James Armistead Lafayette was the first black American double spy. A negro American slave, Armistead was owned by William Armistead in Virginia during the American Revolution.
Most sources indicate that Armistead was born in 1748 in New Kent County, Virginia as a slave to William Armistead. Other sources put his birth around December 10, 1760 in Elizabeth City, Virginia.
Marquis de Lafayette and American spy James Armistead
After getting consent of his master, William Armistead, he volunteered in 1781 to join the army under General Lafayette. He was stationed as a spy. First he spied on Brigadier General Benedict Arnold (by this time, Arnold had defected from the American Continental Army to lead British forces). After Arnold departed north in the spring of 1781, James went to the camp of Lord Cornwallis. He relayed much information about the British plans for troop deployment and about their arms. The intelligence reports from his espionage were instrumental in helping to defeat the British during the Battle of Yorktown.
While pretending to be a British spy, Armistead gained the confidence of General Benedict Arnold and General Cornwallis. Arnold was so convinced of Armistead’s pose as a runaway slave that he used him to guide British troops through local roads. Armistead often traveled between camps, spying on British officers, who spoke openly about their strategies in front of him. Armistead documented this information in written reports, delivered them to other American spies, and then return to General Cornwallis’s camp.
Facsimile of Marquis de Lafayette’s certificate of commendation of James Armistead Lafayette, 1784
Because he was an intelligence agent and not technically a soldier, James could not qualify for emancipation under the Act of 1783, so with the support of William Armistead, he pensioned the Virginia State Legislature for his freedom. He received a letter of commendation dated November 21, 1784, from the Marquis de Lafayette. The facsimile of the letter of commendation can be viewed on the Lafayette College website. On January 9, 1786, the Virginia State legislature granted the slave known only as “James” his freedom for services rendered and bravery as a spy during the siege of Yorktown. It was at that time that he chose the name ‘Armistead’ for his middle name and ‘Lafayette’ for his surname, to honor the general.
He continued to live in New Kent County with his new wife, one son and several other children. He became a farmer and at one point owned three slaves. By 1818 he applied to the state legislature for financial aid. He was granted $60 for present relief and $40 annual pension for his services in the Revolutionary War.
In 1824, he was recognized and embraced by General Lafayette during his tour of Yorktown, the story of the event was reported by the Richmond Enquirer. It was also about this time that the artist John Blennerhassett Martin painted an oil on canvas of Armistead. This painting is owned by the Valentine Museum. The artist also created a broadside including both the painted likeness and the facsimile of Lafayette’s testimonial.
Another possible likeness is John-Baptiste Paon’s 1783 portrait of Lafayette at Yorktown with James Armistead holding his horse. This portrait is owned by Lafayette College and can be viewed on their website.
A discussion on the images of James Armistead may be found on the Common-place website.
By 1828, James Armistead Lafayette was also featured as the general’s aid and sidekick in the novel Edge- Hill or the Family of the Fitzroyals by James Ewell Heath.
He died on August 9, 1830 from natural causes, as a freed slave turned farmer.
1. 2009 TEKS Review Government of Texas
2. Special Collections and College Archives | Lafayette College
3. Common-place: Representing Slavery: A Roundtable Discussion