Black History Series | James Armistead

James Armistead (La Fayette) was an African American during the American Revolution.  Born in Virginia as a slave to William Armistead in 1760, he volunteered to join the Army in 1781.  After gaining the consent of his owner, Armistead was stationed to serve under the Marquis de La Fayette, the commander of French forces allied with the American Continental Army.  La Fayette employed Armistead as a spy and successfully infiltrated British General Cornwallis’s headquarters posing as a runaway slave hired by the British to spy on the Americans.


While pretending to be a British spy, Armistead gained the confidence of General Cornwallis and the (renegade) General Benedict Arnold.  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 returned to General Cornwallis’s camp.


In the summer of 1781, General George Washington sent a message of La Fayette, instructing him of Cornwallis’s equipment, military personnel, and future strategies.  Lay Fayette sent several spies to infiltrate Cornwallis’s camp, yet none proved able to produce valuable information for him until he received Armistead’s reports dated July 31, 1781.  The information in these reports helped La Fayette trap the British at Hampton.  Later that summer, Armistead’s reports helped the Americans win the Battle of Yorktown, prompting the British to surrender.


After the Revolution, La Fayette praised Armistead for his dedication and instrumental role in the surrender at Yorktown.  Armistead returned to William Armistead after the war to continue his life as a slave.  La Fayette wrote a testimonial on his behalf and two years later the Virginia Assembly emancipated hi. It was at this time that Armistead made “L Fayette” his last name in honor of the French General.


After receiving his freedom, he moved nine miles south of New Kent County in Virginia, bought forty acres of land and began farming.  He married and raised a large family and was granted $40.00 a year by the Virginia legislature for his services during the American Revolution.


James Armistead La Fayette died in 1832 at the age of 72 in Virginia.