1760 Virginia was the birthplace of a very effective spy during the American Revolution. James Armistead, born a slave on William Armistead’s plantation, gained permission from his owner to volunteer for the army in 1781. When he learned the war was about liberty and not money or land, he felt he needed to be a part of the effort. He was assigned to serve the French forces under the command of Marquis de Lafayette.
While serving under the Marquis, Armistead pretended to be a runaway slave hired by a British spy. He was able to gain the confidence of British General Cornwallis and American General Benedict Arnold. He so thoroughly convinced Arnold about being a runaway slave, Arnold chose Armistead to guide British troops through the local roads. Walking through the camps, he listened to what the various British officers would say within his hearing. This information was transcribed into written reports and delivered to various American spies. Once he had the message handed off, he returned to Cornwallis’s camp.
In 1781, General Lafayette received a message from General George Washington stating the need for his forces to keep him informed regarding Cornwallis’s movements and strategies. A number of spies infiltrated Cornwallis’s camp, but were unable to obtain any valuable information in the process. The report he received from Armistead on July 31, 1781 proved extremely essential. It aided Washington’s effort to prevent 10,000 British reinforcements from entering Yorktown, Virginia. This led to the Americans winning the Battle of Yorktown, which prompted the British surrender on October 19, 1781.
Lafayette layered the praise on Armistead following the Revolution for the instrumental role he played in the British surrender. Following that, Armistead returned to the life of a slave. Due to the fact his military service was as an intelligence agent rather than a soldier, he did not qualify for liberation under the Act of 1783.
Lafayette learned in 1784 that Armistead was still a slave. The general was quite disappointed and wrote a letter on his behalf. Two years later, Armistead was emancipated by the Virginia General Assembly. In appreciation of the help the general offered in Armistead’s behalf, from that point on he used ‘Lafayette’ for his last name.
After his freedom was granted, Armistead bought 40 acres south of New Kent County, Virginia for a farm. He later married and raised a large family. He also received a pension of $40 per month from the Virginia legislature for his service in the Revolution.
James died in 1832 at the age of 72 as a freed slave turned farmer. Prior to his death, an oil painting was done of him on canvas by artist John Blennerhassett Martin. This painting now hangs in the Valentine Museum.