In the era of book banning, Black America needs to learn and preserve every piece of historical nugget unearthed by historians. I feel moving forward, Black people will need to be more responsible in seeing that the younger generation knows our contributions to the building of this nation and we have a responsibility to act as resourceful guides.

This is what brought me to research James Armistead.

BNV staffer Damon Jackson reading to his son, Jireh, when Jireh was an infant. Jireh is now 7. Photo credit: Tamara Jackson
BNV staffer Damon Jackson reading to his son, Jireh, when Jireh was an infant. Jireh is now 7. Photo credit: Tamara Jackson

The story of James Armistead is the story of a man struggling for his identity in a nation struggling to gain independence.

James Armistead was born into slavery around Dec. 10, 1760, on a plantation in New Kent, Virginia. His master, William Armistead, accompanied James Armistead wherever he went. Armistead learned various skills and trades during these unofficial apprenticeships – everything except how to read. 

James Armistead. Photo credit: U.S. Army

Armistead’s journeys through the South allowed him to learn the backtrails and landscape. When the 13 colonies went to war with Great Britain, William Armistead managed military supplies for the Continental Army, which struggled to find enough soldiers to fight the British. The British, meanwhile, began using enslaved people for battle. In the colonies, the Continental Congress offered money and land to slave owners to encourage them to offer their slaves for battle. For the Africans in bondage, many wanted to join the war to gain their freedom, either by helping the colonies or by defecting. The bright and critically thinking James Armistead also wanted to join for this reason, and his master granted him permission to join the Continental Army.

Armistead was stationed under Cmdr. Marquis de Lafayette of the French Allied forces. Armistead performed domestic work for the white soldiers but Lafayette felt the Continental Army along with the Allied troops could not hold their positions against the British for long periods. Great Britain was far more battle-tested, well-supplied, and possessed a larger army.

The Continental Army needed a tactical advantage to hold off their colonizers; espionage was the only way to gain that. So Lafayette asked James Armistead to sneak into British command, pretend to be a runaway slave, gather intelligence, and report any findings to him.

Both sides were already using spies, but Lafayette felt James Armistead was sophisticated enough to get close to British command, something other spies had failed to do. Armistead was shocked at the request but also knew that people in bondage were in no position to decline an assignment from a commanding white officer, even if that officer was from a foreign regiment.

James Armistead posed as a runaway slave and eventually infiltrated British intelligence. He was placed in a camp with one of the most notorious traitors to defect from the Continental Army.

Benedict Arnold’s defection was responsible for some of Great Britain’s early victories. Through a network of spies, Armistead was able to send important details back to Lafayette on British movements. Armistead also gained the confidence of Gen. Charles Cornwallis of Great Britain due to his knowledge of the colonial terrain. In fact, he guided a few troops to designated areas well out of the distance of the Continental Army. Cornwallis felt James Armistead proved his loyalty to Great Britain and asked Armistead to return to the Continental Army to spy on them for Great Britain, making him one of the first known double agents in history. 

One of the unforeseen benefits of being a double agent during the American Revolution was the freedom to roam the landscape with very little harassment. The details of James Armistead’s intelligence he collected is the reason Commander Lafayette, who worked in close proximity with Gen. George Washington, was able to set up a blockade and prevent the British from sending 10,000 troops to Yorktown, Virginia. The British would have certainly crippled the colonists’ chances to win the war. As a result of the blockade, the British were forced to surrender in October 1781.

Seven years after the 13 colonies severed their political connections to Great Britain, the United States drafted The Act of 1783, which granted freedom for slaves who fought in the American Revolution, but for James Armistead, the path to freedom was still out of reach. A provision in the language of the bill stated that slaves had to have performed in combat to qualify under The Act of 1783. Being a spy didn’t fall under those qualifications and James Armistead had to return to his life in bondage. On a visit to the United States years later, much to his disbelief, Commander Lafayette discovered that James Armistead was still a slave, and he quickly began helping James Armistead in his quest to attain his freedom, which was granted in 1787. James Armistead purchased 40 acres of land, began farming, and was granted a 40-dollar annual pension for his service during the war. It was the custom of the slave population, upon gaining their freedom, to change their names. In honor of the man who treated him as an equal and helped him gain his freedom, Armistead changed his name to James Armistead Lafayette, and though he moved only 10 miles from his former master, he never saw him again.

James Armistead Lafayette died in 1830.

Damon Jackson is the social media specialist for NABJ Black News & Views.

Share This article on