Black History Month: MI showcases Revolutionary War spy
February is Black History Month. It is the legacy of historian Carter Woodson who was born to former slaves in Virginia in 1875. Early in life, Woodson’s story included farm worker, manual laborer, garbage truck driver and coal miner. After he graduated from college, Woodson taught black youth in West Virginia, served the War Department in the Philippines from 1903 to 1907, and traveled the world, teaching at the Sorbonne in Paris, France.
Woodson eventually earned a Master’s degree in History, Romance languages, and Literature from the University of Chicago and a doctorate in history from Harvard University. He co-founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and committed his life’s work to the early black history movement. He believed that history was made by the people, not simply or primarily by great men and wanted to focus on the countless black men and women who had contributed to the advance of human civilization.
Toward that end, Woodson launched Negro History Week in 1926 and the movement quickly grew in popularity. In 1976, that one week expanded into a month-long observance and its name was changed to Black History Month, and Carter Woodson became known as “The Father of Black History.” Every American president since the mid-1970s, both Democrat and Republican, has issued proclamations endorsing Black History Month and the themes of the Association. In honor of this extraordinary man, and kicking off Black History Month 2014, therefore, this article focuses on another ordinary, yet extraordinary, man.
James Armistead Lafayette
James Armistead was born as a slave owned by William Armistead in 1760. He volunteered to serve as a soldier during the American Revolution in 1781. After gaining the consent of his owner, Armistead was assigned to the Marquis de Lafayette, the French nobleman who had joined forces with Gen. George Washington against the British. At first, James’ mission was to carry communications between the French units. But it wasn’t long before Lafayette realized his greater value as a spy.
As a Virginia native, James knew the back routes without a map or guide — something the British forces desperately needed. Consequently, Lafayette decided to have James pose as a runaway slave loyal to the British. James gained the confidence of American General-turned-traitor Benedict Arnold and British Gen. Charles Cornwallis.
Arnold was so convinced by James’ guise as “runaway slave” that he used him to guide British troops through the local Virginia roads. It wasn’t long before James enjoyed free access to the British headquarters, personally serving Cornwallis, who, ironically, told him to spy on Lafayette. Because of his race, James was often treated as “invisible” by the white officers, and they openly discussed their raids in front of him, ignoring him as if he were irrelevant. James documented the information in written reports, delivered the reports to other American spies and returned to the British headquarters.
In the summer of 1781, Washington sent a message to Lafayette asking for specifics on Cornwallis’ equipment, personnel and future strategies. Of the several spies who Lafayette sent to obtain this intelligence, it was James Armistead’s reports, dated July 31, 1781 that proved most valuable. Using James’ detailed reports, Washington and Lafayette were able to prevent the British from sending reinforcements to Yorktown, thereby ensuring the success of an American/French blockade and causing the British to surrender on October 19, 1781. When Cornwallis showed up at Lafayette’s headquarters to surrender, he was astonished to find James — the man he considered to be his personal slave — already there.
When the war ended, James returned back to his owner, William Armistead. The Emancipation Act of 1783 was only for slave-soldiers; James was considered a slave-spy and therefore not eligible for emancipation.
Lafayette found James in 1784 in Virginia still living as a slave and was highly disturbed. The Marquis wrote a testimonial on James’ behalf, saying that he had rendered, “services to me while I had the honor to command in this state. His intelligence from the enemy’s camp were industriously collected and more faithfully delivered. He properly acquitted himself with some important commissions I gave him and appears to me entitled to every reward his situation can admit of.”
Two years later, the Virginia General Assembly emancipated James, paying off his owner. On account of his commander’s compassion for him, James took the name Lafayette as his own. James bought some land, married and raised a large family, and became a farmer. But it was not until 1819, 27 years after the war ended, that the Virginia legislature granted James a pension of $40 per year for his services during the American Revolution. James Armistead Lafayette died a free man in Virginia in 1832 at the ripe old age of 72.