The Slave Who Spied For Freedom


The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis

In the summer of 1781, heat and silence settled over the British camp. Most of the men were unused to Virginia’s heat, and weary from the prolonged war against an elusive American force. Lord Cornwallis, commander of over 7000 men, was no exception, and today he invited a few other officers to his tent to have a glass of wine and discuss strategy.

Why, despite superior forces and experience, had the British been unable to defeat the rebellion? Just a few months before, victory had seemed near as his forces swooped down to encircle Lafayette’s camp. Cornwallis wrote confidently “the boy cannot escape me.” But the outnumbered Americans had escaped again and again, both following and fleeing the British army, always an infuriating handful of miles out of reach.

Behind his lordship’s chair, pouring wine, stood twenty-one year old James Armistead, the black manservant Cornwallis had recently acquired from Benedict Arnold. James was born a slave, property of William Armistead, a Virginia gentleman, and received the training of a house slave. He had asked to serve in the British camp, hoping they would not return him to his owner. Throughout the southern states, the British offered generous terms to runaway slaves seeking liberty… from Patriot masters. Many enlisted in the army, or worked in the camps as servants. The slaves of some Loyalists tried taking advantage of this offer, and the British took pains to announce that all property of His Majesty’s subjects would be respected and returned.

Cornwallis waited until the other officers and servants departed, then told James he had an offer for him. What the British needed was a spy who could insinuate himself into the American camp. He thought James, who had lived in the region all his life, was the perfect candidate. It was an unusual and dangerous job to offer a negro, let alone an illiterate former slave, but he had found the young man intelligent and useful. James was surprised by the offer, but accepted. Afterward Cornwallis retired, satisfied that he would soon be receiving intelligence from inside the American camp. What he did not know was the servant cleaning his desk was reading every document in the process. Not only was James not illiterate, he had been spying for Lafayette since the Spring and was legally still a slave.

William Armistead had granted permission for his slave to serve the American cause. According to some sources, James was first employed as the Marquis de Lafayette’s valet. The young nobleman, who was a Major General in the Continental army and enjoyed the confidence of George Washington, whom he viewed as an adoptive father, decided James’ talents could be put to better use elsewhere.

Washington, with Lafayette, at Yorktown

James returned to the American camp, within a day’s walk, and informed Lafayette of the news. It was an unexpected opportunity. From then on, James fed false information to the British and the true intelligence to the Americans. Washington asked that Lafayette attempt to keep Cornwallis occupied. Over the course of several weeks, James reported the Americans forces as being stronger and more numerous than they were. In one case, he brought the British a letter in Lafayette’s handwriting, describing the imminent (and false) arrival of further American troops, leaving Cornwallis reluctant to make a direct attack.

Long awaited French troops finally arrived, and a joint force under General Washington and Count Rochambeau headed south. James sent word the British were expecting their own reinforcements, arriving by sea. Both sides had expected the most crucial battles of the war would be fought in the north, but now it seemed the theater of battle might shift southward. The situation was uncertain and more information needed, but personal notes were one thing, and maps and battle plans were another. Cornwallis probably kept anything classified well hidden and locked away.

Lafayette wrote to Washington, “His Lordship is so shy of his papers, that my honest friend says he cannot get at them.” By August, however, James sent word the British were fortifying the area around Yorktown. In September, British and French ships exchanged fire in the Battle of the Chesapeake. It was around this time that James probably rejoined Lafayette’s camp. Shortly afterward, Washington and Rochambeau met up with Lafayette, and the siege of Yorktown began.

Cornwallis surrendered after three weeks. While skirmishes continued into the next year, it was evident the Americans had permanently seized the advantage, and the Treaty of Paris in 1783 brought the war to an official end.

James Armistead Lafayette in old age

One year later, when Lafayette visited Washington in Virginia, he re-encountered James and was astonished to learn that he remained a slave. He wrote a letter on his behalf, stating that “James has done essential services to me while I had the honour to command in this state. His intelligences from the enemy’s camp were industriously collected and more faithfully delivered,” which he later used when petitioning the Virginia assembly for his freedom. In 1787, James Armistead became a free man. He added “Lafayette” to his surname out of gratitude to the general he had served, purchased land near his former home, married and became a farmer.

In 1824, during Lafayette’s tour of America, he met James again, at the site of the Yorktown battlefield, picking him out of the crowd. The two old patriots embraced.

Many of the spies who served during the American revolution, were only revealed after the war; others survive only as aliases or numbers. Many of the people of color who served in both armies went un-credited, because their stories were deemed unimportant. James Armistead Lafayette was both, but his story has survived. There is irony in a slave being one of the more important spies of a revolution, whose rallying cry was “Liberty.” That he was returned to slavery, only receiving his freedom years later, can be seen as representative of the American story. A nation founded on high ideals that it has sometimes betrayed, or taken far too long to fulfill.


ABOUT THE AUTHORAnna Garibay is the penname for a girl who lives in the glorious US of A, and was homeschooled from the fourth grade onwards. Favorite hobbies include researching history, writing, and being personal assistant to two cats.



3 thoughts on “The Slave Who Spied For Freedom

Add yours

  1. So cool to see this! I love seeing articles about often little known heroes. I used to be obsessed with American Revolution history and read countless books about Lafayette – where I learned about James Armistead’s big contribution to the Revolutionary War. Great post! 😀


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