James Armistead was a slave in Virginia in 1781 when he got permission from his owner, who helped supply the Continental Army, to join the revolutionary war effort. His owner approved.
Armistead, under Lafayette, the French general who helped the American colonists fight for their freedom, charged Armistead to Infiltrate the British by posing as a runaway slave. Armistead was easily able to join British forces in Virginia who valued his knowledge of the local terrain.
With them, he once reported to Benedict Arnold, the “traitorous colonist” who betrayed his troops to fight for the British.
Once he’d gained their trust, Armistead moved back and forth between the two armies’ camps, feeding false information to the British while secretly documenting their strategies and relaying them to Lafayette.
His most crucial intel detailed British general Charles Cornwallis’ plans to move thousands of troops from Portsmouth to Yorktown.
Armed with this knowledge, Lafayette alerted George Washington, and they set up a blockade around Yorktown which led to Cornwallis’ surrender.
Armistead provided crucial intelligence that helped defeat the British and end the war.
Despite his critical actions, Armistead returned to William Armistead after the war to continue his life as a slave. He was somehow not eligible for emancipation under the Act of 1783 for slave-soldiers, because he was considered a slave-spy, and had to petition the Virginia legislature for his emancipation.
The Marquis de Lafayette assisted him by writing a recommendation for his freedom, which was granted in 1787. In gratitude, Armistead adopted Lafayette’s surname.
Virginia lawmakers, after lobbying by Lafayette, granted Armistead his freedom in 1787. His owner, William Armistead, was paid £250.
Armistead married, raised a family and spent the rest of his life as a free man on his own Virginia farm. He added Lafayette to his name as a token of gratitude to French General.
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