James Armistead Lafayette
James Armistead Lafayette (December 10, 1760 – August 9, 1830) was an African American slave who served the Continental Army in the American Revolutionary War as a spy and double agent. He served under the Marquis de Lafayette, reporting on the activities first of Benedict Arnold – after he had gone over to the British – and then Lord Cornwallis during the run-up to the Battle of Yorktown. He also fed false information to them.
Life and career
An African American slave, Armistead was owned by William Armistead of Virginia. Most sources indicate that James Armistead was born in 1748 in New Kent County, Virginia, while other sources put his birth around 1760 in Elizabeth City, Virginia.
After getting the consent of his master, Armistead volunteered in 1781 to join the army under Lafayette, who utilized him as a spy. Posing as a runaway slave, he joined the camp of Brigadier General Benedict Arnold, the turncoat who was leading some British forces in the area. Pretending to be a spy for the British, Armistead gained Arnold's confidence to the extent that Arnold used him to guide British troops through local roads.
After Arnold departed north in the spring of 1781, James went to the camp of Lord Cornwallis and repeated his successful pose there. He moved frequently between British camps, where the officers would speak openly about their strategies in front of him. Armistead documented this information in written reports, which he then delivered to other American spies. In this way he relayed much information about the British plans for troop deployment and about their arms. The intelligence reports from his espionage were instrumental in helping to defeat the British during the Battle of Yorktown.
In 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette returned to the United States at the invitation of President James Monroe, and made a tour of all 24 states, in which he was met by huge crowds and everywhere feted as a hero. While in Virigina, where he visited Washington's grave and gave a speech to the House of Delegates, he abruptly had his carriage stop when he saw Armistead in the crowd, and rushed to embrace him. At around this time he also wrote a testimonial on Armistead's behalf.
Although Virginia passed a manumission act in 1782 allowing for the freedom of any slave by his or her owner, James Armistead remained the property of William Armistead, because a 1783 law targeted specifically at freeing slaves whose owners had used them as substitutes for army service in exchange for their liberty did not apply to him because he was a spy, not a soldier. However, in 1786, with the support of William Armistead – then a member of the House of Delegates – and carrying a 1784 testimonial of his service from the Marquis de Lafayette, James petitioned the Virginia Assembly for his freedom. On January 9, 1787, the Assembly granted the petition. At that time he chose to add "Lafayette" to his name, to honor the general.
Armistead continued to live in New Kent County with his new wife, one son and several other children. He became a farmer and at one point owned three slaves. By 1818 he applied to the state legislature for financial aid. He was granted $60 for present relief and $40 annual pension for his services in the Revolutionary War.
Armistead died on August 9, 1830.
- Intelligence in the American Revolutionary War
- Intelligence operations in the American Revolutionary War
- William Martin Armistead
- Jacoby, Oren. Lafayette: The Lost Hero (TV documentary, 2010). Viewed:July 4, 2014
- "Lafayett's Testimonial to James Armistead Lafayette" on the Lafayette College website
- "James Armistead Lafayette". Lafayette College. Retrieved 26 June 2013.
- "Manumission Petition for James Lafayette"
- Media related to James Armistead Lafayette at Wikimedia Commons