James Armistead was born into complete poverty and slavery around 1748 in New Kent, Virginia. Not much is know about James’ early years, but as a slave in the old South his days where fraught with backbreaking labor, malnutrition and humiliation. When James reached the age of 32 in 1781 he was granted permission from his master, William Armistead, to join the Revolutionary War against the British under the command of Marquis de Lafayette, commander of the allied French forces.
James Armistead’s heroic actions during the Revolutionary War help bring a crippling defeat to the British and led the way to American Independence. The Marquis de Lafayette employed James as a spy against the British and without being detected infiltrated General Cornwalis’ headquarters as well as American traitor Benedict Arnold.
James posing as a runaway slave was hired by the British which gave him easy access to British troop movements and military campaigns against the Americans. General Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette used James Armistead’s information to build a navel blockade that stop the 10,000 British reinforcements to the battle of Yorktown, causing a disastrous defeat to the British military and causing the British to officially surrendered on Oct 19, 1781.
After the war James was forced to return to his master William Armistead and continue his life as a slave. Because James served as a spy in the Revolutionary War he was not eligible for emancipation under the 1783 Slave-Soldiers Act. It took him 6 years, lots of red tape and help from his former commanding officer the Marquis de Lafayette, and in 1787 James was granted his freedom. In gratitude for everything the Marquis de Lafayette did for him personally and for American James adopted Lafayette’s surname and from 1787 until his death in 1830 he was know as James Armistead Lafayette. Once James gained his freedom he moved nine miles south of the plantation where he was a slave and became a gentlemen farmer of 40 acres of land. James married late in life and raised a large family and was considered a hero for his war service and awarded a $40.00 annual pension by the Virginia Legislature.
To learn more about James Armistead Lafayette go to your local library and check out: Black Heroes of the American Revolution by Burke Davis; The Marquis by Laura Auricchio and The American Promise Volume I by James L Roark and Michael P Johnson.