James Armistead (James Lafayette)iot of the American Revolution
An African American slave in Virginia, Armistead sought and received permission from his master, William Armistead, to enlist under Gen. Marquis de Lafayette, a French officer who joined George Washington’s army during the American Revolution. Lafayette was seeking men to spy on British general Cornwallis and his army at Yorktown, Va. Impressed with Armistead’s intelligence, Lafayette had Armistead pose as a laborer looking for work. He was hired at Cornwallis’s camp and was able to relay information about Cornwallis’s plans to Lafayette. Armistead also earned the trust of Cornwallis, who asked him to spy on the Americans. As a double agent, Armistead was able to move freely between both camps. He provided Lafayette with critical information that enabled the general to intercept Cornwallis’s much-needed naval support and ultimately defeat Cornwallis at Yorktown in Oct. 1781, the decisive battle that ended the Revolution.
After the war, Armistead returned to the Armistead plantation as a slave. He met with Lafayette in 1784, when the general visited the United States. He wrote a glowing recommendation for his former spy, which Armistead used when he petitioned the Virginia House of Delegates for freedom. He was finally freed on New Year’s Day 1787. He assumed Lafayette as his surname and spent the rest of his life as a farmer in Virginia.