armistead, lafayette
Facsimile of Marquis de Lafayette's certificate of commendation of James Armistead Lafayette, 1784 (public domain image)

Black History Month Profiles: James Armistead Lafayette, Revolutionary War Spy

During Black History Month, DiversityInc is honoring a series of Black innovators and history makers like James Armistead Lafayette, who are often overlooked in mainstream media coverage and history books. Check back throughout February to learn more about important figures.

 

James Armistead Lafayette (public domain image)

Born: ca. 1748 – 1760, Virginia

Died: ca. 1830 – 1832, Virginia

Best known for: Serving as a double agent for the Continental Army throughout the Revolutionary War

If you’re a Hamilton fan or a Revolutionary War history buff, you’ve heard of military officer Marquis de Lafayette. But behind his victories was another man: James Armistead, an enslaved man, who served as a spy in Lafayette’s army. Armistead was able to infiltrate the British army and gain key intelligence that led to the colonists’ ultimate victory.

Born into slavery sometime between 1748 and 1760, Armistead worked on a plantation in New Kent, Virginia. His owner, William Armistead, gave him permission to enlist Lafayette’s French allied units. James Armistead served as a spy, playing the role of a runaway slave to infiltrate General Cornwallis’s headquarters after Benedict Arnold, a traitor to the colonies, offered his services to the British. Armistead’s knowledge of Virginia’s terrain made his act as a runaway enslaved man even more convincing. The British saw it as helpful and assigned him to spy on the colonists. Armistead traveled back and forth between British and American camps as a double agent, relaying accurate and useful intelligence to Lafayette and offering misleading information to Cornwallis.

Armistead’s watershed moment was the Battle of Yorktown in the summer of 1781 when he was able to inform Lafayette and George Washington about British forces approaching. The intel allowed the generals to form a blockade, successfully defending against the British troops and weakening their forces, which led to a victory for the colonists. A few weeks later in October 1781, Cornwallis surrendered.

Armistead fought for the freedom of colonies that denied him his own. In fact, after the war, he was actually forced to return to slavery. A 1783 Virginia law freed any enslaved people who served as soldiers, but because Armistead was a spy, he wasn’t covered in the act and thus wasn’t granted his freedom. He petitioned Congress to grant him his freedom and was unsuccessful for years. When Lafayette learned Armistead was still enslaved, he wrote a letter to Congress, offering a testimonial to Armistead’s important work.

“This is to certify that the Bearer has done essential services to me while I had the honor to command in this State. His Intelligence from the [enemy’s] camp were industriously collected and most faithfully delivered. He perfectly acquitted himself with some important commissions I gave him and appears to me entitled to every reward his situation can admit of,” the letter said.

As a result, Armistead was finally freed. He received an annual pension and moved to his own 40-acre farm in Virginia where he married and raised a family. He added “Lafayette” to his name as a symbol of gratitude to the general who advocated on his behalf.

Armistead Lafayette died a free man sometime between 1830 and 1832, having played an integral role in earning the country its freedom even though it was reluctant to grant him his.

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