James Armistead Is Not Another Face In The Crowd
This is the first article about a Black Patriot I am contributing to Founder of the Day.
As you can imagine, it is difficult for a white man to tackle the subject of slavery. Truthfully, I decided to write about James Armistead Lafayette because he contributed so much to the Revolution, and has such a fascinating story, that I can skip discussing that ‘necessary evil.’
OK, I know that’s a cop out. Trust me, I do expect to review slavery’s effect on the Revolution in the coming weeks. But Armistead gives me the opportunity to ease my way in slowly.
This is due primarily to the fact that there is not a whole lot of information about James from his time before the Revolution. Therefore, it would be next to impossible for me to explore his early life and his condition as a slave.
By 1781, the American Revolutionary War was well underway. James Armistead, a slave in Virginia, was inspired by the words of liberty he heard.
Although the Americans were not excited about accepting slaves into the Continental Army, the need for soldiers was becoming greater. James asked his master, William Armistead, if he could fight with the Americans. William, a Patriot himself, gave his approval.
James joined the Light Infantry, who’s general was the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette, an ardent abolitionist, welcomed Armistead with open arms.
Impressed by Armistead’s dedication to the cause, Lafayette trained him in the art of espionage.
The British offered freedom to any slave who fought as a Redcoat. Armistead posed as one of these soldiers and served under the recently side-switched Benedict Arnold.
Armistead gained Arnold’s trust enough to overhear sensitive information. Arnold also commanded James to spy on the Patriots. Armistead gave the correct intelligence to the Patriots and misled the British.
Eventually, James was sent to work directly under Charles Cornwallis. His work as a double agent continued as Armistead was able to get Lafayette plans for British troop movements. This knowledge led directly to the French Blockade and American Victory at Yorktown.
After the war, Armistead went back to be a slave.
This is extremely interesting because, had he simply gone and fought with the British, he would have been freed. It seems he preferred fighting for freedom in the United States then simply being liberated in another place.
James was granted permission by his owner to petition the State of Virginia for his emancipation. At the time, manumitting slaves was illegal (though times were changing as just 15 years later George Washington freed those he had in bondage). Men who served in the Continental Army, however, were allowed to petition for freedom.
James, however, did not serve as a soldier, he served as a spy. Because of this, he was initially held back from his petition.
Then, the Marquis de Lafayette stepped in.
Lafayette wrote directly to the government of Virginia on Armistead’s behalf. This letter worked and in 1787 the Virginia Assembly granted James his freedom.
Out of gratitude, James Armistead changed his name to James Armistead Lafayette.
The Marquis returned to France.
Forty years passed.
Over this time, the he became one of the most important leaders in the western world.
Over the same time, James Armistead Lafayette established a profitable plantation (and actually owned slaves for a time).
Then, the French Lafayette returned for his famous tour of the United States.
Early in his tour, the Marquis stopped in Richmond, Virginia. A parade was thrown in his honor.
As he road on the float, the Marquis noticed a face in the crowd. It was an old man, but there was no mistake…it was James Armistead Lafayette.
James just went to see the parade, why would he expect the cosmopolitan Marquis to remember who he was?
To everyone’s surprise, the Frenchman stood up.
He halted the parade.
Lafayette jumped down from his carriage and pushed his way through the audience. It had been four decades since he had seen this old friend and some things are more important than accolades.
Those in attendance that day saw a sight no other Americans would have the privilege of seeing.
They saw two men who were born a world apart, one from the wealthy elite and one a poor slave.
They saw two brothers embrace for the final time.
They saw two Lafayette's bid each other adieu.
So today's book recommendation is a first. This is the first time I am suggesting you read a picture book. Unfortunately, James Armistead Lafayette does not have an athourative biography. 'A Spy Called James,' though primarily geared towards children, is the most full bio available on Armistead. So get it through our affiliate Amazon below and read it to your children/grandchildren/great grandchildren....and so on.
Additionally, I'll remind you here that if you have not yet subscribed to our email list, now is the time. You'll receive a new Founder, every day!!!