South Carolina’s Emancipator, John Laurens
Though Laurens intention to arm and free African slaves to augment was intended to blunt the actions of Lord Dunmore’s Virginia emancipation proclamation of 1775, South Carolina had earlier considered arming slaves for community defense. This shows too that using slaves as armed combatants with freedom as a reward predated the War for Southern Independence, and it was an inevitable strategy, both offensive and defensive, given the great numbers of Africans brought to North America by the British and New Englanders.
Bernhard Thuersam, Executive Director
Cape Fear Historical Institute
Post Office Box 328
Wilmington, NC 28402
South Carolina’s Emancipator: John Laurens:
(H)e fought in the Battle of Brandywine, was wounded at Germantown, and spent the winter of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge on Washington’s staff. At Monmouth the following summer he escaped unscathed when his horse was shot from under him…during the late summer of 1778 he had served as liaison officer between the French and American commands during the joint attack on Rhode Island. His linguistic ability made him popular with the French officers and useful to Washington who spoke no French at all.
Nevertheless, Laurens was able to prevail upon his commander to send him back to South Carolina where he hoped to raise and lead a regiment of blacks against the British in the South. Early in 1778 John Laurens broached the matter to his father, who was then president of the Continental Congress. "I would solicit you to cede me a number of your able-bodied men slaves, instead of leaving me a fortune," he wrote.
Formed into a unit and trained, they might render important service during the next campaign, he argued. What is amazing about his plan, though, is not merely that he was willing to surrender a large part of his inheritance in order to augment the Continental Army—practically everything he did during the Revolution testifies to his willingness to sacrifice his own private interest in favor of the general welfare. Nor is it even that he was willing to arm the slaves—South Carolinians had considered that step during earlier emergencies. Rather, the astonishing aspects of his proposal are its candor, its boldness and its lager purpose. Service in the revolutionary army would be a stepping-stone to freedom—"a proper gradation between abject slavery and perfect liberty," which would not only prepare a slave to take his place in free society but also establish his claim to it. In short, his was a clever and far-reaching plan for the gradual abolition of slavery.
A year later, after the fall of Savannah, however, the obvious need for additional manpower led Congress to urge the Southern States to enlist three thousand blacks, who would be freed at the end of the war."
(The Last of American Freemen, Robert M. Weir, Mercer University Press, 1986, pp. 90-94)