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Black History Month: James Armistead Lafayette

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James Armistead’s life would make a great movie.

Under Lafayette, the French general who helped the American colonists fight for their freedom, he infiltrated the British army as a spy near the end of the Revolutionary War.

He once reported to Benedict Arnold, the traitorous colonist who betrayed his troops to fight for the British. And he provided crucial intelligence that helped defeat the British and end the war.

Armistead was a slave in Virginia in 1781 when he got permission from his owner, who helped supply the Continental Army, to join the war effort. Lafayette dispatched him as a spy, posing as a runaway slave, and he joined British forces in Virginia who valued his knowledge of the local terrain.

Once he’d gained their trust, Armistead moved back and forth between the two armies’ camps, feeding false information to the British while secretly documenting their strategies and relaying them to Lafayette.

His most crucial intel detailed British general Charles Cornwallis’ plans to move thousands of troops from Portsmouth to Yorktown. Armed with this knowledge, Lafayette alerted George Washington, and they set up a blockade around Yorktown which led to Cornwallis’ surrender.

Virginia lawmakers, after lobbying by Lafayette, granted Armistead (1748-1830*) his freedom in 1787. His owner, William Armistead, was paid £250.

Armistead married, raised a family and spent the rest of his life as a free man on his own Virginia farm. He added Lafayette to his name as a token of gratitude to the French general.
*Some sources list his birth year as 1760 and his death year as 1832.

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