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James Armistead Lafayette- Unsung Hero of the American Revolution


Copy of Lafayette's commendation Photo Credit-  Virginia Historical Society image from the Library of Virginia website
Copy of Lafayette’s commendation Photo Credit- Virginia Historical Society image from the Library of Virginia website

There are many heroes we know about in the American Revolution- George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton- but there are many that gave their all for this country that have remained in the shadows.  Their names are not bywords for freedom, but should be.  James Armistead Lafayette is one of those men.


It is not known for sure when and where James was born.  James was a slave, and these things were not important.  General consensus says he was born some time in 1748 in New Kent County, Virginia.  James was the property of William Armistead.  Not much else is known about James’ life until the American Revolution broke out.  William Armistead was appointed as a manager of military supplies for the state of Virginia.  James requested permission to join the war effort as a soldier, and was stationed to serve under the Marquis de Lafayette.  Lafayette was a French nobleman who did not wait for the French crown to join in the American war for independence.  He was the commander of the French forces allied with the American Continental Army.  Lafayette had a mess on his hands.  The army was in chaos after the defection of Benedict Arnold to the British (please see post )  Lafayette’s forces were being depleted by the forces of British General Charles Cornwallis’.  He needed information.  He needed an ace in the hole.  He got James Armistead.

James went to the British camp and posing as a runaway slave found work as a forager.  His movements looking for food in the countryside, allowed him greater freedom of movement between the British and American camps.  By the end of July 1781, James was a trusted servant to General Cornwallis himself.  Any information he could get, he passed on to Lafayette.  Lafayette reported to Washington Cornwallis “is so shy of his papers that my honest friend says he cannot get at them.”  It wasn’t easy and James was in danger at all times.  Soon, James was trusted enough that he was approached by the British to spy on the Americans.  At great personal danger, James began passing on false information to the British about American numbers and troop movements.  His misinformation kept the British troops in Yorktown after their move from Portsmouth long enough for the French fleet to arrive to bottle them up.  This directly led to Cornwallis’ surrender on October 19, 1781.

And how did this country reward this brave man for directly aiding in its founding?  It sent James back to his master to go back to being a slave.  Nice work, America.  A law in Virginia passed in 1782 freeing slave soldiers did not apply to him as he was not considered a regular soldier but a spy.  Lafayette found out James was still a slave after the war and was sorely disappointed.  James petitioned the Virginia Assembly for freedom in 1786, and presented a hand written testimonial from his former commander, Lafayette.  It read,

“This is to certify that the Bearer has done essential services to me while I had the honour to command in this State. His Intelligence from the ennemy’s [sic] camp were industriously collected and most faithfully delivered. He perfectly acquitted himself with some important commissions I gave him and appears to me entitled to every reward his situation can admit of.”

Finally, with the support of both Lafayette and his Armistead, James was awarded his freedom in November 1786.  He took the name of his former master and his former commander becoming legally James Armistead Lafayette.    He became a landowner, and had a forty acre farm in New Kent County, Virginia next to his former master, Armistead.  In 1818, he was granted a pension of $40 a year for his failing health.

In 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette returned to Yorktown, and his former soldier was in the crowd.  Lafayette saw him in the crowd and called him by name.  He then jumped from his carriage and embraced James in front of the cheering throng of people.  James Armistead Lafayette died August 9, 1830 on his farm.  Without him, we would not have a country.