Wlliam Gilmore Simms
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The Army Correspondence of Colonel John Laurens, in the Years 1777-8, Now First Printed from Original Letters Addressed to His Father, Henry Laurens, President of Congress, with a Memoir

Documents | The Bradford Club | 1867

                The Army Correspondence of Colonel John Laurens was published in an 1867 limited edition printing by the Bradford Club of New York.[1]  This collection displays Simms’s efforts of documentary editing in the vein of a similar project he published the prior year, Selections from the Letters and Speeches of the Hon. James H. Hammond (1866).  The Army Correspondence consists of letters John Laurens wrote to his father, Henry, between the years of 1777 and 1778 during his service with the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War.  The volume also features an introductory memoir by Simms and an elegiac poem by Philip Freneau, whom Simms called “the poet par excellence of the American Revolution.”[2]  While writing these letters, Laurens was serving as a lieutenant colonel and aide-de-camp to George Washington; his father was serving as the fifth president of the Continental Congress. 

                In a letter to Evert Augustus Duyckinck from February 1845, Simms expressed a desire to have “a series of papers made up of brief biographies of distinguished men of the Revolution in the South, interspersed with their original Letters”; after all, he added, “[w]ith a few brief biographical sentences, these letters might be introduced very happily & would form a series of papers equally valuable & interesting.”[3]  Simms’s research on this proposed series began shortly thereafter.  He wrote to Rufus Wilmot Griswold on 21 December 1846 requesting an article published in the Independent Chronicle of 1784 that provided a brief account of John Laurens.[4]  During the Civil War, Simms anticipated incursions upon his plantation and wrote a letter to William James Rivers, the president of South Carolina College, on 31 May 1862, requesting that he secure his collection of Revolutionary documents; included among these documents were the papers of John Laurens, which by that time, Simms wrote, had “been little used.  I have made notes of them, & examined them carefully, but as yet have made few draughts upon their contents.”  Simms also possessed the papers of several other southern revolutionaries (Marion, Gadsden, Maham, Rutledge, etc.) and proposed that “at some future time,” he and Rivers should “jointly prepare them for the press.[5]

                Despite this early interest in Laurens’s letters, Simms did not begin the work proper until August 1866, after Duyckinck procured the Bradford Club as publisher.  In writing his memoir for the collection, Simms consulted George Bancroft’s History of the United States (published in a series of volumes beginning in 1854) to contextualize the period of the war when Laurens wrote his camp letters, as well as the New American Cyclopedia (sixteen volumes published between 1857 to 1866).[6]  For his research on Lauren’s diplomatic efforts in France, Simms cited Arthur Lee’s Memoir; Simms also included quotes from letters that George Washington and John Adams wrote to Henry Laurens, as well as a John C. Hamilton (son of Alexander) letter.  Simms also quoted at length from Robert Y. Hayne’s Senate speech proposing a “bill for the relief of the grandson of the late Colonel John Laurens.”[7]  With the aid of these sources, Simms’s hagiographic memoir praised Lauren’s gallant virtues, highlighting an American patriot who “had won the title of the Bayard of America.”[8]  Sean R. Busick asserts that whatever the American public knows of John Laurens is to be credited to Simms, a true historian who “preserved and published his correspondence” as the “raw material of both history and fiction.”  Busick recognizes Simms as belonging in the company of other nineteenth-century collectors and historians, without whose “efforts our understanding of the American past would be far more incomplete than it is.”[9]

                Another work, A Succinct Memoir of the Life and Public Services of Colonel John Laurens, appears to be a reprinting of The Army Correspondence.  Several facts point to this.  Like The Army Correspondence, A Succinct Memoir was also published in 1867, by Williamstadt of Albany, NY.  This work is listed in several bibliographies of Simms’s works as being reprinted from the plates of The Army Correspondence.  These bibliographies also note A Succinct Memoir as having 250 pages, which is the same page count as The Army Correspondence.  We have only been able to locate a single edition of A Succinct Memoir, housed in the Library of Congress.  Without direct access to this volume, we cannot definitively confirm that it is identical to The Army Correspondence, though the evidence we do have points in that direction.  

                The copy of the limited print edition, number 76 out of 80 total copies produced, is housed in the Salley-Simms Collection at the South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina.  This copy features red stipple boards with brown border and frame; the spine features brown leather with gilt lettering and reads horizontally: [double rule] | [double rule] | ARMY | Correspondence | of | Col. John Laurens | 1777-8 | and | MEMOIR | by | SIMMS. | [double rule] | [double rule] | [double rule].  The title page reads: THE | ARMY CORRESPONDENCE | OF | COLONEL JOHN LAURENS | IN THE YEARS 1777-8 | NOW FIRST PRINTED FROM ORIGINAL LETTERS ADDRESSED | TO HIS FATHER | HENRY LAURENS | PRESIDENT OF CONGRESS | WITH A MEMOIR | BY | WM. GILMORE SIMMS | [Bradford Club symbol] NEW YORK | M DCCC LXVII.


Michael Odom

[1] Named after the first New York printer, The Bradford Club was committed to printing unpublished journals and correspondence pertaining to American letters worthy of record.

[2] Simms, “Memoir,” in The Army Correspondence of Colonel John Laurens, in the Years 1777-8, Now First Printed from Original Letters Addressed to His Father, Henry Laurens, President of Congress, with a Memoir (New York: Bradford Club, 1867), 40.

[3] Letters, 2:29.  A footnote indicates that “Simms had earlier written to [Henry] Langley, publisher of the Democratic Review, concerning this collection.”

[4] Ibid., 241-42. 

[5] Letters, 4:233. 

[6] Ibid., 587-88. 

[7] Simms, “Memoir,” 25, 30, 39, 43-44, 45-54. 

[8] Ibid., 27, 39.  Simms maintained an abiding interest the heroic men of history; in fact, he wrote The Life of Chevalier Bayard, an 1845 biography of the late-medieval French knight, to serve as an archetype of virtue for Americans.  Simms appeared to have come full circle in connecting Laurens to Bayard. 

[9] Sean R. Busick, A Sober Desire for History: William Gilmore Simms as Historian (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2005), 35.