This Day in History: James Armistead, slave turned American spy
On this day in 1748, James Armistead is born. He began life as a slave, but he would become an important spy during the American Revolution. He ended his life as a free man and a farmer in Virginia.
Armistead was the slave of a Virginia official named William Armistead. In 1781, he received permission to leave and join the American Army. Once there, he was soon tasked with a special mission: The Marquis de Lafayette wanted Armistead to pose as a runaway slave and infiltrate the British camp.
He ended up as a spy in Charles Cornwallis’s camp in the months immediately before Yorktown.
In the Cornwallis camp, Armistead was a servant and a waiter. The British assumed that Armistead was illiterate and uninterested in the outcome of the war. Thus, no one thought anything of speaking in front of him, and he was privy to many sensitive conversations. In time, Cornwallis came to trust Armistead, and he asked Armistead to spy on the Americans.
Armistead immediately told Lafayette, of course. He was now a double agent.
Lafayette took advantage of the opportunity and fed many pieces of false or harmless information to the British camp. In the meantime, Armistead provided Lafayette with important information about the British situation. With Armistead’s help, Lafayette was able to keep Cornwallis penned in at Yorktown, and they acted to prevent British reinforcements from coming to the area in the final weeks of the war. All of this, of course, contributed to George Washington’s final victory over Cornwallis at Yorktown.
After his surrender, Cornwallis reportedly saw Armistead with Lafayette and realized that he’d been fooled.
I wish I could tell you that Armistead was able to gain his freedom immediately after the war. Unfortunately, he did not. He instead returned to life as a slave, working for William Armistead. Virginia passed an act in 1783 to free slaves who’d fought in the war, but the act did not cover Armistead: He had not “fought” in the war. He had been a spy.
Armistead petitioned the Virginia legislature for his freedom in 1784. The legislature did not act on his request, so he tried again with a second petition in 1786. He had a persuasive document to help his cause: a note from Lafayette, certifying that he’d performed “essential services” and had “perfectly acquitted himself with some important commissions . . . .”
This time, the Virginia legislature passed an act to emancipate him, declaring that he should “enjoy as full freedom as if he had been born free.” Armistead later also received a pension for his Revolutionary War service.
Armistead changed his name. As a free man, he was known as James Lafayette.
The man who had entered into service for his country, “perswaded of the just right which all mankind have to Freedom,” was finally free.
Logistical note for those who care:
Some sources say that Armistead was born in 1760, not 1748. I do not know which is correct, and I have no idea why there is such a large gap between the two possible birth dates.
Catherine Reef, African Americans in the Military (A to Z of African Americans) (2004)
John C. Fredriksen, Revolutionary War Almanac (2006)
Lafayette’s Testimonial to James Armistead Lafayette (copy at MountVernon.org)