Today, the South Carolina State Quarter Coin remembers when one of her brightest sons fell to enemy fire, one of the last casualties of the revolution, on August 27, 1782.
From The Life of Henry Laurens, With a Sketch of the Life of Lieutenant-Colonel John Laurens by David Duncan Wallace, published in 1915:
South Carolina still lying largely in the hands of the British, Laurens repaired for the third time to his native State to join in expelling the enemy, the desire to do which a year before had come so near leading him to decline the mission to France.
He attended as a member of the important “Jacksonborough Legislature” in January, 1782 — the first Legislature which could look upon itself with assurance as the governing body of an independent State — as he had attended as a member when South before, and again urged his scheme for raising negro troops.
It received, he says, twice as many votes as in 1779, but failed.
Declining all civil office except that of a representative, he joined the forces opposing the enemy.
A British expedition from Charleston was approaching the Combahee in search of rice for the garrison.
Laurens, though ill in bed, determined to take part. He occupied at this time the responsible position, at a point near Wappoo creek, of guarding Greene’s lines of secret communication with the city.
Hearing of the expedition of the enemy, Laurens rose from his bed of fever, wrote a hurried note to Gen. Greene, and, in disregard of his orders and the important duties with which he had been charged — a practice which the loose discipline of the American forces rendered not unusual, — put off for the scene of action.
After spending the evening in a delightful company of ladies at the plantation house of Mrs. Stock near the Combahee river, he turned from this happy scene only two hours before he was to march down the river with a small force to harass the enemy’s retreat at a work which had been thrown up at the extreme southern end of Chehaw Neck, the command of which he had requested.
But the enemy, having learned of his movements, with excellent judgment anticipated him.
Near Tar Bluff, at the northern end, or opening, at the loop of the Combahee before it takes its final course to St. Helena Sound, they had concealed a force of a hundred and forty men in the tall grass.
The point is about ten or eleven miles below Combahee Ferry and a mile or so above the work which was Laurens’s objective point.
Riding at the head of his fifty men, before the rising of the sun, the first intimation that he had of danger was when the enemy rose to fire.
Retreat itself would have been perilous; to surrender was not his nature; an impetuous dash might shatter the enemy.
Calling his men to follow, he dashed forward, only to fall at the first fire. His troops suffered severely.
The whole movement was a failure, and one of the best and bravest officers in the army lay dead, a sacrifice in an obscure skirmish, the most complete success of which would have been immaterial.
His was almost the last life to be given for the cause.
Washington was deeply grieved at the loss of the young officer whom he so loved and valued.
Writing three years afterwards to Gordon, he said, “No man possessed more of the amor patriae. In a word, he had not a fault, that I ever could discover, unless intrepidity bordering on rashness could come under that denomination; and to this he was excited by the purest motives.”
John Adams declared that the country had lost its most promising character.
Franklin had hoped that Laurens might succeed him at Paris as one than whom there was none better qualified.
His unnecessary and, for anything save heroic example, useless death was a real blow to his country.
He was truly one of the most admirable and attractive characters of the Revolution, deserving Robert Y. Hayne’s tribute of the Bayard of America, without fear and without reproach.
Hamilton said that his heart realized the patriotism of which others talked.
Like his hero Washington, he refused to receive pay for his services either as a soldier or a diplomat.
It is evidently in answer to a provision of an income by his father that he writes to that dear friend:
My heart overflows with gratitude for your kind letter of the 29th ulto. You grant me a privilege which I wished to have, but dared not solicit. I shall serve my country with greater satisfaction, and regarding you as the source of all my happiness and the author of every laudable action of which I am capable, answer your friendship with increasing love. I have drawn no pay, and would wish never to draw any, making to my country a pure offering of disinterested services.
He considered (in the words of Robert Y. Hayne) “that in the hour of calamity, the life and fortune of the citizen is the property of his country, and that his services should be rendered gratuitously.”
After his death Congress paid to his infant daughter the sum to which his salary would have amounted.
Laurens’s faculty of commanding the enthusiastic friendship of his associates was remarkable.
The French officers particularly fairly idolized him. He was like his father in that even his enemies paid him their sincere respect.
The Charleston Royal Gazette of September 7, 1782, contained the following comment on his death:
By accounts from the country we learn, that Mr. John Laurens, a Lieutenant-Colonel in the rebel army, and son of Mr. Henry Laurens, now in London; was lately killed near Combahee river, in attempting to impede the operations of a detachment of his Majesty’s troops.
When we contemplate the character of this young gentleman, we have only to lament his great error on his outset in life, in espousing a public cause which was to be sustained by taking up arms against his Sovereign.
Setting aside this single deviation from the path of rectitude, we know no one trait of his history which can tarnish his reputation as a man of honor, or affect his character as a gentleman. His generosity of temper and liberality of opinion, were as extensive as his abilities; as a soldier, he fought for glory, and as a citizen he pursued what he thought to be the interest of his country —
He constantly condemned every oppressive measure adopted against the Loyalists, and always contended that a steady and disinterested adherence to political tenets, though in opposition to his own, ought to render their possessor an object of esteem rather than of persecution.
His humanity can be no better illustrated than by mentioning what we are well assured was the case, that he highly reprobated the refusal of Matthewes, the Rebel Governor, to the proposal from this garrison, respecting the purchase of a quantity of rice; on this generous principle that it was cruel to withhold from those persons whom the Assembly of the Province had banished, the provisions which were necessary for the support in a foreign country, of the slaves they were to carry with them.
While we were thus marking the death of an enemy who was dangerous to our Cause from his abilities, we hope we shall stand excused for paying tribute at the same time to the moral excellencies of his character —
Happy would it be for the distressed families of those persons who are to leave this garrison with his Majesty’s troops that another Laurens could be found!
The combination of military talent, intellectual brilliancy and maturity of character which marked him hardly find a parallel among his associates save in his friend and fellow-officer on Washington’s staff, Alexander Hamilton.
If both these, remarkable youths had been spared, we have every reason to believe that Laurens also would have acquitted himself nobly in the constructive work of the next two decades.
Quick in his mental operations, handsome, socially accomplished, highly educated, endowed with large wealth, eminent position and the prestige of a great father, he had the prospect of the career of a powerful leader.
The South Carolina State Quarter Coin shows with an image of John Laurens from a miniature, circa 1780, by Charles Willson Peale.