John Laurens (October 28, 1754 - August 27, 1782) was an American soldier and statesman from South Carolina during the Revolutionary War.
John was born to Henry and Eleanor Ball Laurens in Charleston, South Carolina. After tutoring at home, he extended his education in Europe, first in London in 1771, then in Geneva, Switzerland in 1772. In August of 1774 he returned to London to study law.
Early in 1776, he married Martha Manning in London. In November of that year, he sailed for Charleston to join the rebel forces in America. He left his wife behind, pregnant with an unborn son he would never see. In the summer of 1777, he accompanied his father, Henry Laurens, on the trip to Philadelphia where Henry was serving in the Continental Congress.
John joined the main army of the Continental Army as an aide to General Washington. He became a very good friend of his fellow aide, Alexander Hamilton. He also gave the first demonstrations of his tendency to reckless courage at the Battles of Monmouth, Brandywine, and Germantown. After the battle of Brandywine Lafayette observed that, "It was not his fault that he was not killed or wounded . . . he did every thing that was necessary to procure one or the other."
As the British stepped up operations in the South, Laurens promoted the idea of arming slaves and granting them freedom in return for their service. In March 1779 Congress approved this idea, commissioned him Lieutenant Colonel, and sent him south to implement it. He won election to the South Carolina House of Representatives, and introduced his black regiment plan in 1779 and 1780 (and again in 1782) only to meet overwhelming rejection each time. His belief that blacks shared a similar nature with whites and could aspire to freedom in a republican society set Laurens apart from other leaders in revolutionary South Carolina.
In 1779, when the British threatened Charleston, Governor Rutledge proposed to surrender the city with the condition the Carolina become neutral in the war. Laurens loudly and critically opposed the idea, and the British were repulsed. That fall he commanded an infantry regiment in General Lincoln's failed assault on Savannah, Georgia. John became a prisoner in May of 1780 with the fall of Charleston, but he was exchanged in November. Then in December, Congress named him a special minister to France.
John was sent to Paris by George Washington in March of 1781 and gained French assurances that their navy would support American operations in that year. He also arranged a loan and supplies from the Dutch, before returning home in May. Laurens persistence to the King of France and his unbridled audacity in insisting for French aid is the only reason monies were received from France. He boldly stated that unless the American Continental Army received aid, that the Americans might be forced to fight for the British against France! He got home in time to see the French fleet arrive and to join Washington at the Battle of Yorktown. Young Laurens was the principle spokesman for negotiating General Cornwallis surrender after the Battle.
Laurens returned to South Carolina and served General Nathanael Greene by creating and operating a network of spies that tracked British operations in and around Charleston. But, in August of 1782, his reckless nature came to the fore again. Learning of a British force movement to gather supplies, he sent a quick note to Greene, and left his post to join Mordecai Gist in an attempt to intercept them. He was killed in a totally useless skirmish that did nothing to alter the course of the war. At the Battle of Chehaw Neck near the Combahee River, he was shot from the saddle and died on August 27, 1782. He is buried on the family estate, called Mepkin, near Moncks Corner.
Laurens proposal for black troops in Carolina were implemented in the fictional account in the 2000 movie The Patriot, and some of his words and actions went into the creation of the Benjamin Martin character in the film. In another aspect of the movie the family's plantation home at Mepkin was burned as a British retaliation, and his younger siblings escaped at night.
There are also modern reports circulated that John Laurens had a homosexual relationship with Alexander Hamilton. There doesn't appear to be an historical basis for this. The origin would appear to be a statue of the two that stands in Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C. They are depicted clasping hands and congratulating each other after capturing the British redoubt at Yorktown. For many years the statue was a popular gay rendezvous.