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An Unlikely Hero

When most of us think of heroes it would not occur to us that a slave would be of such importance.  What if I told you that the ultimate surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown may have been the result of his significant contribution?


James Armistead was born in Virginia as a slave of William Armistead in 1748.  (Some references assert James was born in 1760). Slaves were not able to join the Continental Army, but with the permission of William Armistead, James was allowed to volunteer in 1781.  He was assigned to serve under General Marquis de Lafayette. It’s unclear whose idea it was, but it was decided that Armistead would pose as a runaway slave.


James infiltrated British headquarters under his guise and quickly gained the confidence of General Cornwallis and General Benedict Arnold.  It seems that Arnold especially was so convinced by the ruse that he eventually employed Armistead to spy on the Patriots!

Armistead was able to freely travel between British camps, officers spoke in his presence without reservation, he acted as a guide to British troops leading them using local roads.  As he gained intelligence, he would send written reports via other patriot spies and return to Cornwallis’ camp.


In our present day of satellites, drones and digital technology we often fail to realize how easy it might be to hide an entire army!    Add in that movements often were not noticed unless someone witnessed it, each side had that distinct advantage and disadvantage, unless you had a spy in the camp.


The American’s success in battle had been very limited, the patriots and Continental Army had very few decisive wins.  Hostilities had begun at Bunker Hill, six years prior and I’m sure there was little expectation the end was in sight. Washington desperately needed intelligence and asked Lafayette a message to strengthen his position and if able relay Cornwallis’ numbers, resources and planned movements.


Lafayette sent several spies to try and find the requested intel, to no avail.  Then one day a message from Armistead arrived, dated July 31, 1781. The intel in James’ report aided Lafayette in trapping the British at Hampton.  As the summer pressed on, Armistead’s intel was instrumental in pinning Cornwallis in Yorktown. With the aid of the French Navy, thanks to Lafayette, the British Navy was not able to save Cornwallis by sea, forcing his surrender.

After the war, Armistead was caught in a “Catch-22”.  The British had offered freedom to any slave who joined the Loyalists, had the British won the war each of them would have been granted freedom.  Not so the Patriots. Why? I do not know. There were many dynamics to slavery and any changes would have to be made in a deliberate way. In 1783, the General Assembly of Virginia passed the Act of 1783.  They acknowledged that every slave who “contributed towards the establishment of American liberty and independence” was in turn entitled to their own freedom. The “catch” was, this was intended for slave soldiers, those who had fought.  James was a slave spy. James continued as a slave to William Armistead after the war.


The Marquise de Lafayette visited Virginia in 1784 and learned after seeing James that he was still a slave.  Lafayette wrote the General Assembly on Armistead’s behalf. Two years later he was emancipated. Upon receiving his freedom, James took the last name of Lafayette in honor of his friend.  And make no mistake, these two were indeed friends. James official name became James Armistead Lafayette.


After being freed, James moved nine miles south of New Kent County in Virginia, purchased 40 acres of land and began farming.  He married and started a family. Eventually the Virginia legislature granted Armistead an annual pension of $40 for his contribution to the war effort.


In 1824, Lafayette returned to America and toured the nation finding cheering crowds everywhere he went.  As he was at a stop in Richmond, Virginia he spotted Armistead in the crowd. Lafayette jumped down from his carriage and embraced James.  James was 76 years old and Lafayette himself was aging, this was his last trip to America. James posed for the portrait seen above during this visit, dressed in a military coat.  The portrait hangs today in Richmond’s Valentine Museum.


James Armistead Lafayette died a free man, again there is disagreement as to the year.  Some references show he passed in 1832, but more give the date as August 9, 1830.

I think we can learn a valuable lesson from James’ life.  He could have been bitter, he could have joined the British in hopes of freedom.  We have only indications that he took advantages of opportunities as they presented themselves, opportunities that painted a larger picture beyond himself.  He most certainly was an amazing man, Lafayette recognized that and so should we.


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