In a superficial view, the American victory at Yorktown in October 1781 marked the end of the fighting phase of the American Revolution. Actually, however, two years remained before the formal peace officially ended the war and recognized American independence. Much of South Carolina remained in British hands during that time, which was the reason Colonel John Laurens returned to his childhood home to continue a fight that was, in retrospect, over and done with. During his previous service in South Carolina — the stint that got him captured when Charleston surrendered — he had advocated enlisting slaves in the Continental Army with emancipation as their reward. It made him unpopular, but he had not cared. Instead, he renewed his efforts for emancipation when he returned to South Carolina after Yorktown. Alexander Hamilton heartily encouraged his friend’s fight for this noble idea and admired his resolve and persistence in refusing to let it go. Whether it was marrying a girl he did not love or challenging the impervious prejudices of his neighbors, John Laurens counted no costs. He took solace in little victories won in an otherwise lost cause. His wife Patty had given him a lovely daughter; and though the emancipation of slaves in exchange for their enlistment in the Continental Army again failed in the Carolina legislature, support for the idea had almost doubled. He might have thought to himself, “Next time,” and, setting his jaw, believed it would eventually happen: If not next time, then sometime after that.
John Laurens had almost missed the Revolutionary War altogether. When it began, the young South Carolinian was stuck in London with orders from his father to stay put and complete his legal studies. His father’s demand posed only one of several difficulties for John as he yearned to return home and fight for his country’s independence. Laurens had thought he loved Martha Manning, the youngest daughter of his family’s English business partner, but his passion had ebbed even before Martha told him she was pregnant. Aware of Martha’s “situation,” as the delicate parlance of the time put it, Laurens did not pause to ponder options. He married Martha, though it was a loveless match. Abandoning himself to sexual ardor reflected a rash streak in John Laurens. But the wedding revealed a resolve to bear consequences. For Laurens, fulfilling an obligation was as natural as breathing.
That temperament was why nothing — not the Atlantic Ocean, his father’s orders, nor his bride well into her term — could keep him from joining America’s fight for independence. Laurens sailed from England and soon enlisted in the Continental Army, where he joined General George Washington’s staff in 1777. Anyone grumbling about his family connections amounting to favorable treatment — John’s father was the president of the Continental Congress— soon fell silent as it became apparent that Laurens was remarkable by any measure. The Low Country aristocracy of his childhood had imparted social poise, and years of study in Europe had molded a vibrant intellectual. He was fluent in several languages, including Latin, Greek, Italian, and French. He mastered geography and mathematics, amassed an encyclopedic knowledge of history, and studied law at the Inns of Court in London. Along the way, he became an expert fencer and a thoughtful philosopher whose unalloyed devotion to human liberty compelled him to embrace the abolition of slavery. This last is likely what almost immediately endeared him to another member of Washington’s staff. Laurens was possibly the only person Alexander Hamilton ever cherished without reserve or qualification.
In any case, judging a place on Washington’s staff as a soft job was a mistake. Every member of it was often in the thick of the fighting, and Laurens was courageous to a fault, as rash in war as he had been in lovemaking. The Marquis de Lafayette once remarked, in admiration and alarm, that John Laurens survived battles in spite of himself. Laurens had the scars to prove it. A bullet mangled his shoulder at Germantown, a horse was shot from under him at Monmouth, and he was captured at Charleston.
Laurens was unique in having the most varied career of anyone during the Revolution. After he was freed from captivity by a prisoner exchange, the Continental Congress judged his commanding presence and fluency in languages as perfect for a diplomatic mission to France, possibly forgetting that Laurens was rash. American diplomats in Paris were soon reminded of it. He irritated ministers of the French government by insisting that the United States was not a charity case. At an official reception, Laurens violated diplomatic protocol by addressing the king directly, an impulsive act that left the ordinarily glib Benjamin Franklin speechless. More remarkable than these missteps was that the French ignored them and fell under his spell. They released considerable sums of money and stockpiles of matériel thanks to the young man’s insistence. It kept the American Revolution afloat during its darkest days. Franklin was also eventually enchanted. When he briefly considered resigning as the US minister to the French court, he recommended that Laurens replace him.
Growing French affection, Benjamin Franklin’s increasing admiration, or even a reunion with his wife Patty (Martha’s nickname) and little Fanny, the daughter who was now a darling girl of four, could not persuade Laurens to remain in Europe while the fight still raged in America. He was back with the army again in the fall of 1781, just in time to begin surviving battles in spite of himself. After Laurens led a charge against a key British position at Yorktown, Washington gave him the signal honor of representing the American army to dictate terms of surrender to Cornwallis.
Whatever dreams John Laurens conjured about his quest for the emancipation of slaves, they were beset by fever, for shortly after he arrived in South Carolina, he fell ill. Clear signs of exhaustion recommended bed rest. However, news that a British foraging party was ranging the countryside roused him from his sickbed. He led fifty mounted men on the scent of his prey, which were Redcoats in a considerable force of about one hundred fifty infantry searching for rice to provision their garrison. Later, this was to strike everyone, including the British, as a supreme irony. During his earlier service in South Carolina, Laurens had condemned as cruel the refusal of Patriot authorities to sell rice to starving Loyalists. But the paradox of his now moving to stop a requisition of rice would have struck John Laurens as a false comparison. Loyalists were misguided neighbors. Soldiers were the enemy.
That August day in 1782, the enemy was so well informed that it’s been conjectured that a spy had betrayed American plans. For whatever reason, the foraging Redcoats knew enough to hide in tall grass near the Combahee River and wait for the approach of the Americans. Riding at a canter, John Laurens did not see the British line until it rose and took aim. He instantly unsheathed his sword and galloped toward the leveled muskets. Their first volley killed him.
Because it happened just months after the climactic battle at Yorktown and only months before the final peace that ended the war, the death of John Laurens seemed a senseless waste. But just as Laurens would have dismissed the presumed irony of dying over a bit of rice, he would have insisted that nothing short of victory justified stopping a worthwhile fight. His father’s demand five years earlier that John remain in London to finish his studies was an attempt to keep him from harm’s way. But John had echoed the defiant declaration of that generation of Americans by quoting the Roman poet Horace: “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” It means, “It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.” That was as true for John Laurens in 1782 as when he sailed from England.
A peerless combination of courage, honor, and fidelity defined this remarkable young man, making him unique among men notable for their resolve and achievements. John Laurens was the only member of Washington’s staff killed in combat. Hearing the news, Alexander Hamilton’s icy control gave way to tears. “The world will feel the loss of a man who has left few like him behind,” Hamilton wrote. For the remainder of his days, he would never meet anyone like John Laurens, “a friend I truly and most tenderly loved.”
On every Memorial Day, it is sweet and proper to remember such men, such sacrifice, such loss, and such resolve in fights still worthwhile and not yet won, to remember those who defy irony and frame their times with majestic selflessness.