along the road. They started shooting the moment the Americans appeared, dragging their howitzer.
Laurens fell back and considered his options. He was unaware Gist was on the road with reinforcements; one suspects that knowledge wouldn’t have made much difference to this deeply depressed idealist, who still hoped fresh military glory would help sell his proposal to arm—and free—slaves. A captain in Laurens’ detachment said the colonel was “anxious to attack the enemy previous to the main body coming up.”
Laurens ordered a bayonet charge, putting himself at the head of his 50-man column. The British soldiers waited until the Americans were at point-blank range, then opened fire. There was a mighty crash, and a billow of musket smoke rose into the dawn sky. When the smoke cleared, Colonel John Laurens lay dead on his back, a bullet in his heart. A captain and several enlisted men lay near him, badly wounded. The rest of the Americans fled, abandoning their howitzer.
Gist arrived not long after the ambush. The assault had cost him a dozen men. He decided the British position was too strong and allowed the Redcoats to withdraw to their waiting ships with the captured howitzer. Glumly, the general reported to Greene that he had retreated with 19 wounded to the Stock plantation, “where the corpse of Colo Laurens shall be inter’d with every mark of distinction due to his rank and merit.”
For further reading, Thomas Fleming recommends: John Laurens and the American Revolution, by Gregory D. Massey, and An Imperfect God, by Henry Wiencek.
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.