Among the least known facts about the American Revolutionary War is the role of spies, and this important fact is buried even further when a Black man or woman risked their lives in this endeavor. The mere idea that there was such a person as a Black spy boggles most folks’ mind since it took years for them even to accept the role African Americans played on the battlefield. One such remarkable individual was James Armistead. He was born in bondage in Virginia in 1760. During the Revolutionary War, his owner William Armistead allowed him to serve under the Marquis de Lafayette, who commanded the French forces allied with the American Continental Army. Under Lafayette, James functioned as a spy, successfully infiltrating the headquarters of the British forces led by General Charles Cornwallis. To accomplish this mission, he posed as a runaway slave hired by the British to spy on the Americans. In effect, he was the country’s first double agent.
The British generals, Benedict Arnold (who in 1780 had defected to the British army) and Cornwallis, were so convinced of his deception that they used him to guide British troops through local roads. James obtained information by traveling from one camp to another, thereby gathering secret strategies from British officers and commanders that proved vitally useful for the Continental forces.
General George Washington, seeking to bolster his troops, sent a message to General Lafayette in the summer of 1781, imploring him to keep his forces strong and to inform him of Cornwallis’ military personnel and capability. Complying with Washington’s requests, Lafayette dispatched several spies to Cornwallis’ camp, but it was not until he received the reports from James was there any valuable information of use to Lafayette. From the accounts delivered by James, Lafayette and his forces were able to trap the British at Hampton. His reports were also of great benefit to the Continental Army in the Battle of Yorktown, forcing the British to surrender.
After the war, Lafayette lavished James with praise and commendations, particularly for his help in turning the tide at Yorktown. Despite the tribute and honors, James returned to his owner and was not eligible for emancipation under the Act of 1783 for slave soldiers since he was considered a spy. Once Lafayette learned of James’ situation he wrote a testimonial on his behalf and two years later the Virginia General Assembly emancipated him. James was so grateful to the French leader that he took Lafayette as his last name.
But James was also an agency of his own liberation, and convinced the Virginia General Assembly in 1786 to accept this petition: “That your petitioner persuaded of the just right which all mankind have to Freedom, notwithstanding his own state of bondage, with an honest desire to serve this Country in its defense thereof, did, during the ravages of Lord Cornwallis thro’ this state, by the permission of his master, enter into the service of the Marquis Lafayette: That during the time of his serving the Marquis, he often at the peril of his life found means to frequent the British Camp, by which means he kept open a channel of the most useful communications to the army of the state: That at different times your petitioner conveyed enclosures, from the Marquis into the enemies lines, of the most secret & important kind; the possession of which if discovered on him would have most certainly endangered the life of your petitioner: That he undertook & performed all commands with cheerfulness & fidelity, in opposition to the persuasion & example of many thousands of his unfortunate condition.
“For proof of the above your petitioner begs leave to refer to the certificate of the Marquis Lafayette hereto annexed, & after taking his case as here stated into consideration he humbly entreats that he may be granted that Freedom, which he flatters himself he has in some degree contributed to establish; & which he hopes always to prove himself worthy of: nor does he desire even this inestimable favor, unless his present master from whom he has experienced everything, which can make tolerable the state of slavery, shall be made adequate compensation for the loss of a valuable workman; which your petitioner humbly requests may be done & your petitioner shall ever pray &c.”
Upon receiving his freedom, James moved near Kent County, Virginia, bought 40 acres of land and began farming. Granted $40 a year by Virginia as pension for his service in the Revolutionary War, James now had the money he needed to take care of an increasingly large family.
He died in 1832 at the age of 72 in Virginia.