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James Armistead Lafayette

James Armistead Lafayette
1748 or 1760 – August 9, 1830
Notable: Military Spy
Nationality: American


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Like many enslaved people of his time, the exact date of James’ birth is unknown but sources cite the year as either 1748 or 1760. It is also unlikely that he was given a surname at birth. The place of his birth is also uncertain. Though given that he spent most of his life on a plantation in New Kent, Virginia it’s assumed that James was either born on that plantation or nearby.

The Continental Army officially came into existence on June 14, 1775, under the command of George Washington. Given that America allowed slavery, there was initial resistance to the idea of Black men being armed. Those who managed to join the military during the first two months of the war were permitted to continue their service while new Black recruits were rejected. But when the need for troops began to outstrip the availability of White would-be soldiers, Black men were allowed to enlist. (This cycle would continue through major future wars up to and including World War II.)

As with the details of James’ birth, little is known about his early life except that by 1780 he was owned by William Armistead. From the onset of the Revolutionary War, Armistead was based in Williamsburg and served as a manager of the state’s military supplies. In 1780, Armistead moved to Richmond and was accompanied by James.

The following spring, Virginia was invaded by the British Army. With permission from Armistead, James was allowed to enlist in the Marquis de Lafayette’s French units. This was with the understanding that James was still owned by Armistead and expected to return to him after the war.

It was relatively easy for Black men to move across the area and behind military lines under the pretense of menial roles. In addition, being familiar with the area, James was able to move about using less traveled roads and paths without the assistance of maps or guides. Thus James’ first assignment was acting as a courier, transporting communications between the French. His next and most important assignment was to infiltrate the British military as a spy.

In 1775, hoping to spark a slave revolt, Virginia’s then British-governor issued a decree which freed any slaves who joined the British military. Prior to the decree, less than 1,000 slaves were estimated to have joined the British. But after the decree about 100,000 enslaved people from across all of the colonies escaped behind British lines in pursuit of freedom.

Thus, it was not suspicious when James arrived at British lines under the guise of being a runaway. His knowledge of the local area further ingratiated James to the British. He was able to infiltrate British General Charles Cornwallis’s headquarters. James became a guide for British troops, traveled north with Benedict Arnold, and personally served Cornwallis.

In time, James came to be so trusted by Cornwallis that he was asked to spy on the Continental Army. With the trust of both militaries, James could easily move between camps. Yet, while runaways were granted freedom when they joined the British, they weren’t necessarily seen as equals. James’ presence was often ignored due to being a Black man in the role of a servant. British military leaders would openly discuss their plans and strategies for troops around him.

This enabled James to gather and pass along intelligence to the Continental Army while giving inaccurate information to the British. One of James’ most important acts of espionage helped to weaken the British forces. He passed along details of British plans to move 10,000 troops from Portsmouth to Yorktown. With advanced knowledge, the Continental Army and French troops blockaded the area and attacked the British. Previously outnumbered by the British and lacking resources the Continental and French units were able to eventually force Cornwallis to surrender.

James took personal risks with his safety to gather and pass along information for which one might assume that he was readily rewarded. Instead, James was returned to slavery when the war ended. A law had been enacted in Virginia in 1783 that promised enslaved men their freedom as a reward for having contributed to the fight for the colonies’ freedom. But the statute was not applied to James due to his having served as a spy.

He made several unsuccessful attempts to petition for his freedom but was ignored. It was not until the Maqruis intervened on James’ behalf that officials considered the importance of his contributions. The Marquis provided written testimony of James’ work as a spy which was submitted to General Assembly but they adjourned. James was officially emancipated in 1787 following the passage of acts by the House of Delegates and Senate. As an act of appreciation, James took on Lafayette’s name as his surname becoming “James Lafayette”.

Lafayette left the plantation where he’d been held in bondage and purchased 40 acres of land on which he farmed and raised a family with his wife. Even with his freedom secured based on his recognition as a veteran, it would take almost 30 years and multiple petitions for Lafayette to receive a military pension. James Armistead Lafayette died in Baltimore, Maryland on August 9, 1930, between the ages of 70 to 80 years old.


  1. Editors. 2020. “James Armistead.” Biography.Com. A&E Networks Television. July 6, 2020.
  2. Healey, Caitlin. n.d. “James Armistead Lafayette.” National Museum of the United States Army. Accessed August 1, 2023.
  3. “James Armistead Lafayette (1748-1830).” n.d. The American Revolution. Accessed August 1, 2023.
  4. “James Armistead Lafayette.” n.d. American Battlefield Trust. Accessed August 1, 2023.
  5. Morgan, Thaddeus. 2020. “How an Enslaved Man-Turned-Spy Helped Secure Victory at the Battle of Yorktown.” History.Com. A&E Television Networks. July 9, 2020.
  6. Quinn, Ruth. 2014. “James Armistead Lafayette, (1760-1832).” The U.S. Army. February 21, 2014.
  7. Salmon, John. 2023. “James Lafayette (ca. 1748–1830).” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities. March 3, 2023.
  8. Salo, Jessica. 2023. “James Armistead Lafayette (1760-1832).” Blackpast.Org. January 9, 2023.

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