James Armistead Lafayette (December 10, 1760–August 9, 1830) was the first African American double spy. An African 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 1760 in Elizabeth City, Virginia.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Some black Americans with the last name of Armistead are suspected of being descendants of James Armistead Lafayette as he is said to have had a number of children after the Revolution. Also it is possible that James was an illegitimate son of William Armistead, The Purser of the Virginia Troops. Regardless of his birth, he is remembered as an American patriot. His intelligence contributions to Lafayette and Washington aided in the capture Gen. Cornwallis at Yorktown, Va. with few shots fired.
He died on August 9, 1830 from natural causes, as a freed slave turned farmer.