BHM 2021 - James Armistead Lafayette was Washington's top spy that help to win the Revolutionary War



James Armistead Lafayette

"The founding of our Country was the result of many acts of bravery by men like James Armistead Lafayette, who believed in the principles of our God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is estimated that 5,000 and 8,000 black people participated in the Revolution's Patriot side. For many, their acts of heroism have been lost to a misrepresentation of our history in America. The Martin Luther King Republicans (MLKR) are proud to celebrate 2021 Black History Month by shining a light on those who contribute to this Country even before Emancipation. And as always, please COMMENT, LIKE, and SHARE. Thank you."- Jimmy Lee Tillman, II founder, and president.

James Armistead Lafayette was a patriot spy during the War for American Independence. He infiltrated Benedict Arnold's forces and provided intelligence that nearly led to Arnold's capture. He also penetrated British commander Lord Cornwallis' camp as a double agent and passed vital intelligence information to General Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette. The intel from James Armistead provided the key to the decisive victory at the Battle of Yorktown, which compelled the surrender of Cornwallis and an end to the War for Independence.

A key figure in America's final victory over the British Empire, one could argue that ultimate victory. Therefore, the birth of a new nation rested to a great extent on one black patriot-James Armistead Lafayette's shoulders. He deserves his place in history where he served - next to revolutionary war heroes General Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette.

​James was born around 1748 in New Kent County. During the War for American Independence, his master, William Armistead, was appointed to be one of the managers of Virginia's military supplies in Williamsburg. From there, James Armistead made his way to Richmond and joined the Marquis de Lafayette's service as a patriot spy.

Gen. Washington and Marquis de Lafayette with black soldier in Colonial Militia

Under the Marquis de Lafayette command, James successfully gained access to Lord Cornwallis' camp and passed himself off as a servant and waiter for the British commander.

​It was said in his petition to the Virginia General Assembly that James, "often at the peril of his life found means to frequent the British Camp, by which means he kept open a channel of the useful communications."

James Armistead's intel revealed to Lafayette, Cornwallis' move from Portsmouth to Yorktown. James gave detailed accounts of the British army's fortification of the town and the British forces' vulnerable position.

​​While in the British camp, James Armistead even fooled Cornwallis into allowing him to act as a spy for the British against the patriots. He then worked as a double agent feeding the British commander false intelligence about American troop strength and movement. Interestingly, Benedict Arnold, whom Washington regarded as the best military mind on either side of the war, advised Cornwallis to relocate. Had Cornwallis heeded Arnold's advice, the far superior British Army may have avoided defeat. James Armistead's disinformation kept the forces of Cornwallis right where the patriots wanted them.

​James Armistead's espionage efforts gave the American and French forces of Washington and Rochambeau enough time to reach the Chesapeake to cut off Cornwallis' retreat, thus directly contributing to American victory and Cornwallis' surrender on October 19, 1781. This was the last major land battle of the war and meant victory for what would become the new American Republic. The groundwork for this final decisive battle hinged on a single black patriot's efforts – James Armistead Lafayette.


Letter from Marquis de Lafayette on behalf of James Armistead Lafayette

After the war, James Armistead returned to Virginia. Because he was a spy and not an enlisted soldier, the Virginia legislature passed a law in 1782 to provide for the freedom of slaves who had served in the war. It was argued that this didn't apply to James Armistead because he didn't serve as "a soldier" only as a spy. In November 1784, the Marquis de Lafayette personally sent a plea for his "honest friend" in a handwritten testimonial for the Virginia General Assembly:

​In 1824 the Marquis de Lafayette was invited to America by President Monroe. The Marquis made a tour of all 24 states, including Virginia.

The Richmond Enquirer reported that during the event at Yorktown, James Armistead "was recognized by [the Marquis] in the crowd, called to him by name, and taken into his embrace."

While the Virginia slave-owners looked on, the famous French general and the black patriot spy that helped give America its decisive victory stood and embraced one another.

This great American hero, James Armistead Lafayette, died six years later - August 9, 1830

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