Untold Stories: James Armistead Lafayette, Slave, Patriot, Double Agent, Hero
James Armistead Lafayette overcame every obstacle in his path to gain freedom not only for himself, but for all other Americans—of every skin color—as well.
There are so many inspiring, beautiful stories about the great heroes of American history which are scarcely ever told. One happens on them accidentally—buried in a thick, out-of-print biography, in small print on a museum sign, casually and fleetingly mentioned in an obscure educational video. America cannot return to greatness in the future if we do not truly understand the greatness of our past. That is why I am writing an article series to tell a few of these little-known but moving “untold stories” of American greatness.
My first two articles in this series were both about the Civil War, but today I turn to the American Revolution. James Armistead Lafayette is not only an American hero, his heroism truly changed history. Without the efforts of this slave turned double agent, the 1781 Battle of Yorktown (which ended the Revolutionary War and sealed American independence from England) very likely would not have been a success.
James Armistead Lafayette's story does provide a sobering reminder that even at the start America did not always live up to her ideals of liberty and equality for all, since he did not immediately gain his freedom after the Revolution, and ultimately needed the intervention of French noble and American ally the Marquis de Lafayette to do so. But James Armistead Lafayette overcame every obstacle in his path to gain freedom not only for himself, but for all other Americans—of every skin color—as well. As I have said before, I think we should definitely celebrate black American heroes more, and James Armistead Lafayette is a man almost lost to history, a man who deserves far more fame and acclaim than he has ever received.
“[American Battlefield Trust] Born into slavery around 1760, James Armistead lived most of his life on a plantation in New Kent, Virginia. During the American Revolution, however, James received permission from his master, William Armistead, to enlist in the Marquis de Lafayette’s French Allied units. Here, the army dispatched Armistead as a spy, playing the role of a runaway slave to gain access to General Cornwallis’s headquarters. Because Armistead was a native Virginian with extensive knowledge of the terrain, the British received him without suspicion. As a result, Armistead accomplished what few spies could: direct access to the center of the British War Department.
After successfully infiltrating British intelligence, Armistead floated freely between the British and American camps. As a double agent, he relayed critical information to Lafayette and misleading intel to the enemy. Oblivious to his true intentions, the British assigned Armistead to work under the notorious turncoat, Benedict Arnold. By helping Arnold maneuver his troops through Virginia, Armistead gained significant insight into the Redcoats’ movements.
Several of Armistead’s finest acts occurred in 1781, during a critical moment in the Revolution—the Battle of Yorktown. The spy informed Lafayette and Washington about approaching British reinforcements, which allowed the generals to devise a blockade impeding enemy advancements. This success resulted in the final major victory for the colonists when Lord Cornwallis surrendered on October 17, 1781.”
After the surrender, Cornwallis reportedly finally discovered just how thoroughly James Armistead had duped him:
“The British also wrongly assumed that Armistead was illiterate and left reports and maps where the spy could easily copy them. In plain sight, Armistead sent written reports daily to Lafayette. . .Cornwallis even asked Armistead to spy on Lafayette. But Armistead remained loyal to the American cause and fed false information on Lafayette’s whereabouts to Cornwallis.
He even passed along a fake letter regarding troop movements that convinced Cornwallis not to attack Lafayette. . .
With the help of Lafayette’s French forces, Washington believed he could create a blockade large enough to bring the British to surrender. But without reliable intel on the British forces, Washington’s plan could backfire.
So that summer Washington wrote to Lafayette requesting information on Cornwallis. On July 31, 1781, James Armistead submitted a detailed report on British locations and Cornwallis’s strategy.
Based on Armistead’s report, Washington and Lafayette implemented the plan. They successfully cut off British reinforcements from Yorktown where the final battle of the war would begin a few weeks later.
On Oct. 19, 1781, Cornwallis surrendered to colonial forces at Yorktown. After waving the white flag, the British general visited Lafayette’s headquarters, but when Cornwallis entered the tent, he came face-to-face with James Armistead.
He learned at that moment that he’d been working with a double agent.”
Cornwallis was a celebrated general for the world-dominating British Empire, and yet he had been outwitted by an American slave! A perfect example of how little rank and title can mean. James Armistead was the greater man and greater hero, though Cornwallis had so many worldly favors.
“Though Americans celebrated freedom throughout the United States at the end of the war, James Armistead returned to life as a slave. His status as a spy meant that he did not benefit from the Act of 1783, which emancipated any slave-soldiers that fought for the Revolution.
As a result, Armistead began the process of petitioning Congress to fight for his freedom. After several years without success, Armistead received help from an old comrade in arms, the Marquis de Lafayette. Upon learning that Armistead remained enslaved, Lafayette wrote a letter to Congress on his behalf. Armistead received his manumission in 1787. Living off his annual pension fee, Armistead moved to his own 40-acre farm in Virginia, where he married, raised a family, and lived out the rest of his life as a freeman. Armistead added Lafayette to his name as a token of gratitude and a testament to the bond the former slave and French general shared.
The two crossed paths again during Lafayette’s grand tour of the United States in 1824, where the general picked James out of a crowd and cordially embraced him. James Armistead Lafayette died in 1832.”
Let us embrace James Armistead Lafayette’s legacy of fearless fighting for liberty, just as the Marquis de Lafayette embraced the man.