York Town Square

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Henry Laurens kept Congress together in Valley Forge winter

Unsung Revolutionary War hero Henry Laurens was reportedly the first American to be cremated.
Southern Carolinian Henry Laurens was not one of the younger men to serve in the Continental Congress during its nine-month stay in York County.
(See discussion of ages of American Revolution’s heroes at American Revolution was a young man’s fight..)
By the end of 1777, he was 53.
But few of the nation’s founders, young or hold, suffered more in the war than Henry Laurens… .

After his York stint, his ship was intercepted on his way to Holland on a diplomatic mission. He threw sensitive papers overboard, but the British fetched them before they sank. He was detained in the Tower of London, before being exchanged for Lord Cornwallis, who had surrendered the British Army at Yorktowne, Va.
His incarceration broke his health.
Then, in an inconsequential skirmish as the British were returning home at war’s end, his beloved son, John, was killed.
This broke his spirit.
He ordered in his will that he would be cremated upon his death.
Those orders were followed when he passed away in 1792, and his ashes were spread on his estate, “Mepkin,” in Berkeley County, S.C.
He is reportedly the first American to be officially cremated.
Laurens is remembered for how he was buried, but his contributions as president of Congress for most of that body’s stay in York is largely forgotten. He was the glue that held the beleaguered body together as an equally weary Continental Army shivered in Valley Forge.
Then, spring came, the treaties with France were ratified and the Franco-American alliance gave America the decisive nod over the Brits.
Laurens languished in the Tower of London and as a diplomat in France as others received accolades late in the war.
A truly forgotten hero.

Laurens photo courtesy of York County Heritage Trust.