James Armistead Lafayette: Slave Turned Spy

Learning Black History Year Round

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James Armistead Lafayette. Public domain photo.

It was autumn, 1781. A combined American force of Colonial and French troops had laid siege to the British Army at Yorktown,Va. This battle was the final event for American independence from British rule: the victory forced the surrender of British Gen.Lord Cornwallis and his nearly 9,000 troops.

The success of the battle was made possible with crucial insider intelligence provided by James Armistead Lafayette, a patriot who worked briefly as a double agent for the Continental Army throughout the Revolutionary War. He was also a slave, born in 1760.

Prior to Armistead’s service to the republic, he had been exposed to parts of the conflict. His owner, William Armistead, managed the military supplies for the state of Virginia. In 1780, Armistead and his owner moved to Richmond. It was the following summer that Armistead’s master granted him permission to join the war.

This was a time when slaves fought on either side of the war; freedom being the only incentive. But Armistead instead served under the Marquis de Lafayette, general and commander of the allied French forces and a key ally of Gen. George Washington. His assignment was to infiltrate the British army through espionage.

As a spy, Armistead posed as a runaway slave, joining the camp of Brig. Gen. Benedict Arnold, a well-known turncoat. Infiltrating the unit allowed Armistead to gain Arnold’s confidence. In fact, Arnold was so convinced that Armistead was a runaway slave that he used him to guide British troops through local roads.

Armistead would travel between camps, spying on British officers. As these officers openly detailed their strategies, Armistead documented the information in written reports, delivering the information to other American spies before returning to Gen. Cornwallis’ scamp. And it was this strategy that led to the victory at Yorktown.

During the summer of 1781, Washington sent a message to Lafayette: “keep your forces strong and inform me of Cornwallis’ equipment, military personnel, and future strategies.” Lafayette sent several spies to infiltrate Cornwallis’ camp, but none proved able to produce valuable information. He then received Armistead’s reports, dated July 31, 1781. The information provided in them was enough to trap the British at Hampton and help the Americans win the battle at Yorktown, prompting the British to surrender.

After the revolution, Lafayette praised Armistead for his dedication and role in the surrender at Yorktown.

Ineligible for emancipation under the Act of 1783 for slave soldiers, Armistead returned to his owner William Armistead after the war, continuing his life as a slave. In 1784, when Lafayette found Armistead in Virginia, he quickly wrote a testimonial on Armistead’s behalf. Two years later Armistead was emancipated. He made his last name Lafayette, in honor of the general.

Armistead-Lafayette moved to an area near New Kent County in Virginia and purchasing 40 acres of land. He married, raised a large family and was granted $40 a year by the Virginia Legislature as pension for his services during the American Revolution.

James Armistead Lafayette died in 1832 in Virginia. He was 72.

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