James Armistead Lafayette was an enslaved African American, best known for his work as a spy during the American Revolution.
Born into slavery to owner William Armistead around December 10, 1748, in New Kent, Virginia. In 1781, James Armistead volunteered to join the U.S. Army in order to fight for the American Revolution. His master granted him permission to join the revolutionary cause, and the American Continental Army stationed Armistead to serve under the Marquis de Lafayette, the commander of allied French forces.
Lafayette employed Armistead as a spy, with the hopes of gathering intelligence in regards to enemy movements. Posing as a runaway slave hired by the British to spy on the Americans, Armistead successfully infiltrated British General Charles Cornwallis’ headquarters.
He later returned north with turncoat soldier Benedict Arnold, and learned further details of British operations without being detected. Able to travel freely between both British and American camps, Armistead could easily relay information to Lafayette about British plans.
Using the details of Armistead's reports, Lafayette and General George Washington were able to prevent the British from sending 10,000 reinforcements to Yorktown, Virginia. The American and French blockade surprised British forces and crippled their military. As a result of the Lafayette and Washington's victory in Yorktown, the British officially surrendered on Oct. 19, 1781.
Despite his critical actions, Armistead returned to William Armistead after the war to continue his life as a slave. He was not eligible for emancipation under the Act of 1783 for slave-soldiers, because he was considered a slave-spy, and had to petition the Virginia legislature for his emancipation. The Marquis de Lafayette assisted him by writing a recommendation for his freedom, which was granted in 1787. In gratitude, Armistead adopted Lafayette's surname.
After receiving his freedom, he moved nine miles south of New Kent, bought 40 acres of land, and began farming. He later married, raised a large family, and was granted a $40 annual pension by the Virginia legislature for his services during the American Revolution. He lived as a farmer in Virginia until his death on August 9, 1830.
December 10, 1748
August 9, 1830
- He was a slave to William Armistead. As a slave he was not free to join the Continental Army; however with his masters consent Armistead was able to enlist in the army.
- He posed as a runaway slave and obtained work for the British gathering supplies. He eventually gained the trust of the British and was able to get recruited as a spy which enabled him to act as a double-agent.
- He spied on General Benedict Arnold after Arnold became a traitor and joined the British Army. He gained the traitors trust to the extent that he was present when crucial military information was being discussed.
- Despite his service to his country he was returned to slavery at the end of the American Revolutionary War. Although many slaves who served as soldiers were given their freedom after the war he was not.
- The famous French General Marquis de Lafayette, who helped America win its independence, returned to the United States in 1824 and was greeted by thousands of cheering people as he toured the states. In Virginia he spotted James Armistead Lafayette in the crowd and jumped from his carriage to embrace him.