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Thursday, December 1, 2016

James Armistead Lafayette American Spy

This next edition is going to feature James Armistead Lafayette an American Spy. This is the last of the American Revolutionary Spies and the next will feature the beginning of the Civil War Spies. 

            African Americans were able to fly under the radar because they were considered illiterate and did not have the intelligence to understand what was going on around them. This was still a time where they were considered property of their white owners. There were some, like James Armistead Lafayette that rose above these hurdles and were of great value to their country. “James Armistead Lafayette remains one of the most important, yet least known figures of the American Revolutionary War.”[1]
James Armistead Lafayette whose birthdate is not completely clear. His exact birthdate is not known since they did not usually keep track of the birth or death statistics. Some research has put his birthdate at: December 10, 1748. However some research has put his birth year in the year 1760. He was categorized as a farm hand in records. Both North and Southern Slave owners would categorize and sort their slaves into different categories. They could be sorted by: intelligence, appearance (this was to possibly work as a house slave), and their language skills. 
He was owned by General William Armistead. General William Armistead owned tobacco fields. When the revolutionary war started, James volunteered to be in the Continental Army. General Armistead had given his permission for him to enlist. “According to historians, hundreds of slaves chose to join a rebellion by the Virginia governor, the Earl of Dunmore, in 1775 for just such a reason. Tens of thousands of slaves fled to the British Army after Sir Henry Clintons' Philipsburg Declaration in 1779. However, more black men ended up fighting under George Washington for various colonial militias”[2] While slavery was still legal in America, Armistead wanted to fight for the democratic ideas that he would not be able to enjoy. Armistead might have also wanted to volunteer to get a temporary reprieve from working in the tobacco fields.
Armistead was placed under the service of General Lafayette. They immediately wanted to use him as a spy. “James volunteered to serve as a secret courier between spies already planted in British General Cornwallis’s headquarters at Portsmouth. Armistead, a provisions officer with Lafayette’s army, allowed his slave to begin a career as a spy. He knew how vital intelligence was to counter future British movements, and that a white man so planted as a servant would be under far greater suspicion.”[3] He would then pose as a laborer. This would allow him to act like he was looking for work. He was able to make it to the encampment of the British Army located in Virginia.  He was able to align himself with Benedict Arnold. This would allow him to be considered trustworthy and infiltrate deeper. He was able to position himself within the headquarters of General Cornwallis.
While in the headquarters of General Cornwallis, Armistead was able to relay the movement of the British Troops and their movements. “Historians believe that he gathered the information that he overheard as a waiter in the camp and disseminated it to a network of other black men who would move back and forth between the enemy lines.”[4] Armistead was not able to gain access to Cornwallis’ personal papers. While he was not able to get every single piece of information he was able to extract enough information to keep Armistead abreast of what the British were doing, moving and saying.
He was successful because while he was able to gain trust from the British Army, they also thought he could be a runaway slave that they could use as an asset. Arnold thought that they could use him to guide them through unfamiliar territories. They figured that since he was a runaway slave he would be able to navigate easily back through where he would have escaped through.
Once the war was over he had to return to his life as a slave. He was not eligible to be freed under the Act of 1783 for slave soldiers. This was because he was considered a slave spy. He eventually met up with General Lafayette, who was saddened that he was still living as a slave. He was so disappointed that he had written a letter on Armistead’s behalf to try and have his freedom secured for him. This took two years, and the Virginia General Assembly chose to emancipate him. In honor of Lafayette, James Armistead made his last name Lafayette.
After he became a free man. He moved to New Kent County in Virginia. He purchased forty acres of land. He then became a farmer. He married and had several children. He was given approximately $40 a year by the Virginia legislature. This money was given to him for his services during the American Revolution. The freedoms that he had desired for were finally granted. Armistead died August 9, 1830.
There are some that were involved in spy activities that were not named. Benjamin Tallmadge reflected in his memoir about one of these women. “Very soon I saw a young female coming out from the city, who also came to the same tavern. After we had made ourselves known to each other, and while she was communicating some intelligence to me, I was also informed that the British light horse were advancing.”[5] While this woman was able to tip him off and pass information off to each other. This woman was not identified anywhere.

[1] Witherbee, Amy. "James Armistead Lafayette." James Armistead Lafayette (January 2007): 1. MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed July 17, 2016).
[2] Ibid.
[3] Flanders, Alan. "BLACK SPIES WERE KEY TO AMERICAN DEFEAT OF CORNWALLIS IN REVOLUTION." The Virginian-pilot, February 12, 1999.

[4] Witherbee, Amy. "James Armistead Lafayette." James Armistead Lafayette (January 2007): 1. MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed July 17, 2016).
[5] Tallmadge, Benjamin. Memoir of Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge. New York: new York Times, 1968. Pg. 26

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