The Brilliant, Brief Career of George Washington’s Aide

By early afternoon on Sept. 11, 1777, Gen. George Washington’s Continental Military had been keeping off Hessian assaults throughout Chadds Ford for a number of hours. Having reconnoitered the advancing British military below Maj. Gen. Sir William Howe, Washington had chosen a robust defensive place on the east financial institution of Pennsylvania’s Brandywine River. If his males might maintain the fords, the enemy could be unable to cross from the alternative shore to threaten Philadelphia.

However round 2 p.m., as Washington surveyed the state of affairs at Chadds Ford with some satisfaction, members of his employees observed motion to the north. Scouts quickly reported the method of ranks of troopers in crimson coats. Having crossed unguarded Jefferis Ford, 5 miles to the north, the principle British physique, led by Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis, had unexpectedly arrived on the American proper flank in power with some 8,500 males. Washington’s employees, who solely moments earlier than had been calm and assured of the day’s final result, searched frantically for reinforcements to counter the British flank assault and stave off catastrophe.

Among the many American commander’s harried subordinates was a younger and enthusiastic South Carolinian named John Laurens, who had joined the Continental Military a month earlier. Properly educated, properly related and fluent in French, he’d been appointed to Washington’s employees as an aide-de-camp. Whereas three divisions below Maj. Gen. John Sullivan rushed to the best to confront the British flank assault, Laurens rode in the wrong way, on the lookout for Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene on the American left. 

Artist Howard Pyle’s 1903 portray The Nation Makers immortalizes the Sept. 11, 1777, Battle of Brandywine, the primary conflict during which Laurens participated as an aide to George Washington.
(Brandywine River Museum of Artwork)

As Greene’s reinforcing division pivoted to confront the British flanking power, it was inundated with panicked People from Sullivan’s crumbling divisions. Mustering the power and willpower for which he would change into well-known, Laurens rallied most of the fleeing males below hearth. Greene and his advert hoc combination of Regulars and militia then made their stand on excessive floor close to the Birmingham Meetinghouse. Conspicuous among the many combatants was Laurens. The younger South Carolinian wasn’t the one courageous man on the sector that day, however he definitely impressed many others to face and combat. The lads on Birmingham Hill put up a cussed protection towards veteran British troopers, thus permitting Washington’s military to conduct an orderly retreat. Though the Battle of Brandywine was a defeat for the People, and the British went on to seize Philadelphia, the bravery of Greene’s males and people Laurens had cobbled collectively had saved the withdrawal from turning right into a rout. “It was not his fault that he was not killed or wounded,” quipped Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette, of Laurens’ conduct throughout the battle. “He did all the things that was needed to obtain one or t’different.”

And so started the inspiring and tragically transient army profession of John Laurens.

BOrn to Wealth

Born on Oct. 28, 1754, in Charleston, South Carolina, Laurens was raised in affluence. His father, Henry Laurens, was one of many wealthiest plantation homeowners within the British province. However in childhood John was surrounded by demise. Of Henry and spouse Eleanor’s dozen youngsters, solely 5 survived to maturity. John not solely watched his siblings die, but in addition misplaced his beloved mom, in 1770 at age 15. Regardless of such emotional trials, John grew right into a extremely smart and succesful younger man. A 12 months after his spouse’s demise, Henry Laurens moved to London with two of his surviving three sons (the third already resided there), leaving his daughters within the care of their Uncle James in Charleston. Henry gave John the very best schooling cash might purchase, together with private tutors and among the best personal colleges in Switzerland and England. 

By the outbreak of the American Revolutionary Warfare younger Laurens was learning to change into a lawyer at London’s prestigious Center Temple. It was round that point pals launched him to the abolitionist motion. John attended many conferences and debates on the difficulty and shortly turned a robust proponent of the trigger, a most uncommon place for a Southern aristocrat whose father owned a half dozen plantations and one of many main slave-trading homes in North America. 

John Laurens portrait
John Laurens
(Nationwide Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Establishment)

Like most of the soon-to-be American founders, Laurens learn enlightenment philosophy, and in response to Britain’s heavy-handed tax insurance policies and its refusal to grant the colonies direct illustration in Parliament, he turned satisfied People ought to search independence from the Crown. Certainly, the reason for American liberty turned an obsession that would eat the remaining years of his life. When tensions within the colonies erupted into open insurrection, Laurens learn with rising alarm of the siege of Boston, the Battle of Bunker Hill, Washington’s flight from Lengthy Island and different determined actions. By then Henry Laurens had returned stateside to help to the political trigger. Son John had made a life in London, in 1776 marrying Martha Manning, the English daughter of a outstanding household good friend. However as the unhealthy information from residence piled up, younger Laurens additionally felt compelled to return residence — to affix the combat. So, in December 1776 he stated his farewells to Martha (pregnant with their daughter) and boarded a ship sure for the colonies. He arrived in Charleston in April 1777 and traveled to Philadelphia, the place Henry Laurens took a proffered seat in the Continental Congress and secured 22-year-old son John a place on Washington’s employees.

IN Battle

After defeating the People at Brandywine that September, the British captured Philadelphia. Leaving a 3,000-man garrison within the metropolis, Howe then moved his 9,000-strong essential military north to the close by village of Germantown. Introduced an opportunity to decisively defeat the British—a lot as he had the Hessians at Trenton earlier that 12 months — Washington led 4 columns to converge on Germantown, marching in a single day for what he hoped could be a shock assault. 

Simply after 5 o’clock on the morning of Oct. 4 the undetected Continentals made contact with British pickets on the outskirts of city. Laurens was within the vanguard and took a musket ball to the fleshy a part of his proper shoulder throughout the preliminary engagement. Disregarding his wound, Laurens pushed ahead along with his fellow Continentals to Cliveden, legal professional Benjamin Chew’s nation property, a stone construction filled with some 120 enemy troops. 

Regardless of being outnumbered, the British stubbornly held their floor, taking pictures successfully from the second-story home windows. An American officer below a white flag demanded the holdouts give up, solely to be shot lifeless for his hassle. The Continentals then introduced a 6-pounder cannon to bear on the home, however the iron balls merely bounced off its sturdy partitions. Laurens lastly joined others in an effort to burn out the defenders. Through the failed try he was badly bruised within the aspect by a spent ball. Washington had counted on shock, however confusion as a consequence of heavy fog and the half hour delay at Cliveden gave the British loads of time to kind for battle and launch a counterattack that finally drove the Continental Military from the sector. 

Chew estate, Battle of Germantown
Although the Patriots failed of their assault on the Chew property and misplaced the broader Battle of Germantown, Laurens was famous for his braveness and management in motion.
(Heritage Photographs (Getty Photographs))

Following the defeat at Germantown, Washington established winter quarters at Valley Forge. Whereas encamped, Laurens conceived a plan to kind regiments of slaves, who could be given their freedom at struggle’s finish. The plan gained traction within the North and acquired the approval of each Washington and the Continental Congress, but it surely predictably fell on deaf ears down South. Laurens’ residence state of South Carolina had an acute scarcity of troopers for its protection. However even after the British seized Savannah and threatened Charleston, the South Carolina Legislature nonetheless overwhelmingly vetoed Laurens’s try to lift slave regiments throughout the state. Undeterred, Laurens pursued the trigger all through the struggle. Although particular person liberty, pure legislation and self-government had been bedrock rules of the American Revolution, abolition proved too radical a trigger for the age, no less than within the labor-dependent plantation South.

Strike Alternatives

Following the British close to upset at Germantown on Oct. 4 and Maj. Gen. John Burgoyne’s humiliating defeat two weeks later at Saratoga, New York, Howe resigned his command. He was changed by Maj. Gen. Sir Henry Clinton, who deserted the Northern technique, evacuated Philadelphia in June 18, 1778, and moved to consolidate his forces in New York.

Because the dispirited British military plodded south throughout New Jersey, it offered Washington one other irresistible alternative. On the morning of June 28, because the British rearguard started to decamp, the van of the Continental Military below Maj. Gen. Charles Lee struck close to the county seat village of Monmouth Courthouse. On seeing the mass of British infantry earlier than him, nevertheless, Lee misplaced his nerve and ordered a retreat. The order angered lots of his subordinates, none greater than Laurens, who tried vainly to reverse the tide of panic-stricken People. 

Arriving on the sector, Washington took command of what was left of Lee’s forces and fashioned a line of defense on the excessive floor atop Perrine’s Hill. Because the People beat again a number of British assaults, reinforcements arrived to bolster the Continental line. The combating below a sizzling summer season solar went on for hours till each side had been exhausted. All through the battle Laurens was persistently within the midst of the combating with the van of People battling their manner throughout a bridge that spanned a ravine on the base of the hill. Through the fierce hand-to-hand confrontation with an elite British grenadier battalion, Laurens acquired a glancing wound from a musket ball when his horse was shot out from below him. With the approaching of evening the British retreated on the highway to Sandy Hook, the place ships waited to move them to New York. The Battle of Monmouth went down on the checklist of misplaced alternatives for the Continental Military. Within the wake of the fiasco Laurens challenged Lee to a duel and wounded the feckless common within the aspect along with his first shot. The duelists’ seconds ended the affair earlier than Laurens might reload.

Washington at the Battle of Monmouth, N.J.
Washington rallies Patriots on the June 28, 1777, Battle of Monmouth, N.J., one other misplaced alternative throughout which Laurens was wounded.
(Monmouth County Historic Affiliation)

After Monmouth the British pursued a brand new technique constructed round invading the Southern colonies. Their first transfer was the seize of Savannah on December 29. From there a number of thousand British troops marched northeast towards Charleston. Together with his hometown below menace, Laurens took depart from Washington’s military to affix Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln’s small military within the South Carolina Lowcountry. He quickly discovered the motion he craved throughout a Could 3, 1779, skirmish alongside the Coosawhatchie River close to Savannah. An incident there highlighted the younger officer’s uncooked and infrequently rash aggression.

Tasked with escorting a rearguard power of militia to Brig. Gen. William Moultrie’s essential place, Laurens as a substitute crossed the river on the lookout for British to assault. He bought greater than he bargained for. Severely wounded in an enemy ambush, he almost bought himself and his entire outfit captured. Though his braveness and combating spirit had been commendable, they generally led Laurens to make poor choices. “Colonel Laurens was a younger man of nice advantage and a courageous soldier, however an imprudent officer,” Moultrie wrote in his postwar memoirs. “He was too rash and impetuous.” Thomas-Antoine de Mauduit du Plessis, a French artillery captain who fought alongside Laurens within the Continental Military, labeled the younger American a “mad and rash fellow.” 


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Again to It

After a brief convalescence, Laurens returned to Lincoln’s military in time to take part within the October 1779 Franco-American siege of British-held Savannah. With French Vice Adm. Charles Henri Hector d’Estaing’s fleet blockading the harbor, floor forces launched the assault towards British defenses on October 9. 

Answerable for a blended unit of South Carolina gentle infantry and dragoons, Laurens supported the principle assault on a stiffly defended redoubt. Although repeatedly fired on by British defenders to their entrance and enemy artillery on both flank, the South Carolinians refused to retreat, however they had been unable to surmount the parapet wall of the redoubt. A bayonet cost by rising British troops degenerated right into a brutal hand-to-hand combat that raged greater than an hour. With mounting losses and no signal of victory or reinforcement, Laurens was compelled to retreat. His heroic recklessness spawned numerous legends. One account by John Church Hamilton, in a biography of famed father Alexander Hamilton, claimed that in the mean time of defeat Laurens confronted the enemy weapons with arms unfold extensive in a Christlike pose, as if inviting demise. One other spurious story had Laurens gazing down at fallen People exterior the British redoubt, saying, “Poor fellows, I envy you,” earlier than casting down his sword and withdrawing. 

Assaults elsewhere alongside the road proved uncoordinated, and on Oct. 17 Lincoln and d’Estaing deserted the siege.

In late March 1780 Clinton arrived on the outskirts of Charleston along with his massive military. Though greater than a 12 months had handed for the reason that fall of Savannah, South Carolina was unprepared for the invasion, and Charleston’s defenses remained wholly insufficient. Because the British laid siege to the metropolis, Laurens was among the many small quantity of People who rallied to its protection. They stubbornly held out for six weeks, surrendering on Could 12 solely when it turned evident no reinforcements had been coming. In conserving with the army etiquette of the day, Laurens and the opposite Continental officers had been paroled, anticipated to take a seat out the combat until swapped in a prisoner alternate. In a letter to Washington two weeks later Laurens described the capitulation as “the best and most humiliating misfortune of my life.” Six months handed earlier than the keen younger officer was exchanged, after which he spent the higher a part of a 12 months in France on a diplomatic mission. Congress had appointed him to the place, however he chafed to return to the combat. Laurens lastly rejoined Washington’s military in Williamsburg, Va., on Sept. 18, 1781, simply in time to take part within the siege of coastal Yorktown, occupied by a British military below Lord Cornwallis.

Profitable the struggle

Approaching Yorktown in late September, Washington’s Continentals and their French allies surrounded the British defenses with parallel trenchworks from which to bombard the enemy. Laurens was intimately conversant in the siege method, having been on the receiving finish of it at Charleston. 

Earlier than Franco-American forces might lengthen their trenches inside mortar vary of the principle British place, nevertheless, they must seize two outer defenses that protruded from the enemy traces. The plan of assault referred to as for French troops to assault Redoubt No. 9, whereas the People tackled Redoubt No. 10. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton would command the principle assault on No. 10 whereas Laurens led a detachment across the rear of the redoubt to stop the escape of any British troopers.

Assault at Yorktown
In September 1781 Laurens returned from
a diplomatic mission to France simply in time
to take part in a key assault on Redoubt No. 10 at Yorktown, Va.
(Delaware Artwork Museum, Wilmington (Bridgeman Photographs))

A frightening impediment, Redoubt No. 10 was ringed with sharpened log abatis, palisades and a moat and manned by almost 50 veteran British and Hessian troopers below Maj. James Campbell. Hoping to keep away from detection by its defenders, Hamilton and Laurens waited till dusk on October 14, a moonless evening, to launch their assault. As soon as in place, Hamilton’s 400 gentle soldiers rushed throughout the no-man’s-land between opposing fortifications. They managed to cross undetected and start chopping by way of the abatis earlier than British defenders sounded the alarm and commenced lobbing grenades and pouring musket hearth into the attackers. Shifting swiftly by way of the remaining obstructions, the People scaled the parapet and entered the redoubt. Concurrently, Laurens’ detachment entered the redoubt from the rear, the younger officer personally capturing Campbell. The rapidity of the assault mercifully restricted casualties on both aspect.

With the lack of the redoubts, Cornwallis knew it was solely a matter of time earlier than he could be compelled to give up. 4 days later, when the phrases had been being negotiated, Laurens was given the respect of representing the People. Cornwallis wasn’t current, and he refused to attend the formal give up ceremony on Oct. 19, citing sickness.

The Demise of Laurens

Within the wake of Cornwallis’ give up Laurens was transferred to Greene’s military close to Charleston and finally given command of the final’s gentle troops, together with the mixed cavalry and infantry power fashioned by Maj. Henry “Gentle Horse Harry” Lee. Referred to as “Lee’s Legion,” the tight-knit unit posed a management problem, as its beloved namesake commander had lately retired, and the lads regarded Laurens as one thing of an undesirable stepfather. Including to their discontent, duties within the Lowcountry largely entailed uneventful patrols and picket responsibility. Idleness gave males loads of time to ponder grievances. Fortunately, the occasional skirmish with British items nonetheless waging struggle served to maintain the American troops’ surliness in verify.

In August 1782, on studying of 1 such British foraging social gathering marching up the Combahee River, Greene despatched a number of hundred of his gentle troops to cease them. Laurens, although bedridden with a fever, rose from his sickbed and rode out to affix the combat. On the morning of August 27 Laurens and a detachment of fifty foot troopers cut up off towards a redoubt downriver, hoping to chop off the possible British escape route, whereas the principle physique of 150 cavalrymen sought battle with the enemy. Unknown to Laurens, the British had anticipated his actions and ready a roadside ambush with 140 males.

When the British sprang the entice, Laurens did what he all the time did — attacked with out hesitation. He might have awaited the arrival of the cavalry, which he knew would trip onerous to affix him. However such prudence was not in Laurens’ character. The “mad and rash fellow” as a substitute led his outnumbered soldiers into the very muzzles of the British muskets. Earlier than reaching the enemy line, Laurens and a rating of males fell to an enemy volley. Leaderless and outgunned, the surviving People correctly fled. The reinforcements coated their retreat and managed to get better Laurens’ physique, which was quickly interred on the close by Inventory household plantation. He was later buried within the household cemetery at Moncks Nook, South Carolina, north of Charleston.

this text first appeared in Navy Historical past journal

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Laurens in ‘Hamilton’ and Past

People justly keep in mind John Laurens as a nationwide hero. An acquaintance of such seminal revolutionary figures as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton (he options prominently within the hit musical “Hamilton”) and the Marquis de Lafayette, he had expended a lot of his brief life within the effort to wrest independence from Nice Britain. Laurens believed with all his coronary heart within the “unalienable rights” of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In contrast to most propertied Southerners of his period, he additionally believed such rights ought to lengthen to slaves. 

Though not an excellent tactical chief, Laurens was fearless and embodied the spirit of American independence like few others. That he met his finish at age 27 in an insignificant skirmish within the South Carolina Lowcountry is without doubt one of the many tragic ironies of the Revolutionary Warfare. He nonetheless died doing what he cherished most — combating alongside and for his fellow People.

Matthew T. Beazley is a Georgia-based archaeologist and lifelong pupil of army historical past. For additional studying he recommends John Laurens and the American Revolution, by Gregory D. Massey; and An American Soldier: The Lifetime of John Laurens, by Sara Bertha Townsend.

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