A Little Known Hero of The American Revolution James Armistead (Lafayette) (1760-1832)
The decisive victory of the American Revolution occurred at Yorktown Virginia on October 19th 1781. General Washington was able to surround and capture 8,000 British Soldiers and force the ultimate surrender of Britain to America. One man was responsible for the British decision to move their forces to the trap that was Yorktown. This man was the most effective spy for the Americans in the Revolutionary War. He was responsible for Lord Cornwallis’s move to Yorktown where Washington was able to surround and defeat the British Army. But, have you ever heard his name?
James Armistead, His Story
James Armistead was one of the most important American spies during the Revolution. As a slave in Virginia, he witnessed much of the War; and following the British siege of Richmond in 1781. He asked his master, William Armistead, for permission to serve in the cause of American independence with
General Marquis de Lafayette, a young Frenchman who came to fight with the Americans. His master agreed, and Lafayette accepted his services.
An Uncanny Service, a Spy
Lafayette dispatched Armistead to the camp of the patriot-turned-traitor, Benedict Arnold (then a British general), to pose as an escaped slave looking for work. Arnold accepted Armistead and allowed him to work in the camp, thus placing him around other British generals, including British commander-in-chief Lord Cornwallis.
Armistead obtained much vital information about British plans and troop movements, which he daily sent to General Lafayette. Ironically, Lord Cornwallis so trusted Armistead that he even asked him to become a British spy to watch the Americans. Armistead agreed and thus became a double-agent, feeding accurate information to the Americans and inaccurate information to the British. Pretending to be a spy for them allowed Armistead to gain Arnold’s confidence to the extent that Arnold even used him to guide British troops through local roads.
After Arnold departed north in the spring of 1781, James went to the camp of Lord Charles Cornwallis and continued his work. He moved frequently between British camps, where the officers would speak openly about their strategies in front of him. Armistead documented this information in written reports, which he then delivered to other American spies. In this way, he relayed much information about the British’s plans for troop deployment and their arms. The intelligence reports from his espionage were instrumental in helping defeat the British during the Battle of Yorktown.
Lafayette so regarded Armistead that he wrote a certificate of commendation for him.
It should be noted that when Lafayette made a return trip to America in 1824 and noticed Armistead in the crowd, Lafayette stopped his carriage and went through the crowd just to embrace Armistead. It was at this time that Lafayette wrote a testimonial on Armistead’s behalf.
In 1786, with the support of William Armistead – then a member of the House of Delegates – and carrying a 1784 testimonial of his service from the Marquis de Lafayette, James petitioned the Virginia Assembly for his freedom. On January 9, 1787, the As
sembly granted the petition. At that time he chose to add “Lafayette” to his name, to honor the general.
Armistead continued to live in New Kent County with his new wife, one son and several other children. He became a rich farmer.
By 1818, he applied to the state legislature for military financial aid. He was granted $60 for present relief and a $40 annual pension for his services in the Revolutionary War. Armistead died on August 9, 1830 in Baltimore, Maryland.
Salmon, John and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. “James Lafayette (ca. 1748–1830).” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 10 Mar. 2016.