Sunday, February 26, 2012
Marker Text: James Lafayette was born in slavery about 1748 near here. His master William Armistead was commissary of military supplies when in the summer of 1781 the Marquis de Lafayette recruited James as a spy. Posing as a double agent, forager, and servant at British headquarters, James moved freely between the lines with vital information on British troop movements for Lafayette. The Virginia General Assembly freed James in 1787 in recognition of his bravery and service, on the written recommendation of Lafayette, whose name he took for his own. He died in Baltimore on 9 Aug. 1830.
Location: On Route 249 (New Kent Highway) at old courthouse, New Kent Courthouse with marker WO-18 (New Kent Courthouse). Erected by Department of Historic Resources in 1997.
During February, I have been posting some of my markers related to the history of African Americans, since this is Black History Month or African American History Month. Throughout the history of the United States, African Americans have made significant contributions to all the major conflicts that the U.S. has been involved even during the period they were held in slavery. I earlier posted about Dick Pointer in West Virginia who helped to defend Fort Donnally in Greenbrier County during Native American attacks.
Lafayette marker is on the left of the stone monument. Click any photo to enlarge.
Today's marker is about James Lafayette who was born in slavery about 1748 and lived in New Kent County, Virginia. His master William Armistead was commissary of military supplies during the summer of 1781, when the Marquis de Lafayette recruited James as a spy, Armistead had been given permission by his master to join the revolutionary cause.
Wars are rarely fought without the use of spies and the American Revolution was no exception. Arguably, the most important Revolutionary War spy was a slave named James Armistead. Although many fought as soldiers, blacks, both free and enslaved were being used by the British and the Americans to gain intelligence against each other. Many African American slaves worked for the British based on the promise that the British would free them after the war and the British were victorious.
Marquis de Lafayette, who was desperately trying to fight the chaos caused in Virginia by turncoat soldier Benedict Arnold. Lafayette's forces having been diminished by British Gen. Charles Cornwallis' troops, Lafayette needed reliable information about enemy movements. James Armistead Lafayette posing as a double agent, forager and servant at British headquarters, James moved freely between the lines with vital information on British troop movements for Lafayette.
Armistead began his work posing as an escaped slave, entering Arnold's camp as an orderly and guide, then sent what he learned back to Lafayette. He later returned north with Arnold and was posted close enough to Cornwallis' camp to learn further details of British operations without being detected. By also being used as a British spy (who fed them inaccurate information), Armistead was able to travel freely between both sides. One day, he discovered that the British naval fleet was moving 10,000 troops to Yorktown, VA., making it a central post for their operation.
Lafayette marker is on the right of the stone marker in front of the old New Kent County Courthouse.
Using the intricate details Armistead provided, Lafayette and a stunned, but relieved George Washington laid siege to the town. Concentrating both American and French forces, a huge blockade was formed, crippling the British military and resulting in their surrender on Oct. 19, 1781.
Rex Ellis, vice president of Colonial Williamsburg's Historic Area, says Armistead's role was critical to the American victory. "If he had not given the information that he gave at the strategic time he did, they would not have had the intelligence to create the blockade that ended the war." Despite his critical actions, Armistead had to petition the Virginia legislature for manumission.
In October 1784, Lafayette penned a certificate declaring that James Armistead had done "Essential Service" in collecting "Intelligence from the Enemy's Camp" and was therefore "Entitled to Every Reward His Situation Can Admit of." With this document in hand, Armistead hurried to the legislature, where his manumission request came up in December. But more than two years would pass until his emancipation on January 9, 1787. In gratitude Armistead adopted Lafayette's surname.
In 1816, James bought 40 acres of land in New Kent County, where he raised his family. In 1819, Virginia granted him $60 relief money and put him on the regular pension roll at $40 a year. In 1824, the marquis and James Lafayette - as he now called himself - met one last time in Richmond, during Lafayette's triumphant tour of the United States. James Lafayette lived as a farmer in New Kent County, Virginia until his death in 1830.