James Armistead’s Role in Revolutionary War

A daring bondsman turned double agent confounds Cornwallis—and helps the People win 

The summer season of 1781 was essential for King George III’s navy in America and for the colonial forces opposing the British. Earlier that 12 months, in March, Common George Washington had ordered Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, to depart Philadelphia and lead Continental forces in Virginia. Lafayette was to assist counter a British invasion of the American South, in addition to confront the traitor Benedict Arnold and his marauders, then ranging round Virginia. As well as, the French officer was to assemble intelligence on British troop power, positions, and methods.

That August, upon arriving in Virginia, British Common Charles Lord Cornwallis, commander of British forces within the South, despatched Arnold and his troops north to New York. Cornwallis then sparred with Lafayette throughout the Virginia Tidewater in actions on the North and South Anna, Rapidan, and James Rivers. From New York, British commander in chief Common Henry Clinton ordered Cornwallis to safe a locale on the Virginia coast with a harbor ample to accommodate a fleet of warships that might be reinforcing British floor troops. Cornwallis drew his forces again from Portsmouth to Yorktown to fulfill the enemy, however American and French forces, all the time seeming to know his actions, steadily dogged the British common and his troops. By October 1781, the rebels and their French enablers have been besieging Cornwallis’s military at Yorktown, the place circumstance pressured the Briton to give up.

Artist John Martin painted James Armistead Lafayette round 1824.

Unknown to Cornwallis, for months his camp had been harboring a undercover agent—and never merely a spy informing the People however a double agent who had been feeding Cornwallis disinformation concerning the colonials. That little-known determine, whom a Time author described as “arguably, a very powerful Revolutionary Warfare spy,” was James Armistead, an enslaved African American.

Born into bondage round 1748, James Armistead was the property of William Armistead, a New Kent County, Virginia, farmer. Amongst different actions in the course of the Revolutionary Warfare, William Armistead bought provides to the American military. Listening to that slaves who served the insurgent trigger may apply for his or her freedom as soon as the warfare ended—assuming an American victory—James Armistead requested his proprietor for permission to serve with Lafayette’s Virginia marketing campaign. The planter, who regarded James Armistead as reliable and resourceful, assented.

An advocate for equality—lengthy after the Revolution, he would write to Washington, “I’d by no means have drawn my sword in the reason for America if I may have conceived that thereby I used to be founding a land of slavery!”—Lafayette took on the black man as a forager, laborer, and courier. Observing James Armistead’s aptitude, Lafayette supplied him way more harmful work: Posing as a runaway slave, Armistead would current himself at Benedict Arnold’s camp, ostensibly to hunt work however on the sly gathering and passing on intelligence about British operations and troop power. Understanding that if he have been discovered he could be hanged, James Armistead accepted the job. Suitably clad, the “runaway” trekked to the enemy camp, which was within the Virginia Tidewater. Armistead defined to Arnold’s males he knew the neighborhood and would be capable of information them, acquire meals, and assist in no matter manner he may. The British took within the ostensible runaway. Cornwallis, planning to sally in opposition to Lafayette, despatched Arnold and firm north and ensconced himself at Yorktown with 5,000 infantry and 800 cavalrymen. James Armistead joined the British common’s camp at Portsmouth, working overtly as a scout and forager and covertly as a secret insurgent agent.

Cornwallis made Armistead an orderly, assigned to attend on the officers’ desk—a main place for eavesdropping because the British common talked technique, going over maps and deliberate actions. The illiterate Armistead memorized what he overheard and virtually every day whispered that info to a fellow operative who was a part of a relay crew of spies who sneaked by way of British traces to cross intelligence to Lafayette. Continually forewarned, the Frenchman, whose forces numbered solely 3,000, was in a position to keep away from confrontations and to watch and report on the British undetected. James additionally carried directions from the marquis to different American operatives behind British traces.

Noting his orderly’s acuity, Cornwallis requested the supposed runaway to spy on the enemy. Armistead stated sure, informing his Continental Military contacts, who organized to provide him with faux intelligence. Armistead, now a double agent, started passing alongside falsehoods offered by handlers on the insurgent aspect about American power and actions. He fed Cornwallis a gentle stream of disinformation, augmented by touches like a bogus letter, supposedly from Lafayette to a different insurgent common. The crumpled communique, which James claimed to have discovered on the street, mentioned a lot of troops coming to strengthen Lafayette. Studying this discouraged Cornwallis from attacking the American forces.

Because the summer season of 1781 was ending, the American military was closing in on Cornwallis’s military at Yorktown. In early September, Cornwallis started receiving authentic reviews from trusted sources {that a} French fleet could be arriving off the Chesapeake Capes to strengthen the People. As well as, Washington and his military, marching out of areas within the mid-Atlantic from New York to Pennsylvania, had arrived at Williamsburg. Writing to Clinton, his supposed rescuer, Cornwallis stated he feared he couldn’t maintain out. Within the September 5-9 Battle of the Chesapeake Capes, which proved to be the decisive battle of the warfare, Admiral Francois Joseph Paul de Grasse’s fleet held off arriving British ships and chased them from the Chesapeake. By closing off British sea approaches to Yorktown, de Grasse disadvantaged Cornwallis of his wanted reinforcements.

In early October, the rebels and their French allies started besieging Yorktown. A French fleet arrived on the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, crushing Cornwallis’s hopes of assist from the Royal Navy. His again to the ocean, with no manner of escape, Cornwallis despatched an aide to Washington’s camp in search of phrases. On the nice and cozy morning of Friday, October 19, 1781, Cornwallis signed two copies of the Articles of Capitulation for return to Washington’s headquarters. Noting the scene of victory, the American common wrote on the finish of the articles, “Carried out within the trenches earlier than York, October nineteenth, 1781.”

A couple of days after capitulating, Cornwallis, in a gesture typical of the day, visited Lafayette. Coming into the Frenchman’s tent, the British chief noticed standing close to the Frenchman his former orderly, private servant, and constant spy, James Armistead. Though combating continued sporadically till the 1783 signing of the Treaty of Paris, the Revolutionary Warfare successfully ended at “the trenches earlier than York,” as did James Armistead’s profession as an American spy.

Armistead returned to New Kent County to renew life in bondage. He anticipated to acquire his freedom, however below Virginia legislation solely a particular act of the Meeting may free a slave. In autumn 1784, James traveled with William Armistead, now a member of the Home of Delegates, to Richmond. Within the state capital, James encountered Lafayette, who was about to depart for his homeland.

Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, suffered privation later in life however acquired a hero’s welcome when he toured the US in 1824.

The French noble gave his former undercover agent a letter. “That is to Certify that the Bearer By the Identify of James has performed Important Companies to me Whereas I had the Honour to Command on this State,” Lafayette wrote. “His intelligences from the Enemy’s Camp have been Industriously Collected and Extra faithfully ship’d. He correctly Acquitted Himself with Some vital Commissions I gave Him and Seems to me Entitled to Each Reward his State of affairs Can Admit of. Carried out Below my Hand, Richmond November twenty first, 1784—Lafayette.”

That December, a sickly William Armistead petitioned the Common Meeting for James’s freedom, formally generally known as manumission, from the Latin for “to launch management.” Armistead’s petition, inexplicably not despatched with Lafayette’s letter of reward, described the enslaved man’s efforts at Yorktown, asking for “that liberty which is so pricey to all mankind. . . . [and] praying that an act might cross for his emancipation.” The petition died in committee—the legislation releasing slaves for serving within the Revolution utilized solely to soldiers-at-arms, not spies.

In November 1786, William Armistead filed a second, extra politically astute petition that included Lafayette’s letter of endorsement. In his personal remarks, the planter cited James’s “sincere need to serve this nation…in the course of the ravages of Lord Cornwallis thro’ this state,” closing with a plea that the legislature grant James “that Freedom, which he flatters himself he has in some extent contributed to ascertain.” The petition and Lafayette’s letter have been referred to the Committee on Propositions and Grievances, which ordered a invoice drafted. The ensuing measure unanimously handed the Home of Delegates on Christmas 1786, and the Virginia Senate on January 1, 1787. Signed eight days later by Governor Edmund Randolph, the laws freed James Armistead. Two months later, as compensation for releasing his slave, the Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts issued warrants to William Armistead within the sum of £250, far exceeding the standard £100 compensation the state paid for executing a bondsman convicted of a capital crime. In gratitude for the help that the marquis lent to his petition for freedom, James Armistead adopted Lafayette as his final title.

James Armistead Lafayette, freedman, slipped into obscurity, making his residing farming. He had a spouse and not less than one son. The 1787 New Kent County private property tax e book lists Lafayette as proudly owning two horses and three slaves. Black freedmen of that period did generally personal slaves, nevertheless it additionally was commonplace for property and census recorders to characterize any blacks in a freedman’s family, even relations, as slaves. In 1816, James and household acquired two tracts adjoining William Armistead’s property, one parcel of 10 acres, the opposite of 30.

To honor surviving troopers of the Revolution, within the early 1800s many states and the U.S. Congress set about offering liberal pensions for veterans. On December 28, 1818, James Lafayette, 70, petitioned the Virginia Common Meeting for pension aid, reporting that his well being had declined such that he discovered it tough to work. “In tender consideration whereof,” his petition learn, “he Humbly prays that your Honorable physique will cross a legislation, permitting a small sum for Emediate aid, and such average pension for the remnant of his days as in your knowledge shall appear simply.” The Meeting allotted James Armistead Lafayette $60 for “current aid” and a lifetime pension of $40 yearly.

Returning to his native France after the warfare, Lafayette, a staunch foe of slavery, urged American President George Washington to take away the stain of that establishment from the brand new nation. Below the normal English observe of “free tenancy,” tenant farmers paid low rents and landlords imposed fewer restrictions. As an experiment whose intention could be to emancipate taking part slaves, Lafayette proposed that he and the president every buy land for slaves to work as free tenants moderately than as bondsmen. Lafayette hoped the symbolic gesture would catch on in the US and the West Indies. Lafayette deliberate to dedicate holdings he had purchased in French Guiana in 1785 to this goal, however Washington proceeded far more slowly and by no means totally applied his a part of the plan.

The Marquis de Lafayette’s life in France was marked by turmoil. Initially he held prestigious roles: appointment to the Meeting of Governors, election to the Estates-Common, a hand in drafting the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. After the storming of the Bastille, Lafayette, as commander in chief of the Nationwide Guard, tried to steer a center course by way of the revolution. In August 1792, radical factions ordered his arrest. Lafayette fled to a area dominated by Austria and comprising the southern Netherlands, western Belgium, and far of Luxembourg. There, Lafayette was captured, tried, and sentenced to 5 years in jail. In 1797, Napoleon Bonaparte secured his launch, and after the Bourbon Restoration of 1814, Lafayette turned a liberal member of the French Chamber of Deputies.

In 1824, President James Monroe invited Lafayette to the US. The marquis, 66, toured all 24 states, greeted by rapturous crowds and appreciative politicians. On the subject in Yorktown the place the British give up had taken place 43 years earlier than, his open carriage was shifting slowly by way of cheering plenty when its occupant spied a well-recognized face. Ordering his driver to halt, the marquis stepped into the gang to embrace his previous buddy, undercover agent, and now namesake, James Armistead Lafayette. Reported the Richmond Enquirer, “A black man even, who had rendered him providers by means of info as a spy, for which he was liberated by the State, was acknowledged by [the marquis] within the crowd, referred to as to him by title, and [was] taken into his embrace.”

The Marquis de Lafayette was 76 when he died in 1834, having outlived James Armistead Lafayette, who died on August 9, 1830. In February 1865, Virginia ratified the thirteenth Modification to the Structure, which outlawed slavery. “By carrying info to Washington and Lafayette in the course of the last days of the American Revolution, James Lafayette had gained his personal freedom and contributed to the reason for American independence,” John Salmon, head of the state data unit of the Archives and Information Division of the Virginia State Library, wrote within the Autumn 1981 Virginia Cavalcade. “His was a victory that subjected the establishment of slavery itself to the relentless ‘contagion of liberty’ that has prodded America to honor the fullest implication of its professed perception that ‘all males are created equal.’”


This text was written by Larry C. Kerpelman and initially printed within the October 2018 challenge of American Historical past. For extra tales, subscribe right here.


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