It is uncertain of when James Armistead was born—his birth year has been variously reported as 1748 or 1760—but we know he was born on William Armistead’s plantation in New Kent County, Virginia. By December 1780, the Revolutionary War had been raging for five years and England was finding it hard to occupy territory as expansive as the American colonies. While George Washington and his army had few victories, it remained a viable fighting force despite the superior might of the redcoats. And, in 1777, the colonials captured an entire British force at Saratoga, New York. Impressed with this achievement, the French agreed to fight side-by-side with the Americans.
Frustrated, the Brits changed their strategy. They invaded the southern states, hoping to divide the colonies in two. Initially, General Cornwallis’ campaign had success. But he found it difficult to supply his army in the southern wilderness, especially when the colonials began using guerrilla tactics against his supply trains. Facing failure, Cornwallis began marching north through the Carolinas.
Meanwhile, the colonials had their own setback: General Benedict Arnold, the hero of Saratoga, betrayed his country and joined the British in September 1780. His first mission for his new command was to invade Virginia in order to stop supplies on their way to the southern colonies.
Washington got wind of the invasion and warned Virginia governor Thomas Jefferson. But Jefferson ignored the warning until Arnold’s ships appeared off the southern tip of the Virginia Peninsula on December 30, 1780. By then it was too late, and Arnold sailed up the James River and entered Richmond unopposed. He then burned it.
Washington sent General Marquis de Lafayette to stop Arnold, but by the time he arrived, Arnold had encamped at Portsmouth in a strong, defensible position. While Lafayette waited for an opportunity, he enlisted spies to infiltrate Arnold’s camp.
James Armistead no doubt knew the British were emancipating slaves who fought for them, but he told his master he wanted to carry a musket for Virginia in the colonial army. However, when he appeared at Lafayette’s camp, the French general had other ideas. Armistead knew the area and Lafayette wanted the slave to pose as a runaway and offer his services as a scout to Arnold.
Armistead succeeded beyond expectations: Arnold was so convinced of Armistead’s loyalty to the crown, he was entrusted with guiding redcoat detachments through the countryside. And he was given the freedom to roam the British camps where he listened to officers as they talked around the fires.
Armistead even set up a network of other African Americans who delivered his reports to Lafayette. To gain Arnold’s confidence, Armistead told him he had spies in Lafayette’s camp, and began providing intelligence to Arnold of colonial plans, all of it false.
In May 1781, Cornwallis arrived in Virginia and took command, sending Arnold to New York. Armistead stayed with Cornwallis, continuing his duties. In July, the young slave sent Lafayette word that Cornwallis was moving down the Peninsula to Yorktown to await reinforcements and supplies. Washington was about to attack the Brits at New York when he received Armistead’s intelligence. He quickly changed his plans.
Together with Lafayette and a French fleet, Washington surrounded Cornwallis, who surrendered his army in October 1781. The Brits would never again be able launch an offensive, and two years later they officially relinquished their claims to the colonies.
Slaves who served in the colonial army were, after the war, given their freedom. But because he was a spy, not a soldier, Armistead was returned to his master. In 1787, with the help of Lafayette, Armistead petitioned the Virginia government and was legally emancipated. Grateful, he took Lafayette’s surname as his own.
Armistead purchased 40 acres of his own in Kent County, married, and even owned slaves of his own. And he was given a $40-a-month pension for his wartime services beginning in 1819. He died in 1832.