Saturday, December 10, 2016
James Armistead Lafayette
From The Founders, Religion and Government:
Today is the anniversary of the birth of James Armistead Lafayette, or at least the date we think he was born on. Like many slaves, the birth date of Lafayette is unknown. He may have been born in 1759 or 1760, or even as early as 1748. His place of birth was in southeastern Virginia at either Elizabeth City or New Kent County. Even the date of his death is debatable. Most put it in 1830, but some sources claim it to be 1832. What we do know is the he was the property of William Armistead, and that like many other slaves, James joined the American fight for independence with the promise of his own.
In 1781, James joined the army. He served under the Marquis de La Fayette, a French officer who had joined the American fight. The Americans were desperate for intelligence on the plans and movements of the British and La Fayette was looking for spies. This was a very dangerous job, since the penalty for spying was death.
His first assignment was Benedict Arnold, who had already turned his coat and joined the British. James posed as a runaway slave and initially worked as a forager, someone who searches for food to feed the soldiers. This job allowed him to move freely between the British camps. As Arnold grew to trust him, Armistead was asked to spy on the Americans. Arnold also allowed him to guide British troops along the local roads. The British officers shared Arnold's trust since they talked freely of their plans in front of Armistead. He wrote reports of the information he gathered and deliver them to American spies to take to the Marquis.
In the Spring, when Arnold went north, James went to work for Lord Cornwallis. Washington asked the Marquis to gather information on the equipment, military personnel, and strategies of Cornwallis. The Marquis sent several spies into the British camp, but none were able to gather the needed information except James. On July 31, 1781, the Marquis received a report that allowed him to set a trap for British at Hampton. James continued to feed the Americans information and feed Cornwallis disinformation, throughout the summer. One item was a fake order for a large regiment of American soldiers. James claimed to have found it crumpled on the ground. Misinformation like this convinced the British command that Washington's troops were much stronger than the British had imagined and led to Washington's victory at Yorktown.
James performance as a runaway was so convincing that is was not until Cornwallis later saw him at the Marquis' headquarters after the surrender that Cornwallis realized that James had all the time been an agent working for the Americans.
After the War:
Since James had not served as a soldier, he was not eligible for emancipation under the Act of 1783. He instead returned to his life as a slave, but petitioned the state legislature of Virginia for his freedom. In this he had the support of his master William Armistead. On November 21, 1784, he received a letter from the Marquis de La Fayette commending him for his services. On January 9, 1786, the slave known simply as James was granted his freedom for his bravery and services as a spy during the Siege of Yorktown. James took his masters name "Armistead" for his middle name and "Lafayette" as his surname in honor of the general he served under in the war.
After the war and his emancipation, James Armistead Lafayette continued to live in New Kent County with his wife and children until his death in 1830. He purchased 40 acres of land and became a farmer, even owning three slaves himself. In 1818, he applied to the state for a pension for his services in the American Revolution. He was granted $60 with an annuity of $40 a year for life. When the Marquis de La Fayette made his famous visit to Yorktown in 1824 he recognized Lafayette in the crowd and embraced him.
James Armistead Lafayette may not have signed any important founding documents, but his contributions to the cause of American independence make him worthy of the title Founder.
The story of Lafayette being recognized by the Marquis during the visit to Yorktown was reported in the Richmond Enquirer.
Lafayette had his picture painted by the artist John Blennerhassett Martin. The painting is owned by the Valentine Musuem.
Another artist, John-Baptiste Paon, painted a picture of a black servant holding the reins to Washington's horse at the Battle of Yorktown. The servant is believed to be James Armistead Lafayette. The picture is owned by Lafayette College.
There is a character by the name of James Armistead Lafayette, who is an aide to the general, in a novel by James Ewell Heath.