James Armistead Lafayette – Hero and Spy

Conclusion de la champagne de 1781 den Virginie

This 1780s engraving in the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection depicts the Marquis de Lafayette holding a sheathed sword and pointing at Yorktown. James Armistead, a spy for the American cause, may be the inspiration for the figure at the right.

James Armistead was an enslaved African American in New Kent County, Virginia, when British forces invaded Virginia in 1781. When James learned that General Lafayette had arrived in Virginia to oppose and harass British forces, he volunteered to join Lafayette’s Light Infantry. His owner, William Armistead, consented.

James was first sent by General Lafayette to conduct espionage in the British camps. He soon gained the confidence of General Benedict Arnold, who had by this time changed his allegiance to the British cause. Acting as a double agent, James pretended to relay important information about movements of American forces to General Arnold, while he was in fact gathering information for the Americans from General Arnold and later General Cornwallis. He gained the trust of both men, who believed in his pose as a runaway slave. He was allowed to move easily between camps, and British officers spoke openly about strategy in front of him. James documented the information he gained in the British camps in written reports that were then passed on to other American spies and carried to General Lafayette. His accurate and detailed reports to Generals Lafayette and Washington were vital to the American victory at Yorktown in October of 1781.

After the war James Armistead returned to his owner and slavery in New Kent County. Manumission laws that granted freedom to slaves who were sent to fight in their masters’ place did not apply to him. However, in 1786 he petitioned the Virginia Assembly for his freedom. He was supported in his petition by his owner and a letter from the Marquis de Lafayette describing James’ important role in victory at Yorktown. He wrote, “His intelligences from the enemy’s camp were industriously collected and most faithfully deliver’d. He properly acquitted himself with some important commissions I gave him and appears to me entitled to every reward his situation can admit of.” His petition was granted, and he gained his freedom on January 9, 1787. He then took the last name Lafayette in honor of the Marquis.

James Armistead Lafayette lived as a farmer near Richmond, Virginia, for the rest of his life. He had a wife and children and at one time owned several slaves. In 1818 he applied to the state legislature for financial assistance and was granted $60 immediately plus an annual pension of $40 for his service during the Revolutionary War. In 1824 the Marquis de Lafayette visited the United States and was honored as a hero of the American Revolution in Richmond, Virginia, with a parade and festivities. As the Marquis rode along the parade route he reportedly recognized James Armistead Lafayette, halted the procession, dismounted from his horse and warmly greeted and embraced his old comrade.


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