“There would have no victory at Yorktown without James Armistead…” During the battle for American independence from British rule, in the autumn of 1781, the American colonial army fought in the Battle of Yorktown. This was the final and arguably most consequential war for the American army. This war ended in the surrender of British General Lord Cornwallis and his squadron of nearly 9,000 troops. It was a monumental victory for the American army, and it would not have been possible without the crucial insider intelligence from an enslaved African called James Armistead. Armistead worked briefly as a double agent for the Continental Army throughout the Revolutionary War.
Before James Armistead chose to fight for the emerging republic that denied him his freedom, he already had a fairly close view of the war. After the war began in 1775, his owner, William Armistead was the manager of the military supplies for the state of Virginia.
Five years later, in 1780, James and William moved from the Virginia capital of Williamsburg to the new capital, Richmond. The following summer James got permission to join the armed forces and fight for America’s independence.
At the time, enslaved Africans were allowed to fight on either side of the war, and the incentive for their service was freedom. Although Armistead didn’t take up arms in the revolutionary war. Instead, in 1781, James was stationed under the Marquis de Lafayette, to infiltrate the British army through espionage. Lafayette was commander of the allied French forces and a key ally of General George Washington.
A Revolutionary Double Agent
Getting information on their British enemy was critical to Lafayette, who needed to stop the losses his army was incurring at the hands of Cornwallis’s larger and better-supplied army. Marquis de Lafayette was also under instructions to capture the infamous traitor Benedict Arnold, who was causing chaos after offering his services to the British.
Posed as a runaway slave, Armistead infiltrated the British forces through Arnold’s camp. While at first, he took on easy tasks, his vast knowledge of the terrain made him become useful to both Arnold and Cornwallis for British intelligence during the war. They gave him the job of spying on the colonies.
Armistead’s service as a double agent made traveling between the two camps easier, as he didn’t raise any suspicions as an intruder to either side. It also made the collection of information on British forces less dangerous, as long as he was not caught.
The task Armistead was given was a very dangerous one. He supplied Lafayette with intel about the British through handwritten notes which he delivered to other spies. And at the same time fed Cornwallis and his company inaccurate information on the Americans.
One of the most valuable pieces of intel that Armistead sent was near the end of the summer in 1781. He sent a note to Lafayette, exposing Cornwallis’s move from Portsmouth to Yorktown. The note said that Cornwallis was expecting the arrival of 10,000 British troops at Yorktown.
In response to the intel, Lafayette informed General George Washington, and both men made preparations along with French General Comte de Rochambeau to set up a blockade by land and by sea around the Yorktown peninsula. The siege on Yorktown, combined with regular bombardment, weakened Cornwallis’s forces and forced the British to surrender on October 19.
Armistead’s Personal War – Fighting For His Freedom
After the war officially ended in 1783, unfortunately, Armistead was forced to return to slavery. To his dismay, he found out that his spy work was not recognized under Virginia law in 1783. The law stated that slaves who “have faithfully served agreeable to the terms of their enlistment, and have thereby, of course, contributed towards the establishment of American liberty and independence, should enjoy the blessings of freedom as a reward for their toils and labours.”
On multiple occasions, Armistead petitioned the Virginia legislature for his freedom, but his displeasure and protests were continuously ignored. Things only began to look good for him when Lafayette provided a testimonial in 1784, confirming the spy’s instrumental work. Only then did the officials take notice of his case.
In the note to the officials, Lafayette wrote “This is to certify that the Bearer has done essential services to me while I had the honor to command in this State. His Intelligence from the enemy’s camp was industriously collected and most faithfully delivered. He perfectly acquitted himself with some important commissions I gave him and appears to be entitled to every reward his situation can admit of.”
Four years later, in 1787, Armistead became a free man. In honor of the Frenchman who helped him acquire his freedom, Armistead changed his name to James Armistead Lafayette.
Armistead moved 9 miles south of New Kent, Virginia, where he was formerly a slave. He lived a peaceful life as a husband and father and bought 40 acres of land where he farmed. He also received $40 a year from the Virginia legislature for his invaluable service to liberate a nation that, in the end, was so reluctant to grant him his own freedom.
Armistead’s contributions to American victory are only a pinch of the various achievements and sacrifices by the African American people in the betterment of America. But what is most painful is that their sweat and hard work are swept under the rug and their names are forever lost to history. Or worst still, a colonizer would take the glory for the efforts.
Stories such as these are important for the pride and emotional wellness of our people. Many of our people believe that nothing good can come from a Black/brown/Afro man, and this is due to years of practicing the colonizer’s religion and listening to his lies about Africa.
Africans are great, selfless, and intelligent people. And the story of Armistead reinforces that fact.
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