Life of John Laurens, American Revolution Soldier and Activist

Drawing of John Laurens by Charles Frazier

Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

John Laurens (October 28, 1754–August 27, 1782) was a well-known South Carolina soldier and statesman. Active during the period of the American Revolution, Laurens was a vocal critic of the institution of enslavement who presented the Continental Congress with a plan to recruit enslaved people to fight against the British.

Early Life

Portrait of John Laurens

National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.

John Laurens was the oldest son of Henry Laurens, a South Carolina plantation owner and trader of enslaved people, and Eleanor Ball, a planter’s daughter. Only five of the Laurens children survived past their infancy.

Henry Laurens was a descendent of French Huguenots and was lauded as a hero during the French and Indian War. He served as a diplomat, statesman, and delegate to the First Continental Congress. The elder Laurens owned several hundred enslaved people on his plantation near Charleston, South Carolina, and was the co-owner of one of the largest trading houses of enslaved people in the colonies.

Young John grew up benefiting from the enslavement economy. He was educated at home with his brothers Henry Jr. and James, and sisters Mary and Martha. When John's mother Eleanor died, his father took the boys to London and Geneva for school. John ultimately decided to abide by his father’s wish that he study the law.

In October 1776, living in London, John married Martha Manning. Manning's brother William was a member of Parliament and the governor of the Bank of England. By this time, the Revolution was underway in the colonies, and John had avidly read Thomas Paine’s Common Sense treatise. He decided it was a moral imperative for him to go home to Charleston and join the Continental Army. In December 1776, while Martha was six months pregnant, John left London and returned to South Carolina, arriving in April 1777.

His father, Henry Sr., was planning a trip to Philadelphia that summer, where he would join the Continental Congress. Distressed by John’s interest in joining the army, Henry used his influence to secure his son a position as aide-de-camp to Gen. George Washington. John soon became close friends with two other men who served in the same role, Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette.

Military Service and Career

Portrait Of John Laurens

Smith Collection/ Gado / Getty Images

John Laurens established a reputation for recklessness in combat. Following the Battle of Brandywine during the Philadelphia campaign, Lafayette wrote that it was sheer luck and accident that Laurens survived the day: “It was not his fault that he was not killed or wounded, he did everything to procure one or t’other.”

Later that year, during the Battle of Germantown, Laurens took a musket ball to the shoulder. Again, his reckless daring was noted.

He camped with Washington’s army at Valley Forge during the brutal winter of 1777–1778 and then distinguished himself once more at the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey in June 1778. While doing reconnaissance for the Continental Army, under the leadership of Baron von Steuben, Laurens’ horse was shot out from underneath him; Laurens himself survived with minor injuries.

Anti-Enslavement Sentiments

Unlike many men of his social station and background, Laurens was strongly opposed to the institution of enslavement. Despite it being the economy upon which his family had benefited for decades, Laurens saw enslavement as morally wrong and thus anti-American. He wrote,

“The equitable Conduct which you have resolved upon with respect to your Negroes, will undoubtedly with great Opposition from interested Men… We have sunk the Africans & their descendants below the Standard of Humanity, and almost render'd them incapable of that Blessing which equal Heaven bestow'd upon us all."

Laurens encouraged enslavers, including his own father, to free their enslaved people, but his request was met with significant derision. Finally, Laurens proposed that Congress create a regiment of Black soldiers to fight against the British for the Continental Army. He suggested these men be recruited from southern plantations with the promise of freedom once their period of military service came to an end. Congress rejected the idea, concerned that arming enslaved people with weapons could lead to open mass rebellion against White landowners.

However, in spring 1779, the British army began to move against the southern states. With an imminent threat looming, Congress relented, as did John’s father, who had initially opposed the idea of a Black battalion. Congress approved the recruitment of 3,000 African American men, with the condition that Laurens had to get permission from the two largest colonies that allowed enslavement, South Carolina and Georgia.

If these two colonies approved the plan, Laurens could recruit his men, as long as they served faithfully until the war ended. At that point, they would be given $50 and their freedom after turning in their weapons. By now a lieutenant colonel, Laurens soon learned that Georgia and South Carolina would rather turn themselves over to the British than release any enslaved people into military service.

South Carolina’s Christopher Gadsden wrote to Samuel Adams, “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." 

Back in Battle

Map of the British defenses at Charleston.
Buyenlarge / Getty Images

His plan to arm Black troops rejected for a second time, Laurens returned to his role as Washington’s aide-de-camp, and as the Continental Army prepared to defend Charleston from the British, Laurens’ reckless behavior returned once more. During the Battle of the Coosawhatchie River in May 1779, Col. William Moultrie’s troops came under heavy fire, and Laurens volunteered to lead them out of the fight. He disobeyed orders by leading his men into battle; consequently, the troops suffered great losses, and Laurens was wounded. 

That fall, during a minor skirmish near Savannah, Laurens rode fearlessly toward British fire. Hamilton wrote that Laurens rode “with his arms wide extended,” as though challenging the British forces to shoot him.

Laurens was occasionally criticized for his behavior, but regarding the loss at Savannah, he simply replied, “My honor does not permit me to survive the disgrace of this day.”

In May 1780, Laurens was captured after the fall of Charleston and sent to Philadelphia by the British. He was later freed as part of a prisoner exchange in November of that year. Once he was no longer a prisoner of the British, Congress appointed Laurens, at Hamilton’s suggestion, as a diplomat to France.

While in Paris, Laurens managed to secure a gift of $6 million and a loan of $10 million from the French. In addition, he arranged for a significant loan and the establishment of a supply chain with the Netherlands.

Laurens returned to the colonies in time to show his heroism once more. At the Battle of Yorktown, when his commanding officer was killed, Laurens led his battalion in the storming of Redoubt No. 10. Hamilton was by his side. Laurens then went back to South Carolina, serving as intelligence officer for Gen. Nathaniel Greene and recruiting a network of spies in the South.

Death and Legacy

In August 1782, during the Battle of Combahee in South Carolina's Lowcountry, John Laurens was shot from his horse and killed. He was27 years old. He had been ill prior to the battle, most likely suffering from malaria, but still insisted on fighting alongside his battalion.

He never met his daughter, Frances Eleanor, born in London after he departed for South Carolina. In 1785, following the death of Martha Manning Laurens, Frances was brought to Charleston, where she was raised by one of John’s sisters and her husband. Frances later caused a bit of a scandal when she eloped in 1795 with a Scottish merchant.

After Laurens’ death, Hamilton wrote,

“I feel the deepest affliction at the news we have just received at the loss of our dear and inestimable friend Laurens. His career of virtue is at end. How strangely are human affairs conducted, that so many excellent qualities could not ensure a more happy fate! The world will feel the loss of a man who has left few like him behind; and America, of a citizen whose heart realized that patriotism of which others only talk. I feel the loss of a friend whom I truly and most tenderly loved, and one of a very small number.”

The city of Laurens, South Carolina, and Laurens Counties in both Georgia and South Carolina are named for John and his father Henry.

John Laurens Fast Facts

Full Name: John Laurens

Known For: Aide-de-camp to General George Washington, intelligence officer for General Greene, an American diplomat to France. 

Born: October 28, 1754 in Charleston, South Carolina, USA

Died: August 27, 1782 in Combahee River, South Carolina, USA

Spouse's Name: Martha Manning 

Child's Name: Frances Eleanor Laurens 

Key Accomplishments: Laurens was a North American 19-century Black activist in a society of traders of enslaved people and plantation owners. Additionally, he was known for his reckless behavior in battle but still distinguished himself as a hero.

Sources and Further Reading

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Wigington, Patti. "Life of John Laurens, American Revolution Soldier and Activist." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, Wigington, Patti. (2021, December 6). Life of John Laurens, American Revolution Soldier and Activist. Retrieved from Wigington, Patti. "Life of John Laurens, American Revolution Soldier and Activist." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).