John Laurens as a POW

I have another history post today for those of you who may be interested in how much of "Duty and Inclination" follows known facts. I had a question about what Laurens' time as a prisoner of war was like, so here is another small essay about what I know.



John Laurens rejoined the southern campaign in early 1780, after a brief leave to request more troops, to help protect his home state and city of Charleston, South Carolina. The British began a siege of that city on March 29th. Come May 12th 1780 Charleston surrendered and the British formally take the city making all those Continental soldiers within prisoners of war, John Laurens being one of those. On November 7 1780, Washington wrote to Congress about a general exchange of almost 500 officers which included Laurens. Thus, Laurens was a POW for almost 6 months.


Upon the taking of so many prisoners, the British housed them in many different places around Charleston including the Continental army’s own barracks, homes within the city and the basement of the Exchange. We do not know specifically where Laurens was housed at this time. He wrote to Washington on May 25th about the possibility of Washington helping to hasten his exchange. As Laurens wrote: “It is the greatest and most humiliating misfortune of my life, to be reduced to a state of inactivity at so important a juncture as the present.”


On June 12th Laurens was sent with General Lincoln’s staff officers by boat to Philadelphia to serve his parole. Under the terms of his parole, he had to remain within the bounds of Pennsylvania until he was exchanged. So while he was not in a jail cell or prison ship, he could not leave the state (this is similar to modern parole). 


Hamilton wrote Laurens in June telling him that Washington cannot (will not) intercede on his behalf with an exchange so as not to show partiality. Several measures were put in to congress as well to try and have Laurens exchanged sooner due to ‘special circumstances.’ None of these were successful (at least at the time). It is possible these 'special circumstances' were that of his being an aide-de-camp to General Washington or to the status of his father, Henry Laurens.  However, it was not until the larger, general exchange of officers in November that Laurens was included.


As to Laurens person and mental state during his time as a POW, Laurens was likely held in far more comfort than most soldiers, he being an officer and a man of means. He was allowed parole instead of being put on a British prison ship. We do not know exactly where he was housed but, as his father was in Philadelphia at this time, its a good guess it was with his father. Laurens could move more freely, at least within Pennsylvania. He possibly went to explore the caverns of the blue mountains, so he was able to go do things. He was even able to see his father off when he sailed to the Netherlands on his own 'fund raising' mission. 


However, it does appear that being a POW took a toll on Laurens’ mental state. As we can see from the May 25th letter, he was already shamed about being made captive. We do not have any of his surviving letters to Hamilton from this period but we do have one from Hamilton, Sept 16 1780, that sheds light on Laurens’ thoughts:


For your own sake, for my sake, for the public sake, I shall pray for the success of the attempt you mention; that you may have it in your power to act with us. But if you should be disappointed, bear it like a man; and have recourse, neither to the dagger, nor to the poisoned bowl, nor to the rope.

So clearly Laurens was writing to Hamilton with very depressed, possibly suicidal thoughts about his situation. In this time period it could take years for a solider to be exchanged once captured. Laurens may have been thinking along these lines. Thus, while his physical accommodations were likely comfortable, his mental state was not good.


As mentioned above, he was only a POW for 6 months which is an unusually short time for the period. Exchanges did not happen quickly. It is likely either his position or the large amount of men captured at Charleston is what led to his earlier release.

© 2019 by Rebecca Dupont