Google+ Georgia On My Mind: John Laurens: A Man Before His Time

Friday, December 7, 2007

John Laurens: A Man Before His Time

Laurens County was created in December, 1807 and was named for John Laurens, an aide-de-camp for General George Washington during the American Revolution. (Read a letter from George Washington to John Laurens.) He was appointed to that position after a standout performance at Brandywine. Laurens is also remembered for having his horse shot out from underneath him at Monmouth.

Laurens was not from Georgia, but was from South Carolina. His father, Henry Laurens, served as president of the Continental Congress. Later, after the Revolution Henry Laurens traveled to Europe and was part of the delegation that negotiated settlement terms with the British. He is immortalized in many paintings but the most interesting is Benjamin West’s unfinished work I wrote about over at History Is Elementary today.

Getting back to the namesake for Georgia’s Laurens County……John Laurens lobbied for a Black regiment during the Revolution to help fight for the Patriot cause. He wanted slaves armed and wanted them to have their freedom in exchange for their service. His ideas greatly set him apart from other South Carolina Patriots. Laurens’ innovative idea was portrayed in the movie The Patriot with Mel Gibson.

During the fall of Charleston John Laurens was captured by the British and was shipped to Philadephia where he was granted parole. Later he was recaptured by the British and ended up in the Tower of London. When he was exchanged a few months later Congress appointed him special minister to France. In March, 1781 John Laurens obtained an agreement from the French where they would lend naval support to the Patriots that same year, and he also traveled to the Netherlands for a loan and supplies.

In a plot too interesting to be real life Laurens managed to return to America in time to join the Patriots at Yorktown where he took part in the surrender negotiations. He then traveled back to South Carolina and worked with Nathaniel Greene who had a network of spies reporting on British operations there. Even though there had been a surrender at Yorktown the British remained active elsewhere for a time.

John Laurens’ service to his country ended in August, 1782 at the Battle of Chehaw Neck when he shot. Many historians feel it was a meek ending for such a dynamic man. Laurens is buried at Mepkin, the Laurens’ estate that today contains a Trappist abbey.

The picture with this post is a minature by Charles Wilson Peale. Laurens commissioned it for his wife. Mr. Peale eventually copied the minature and presented to Major William Jackson who served with Laurens during the siege of Charleston. Jackson’s copy also contains a motton written in Latin that states, “Dulce et decorum est propatria mori” which means “It is a sweet and honorable thing to die for one’s country.”

Many historians feel that John Laurens was a man before his time and admire his youthful zeal on the battlefield and off. One interesting bit about Laurens that I would never bring up to my nine year old students is the fact that there is speculation that Laurens and Alexander Hamilton were lovers. This is due to the fact that in some of their letters contain very loving sentiments such as this quote from Hamilton: “I wish, my dear Laurens…it might be in my power, by action rather than words, [to] convince you that I love you.” Hamilton and Laurens are both on the “Surrender of Cornwallis” commemorative U.S. postage stamp released in October of 1981. (Source)

One of the most recent accounts of the life of John Laurens is Gregory D. Massey’s John Laurens and the American Revolution. A volume that I would really like to have in my possession is from 1958 by Sara Bertha Townsend called An American Soldier: The Life and Times of John Laurens. It is based largely on the correspondence between John Laurens and his father, Henry Laurens.

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