Ten years ago, Bayard & Holmes designated October 31 as Love-A-Spy Day—a day when we honor the men and women of the Intelligence Community who dedicate and sometimes sacrifice their lives to keep the fight from our shores. On this 10thAnnual Love-A-Spy Day, we would honor former slave James Armistead Lafayette, a spy during the American Revolution, who, at great risk to himself, gathered intelligence on British General Cornwallis and his army inside the British camp at Yorktown.

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James the Slave

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes


In many cases, intelligence agencies in the West do their best to attract well-educated, well-travelled recruits. Sometimes intentionally and sometimes consequently, they tend to attract members of their nation’s upper-classes into their ranks. For most positions in our CIA, most normal young people cannot afford to feed themselves and house themselves in the expensive Northern Virginia area long enough to complete the recruitment process and begin to receive the modest wages of a new CIA employee. I will perhaps annoy a few senior CIA administrators by pointing this out, and they would argue that I am wrong. They would say that the agency has changed and has long been making efforts to reach out to non-Ivy Leaguers. However, an honest census of young employees at the CIA would indicate that the journey from the agency’s Ivy League patrician roots to egalitarian diversity is still in progress. To her credit, the current director is more inclined to support change. We in the United States would do well to remember that some of our finest intelligence personnel have come from the ranks of the most humble citizens, and in some cases non-citizens. For our 10th Annual Love-A-Spy Day, we honor one of those humble citizens, James Armistead Lafayette.

James Armistead Lafayette
Image public domain

On a day unknown to us in a year that might or might not have been 1748, a slave was born on a Virginia plantation owned by William Armistead, of the well-established Virginia and North Carolina Armisteads. That child was named James.

James was fortunate enough to survive his birth and childhood, and at some point, he learned to read and write. The Armistead family were pro-revolution. As a slave, James was not allowed to join the Continental Army or the Virginia Militia unless granted conditional freedom by his owner to do so. James asked for and received Armistead’s permission to join the Continental Army.

Some slaves escaped from plantations and went to work for the British Army on the promise that they would receive their freedom when the rebellion was put down. The British Army used some of those escaped slaves as scouts and spies against the Continental Army. To a degree, this made a number of the Continental Army members leery of escaped slaves. Compounding the problem for James was the fact that under the status quo, slaves were not allowed to carry firearms, and it seems likely that some members of the Continental Army were frightened by the presence of slaves with firearms in their camps. Given the difficulties, prejudices, and dangers for any slave joining the Continental Army, it seems that James must have been highly motivated in his patriotism.

Life in the Continental Army was difficult for any volunteer. For a slave, it would have been grueling. At first, James was only allowed to conduct menial tasks in camp without being allowed to enlist. After some months as a camp servant, he was trusted with obtaining and transporting supplies for the Continental Army.

James was then assigned to General Lafayette as a servant.

Lafayette took a liking to James. In Lafayette’s view, James was capable of more important work. James suggested to Lafayette that he could approach the British as a runaway slave volunteering for service with the British Army. For many members of the Continental Army, the suggestion would have presented a red flag concerning James’s loyalties and intentions. Lafayette, however, had the sense to see James for what he really was—a daring patriot. Lafayette dispatched James on his difficult and dangerous mission.

In the best of circumstances, approaching any enemy army and volunteering to help while intending to spy is a dangerous proposition. In the circumstances facing James, the proposition was insane.

Nevertheless, James approached General Cornwallis’s British army. Cornwallis and many of his staff were known to hold Colonials in general, and blacks in particular, in very low esteem. The British were certain that anyone of any color born in the New World was fundamentally inferior to any Englishman and lower in social status than an Irish shepherd. For those less familiar with the fashionable bigotries of the time in England, the English considered the Irish to be vastly inferior to themselves.

In approaching the British, James took the considerable risk of being recognized as a spy right off the bat. His sympathies might have been known by other slaves who had since escaped the Armistead plantation and gone to the British. Cornwallis and his officers had a reputation for being martinets with their soldiers, and they were known to take special care in severely punishing any black volunteers that caused the slightest problem. If James had been recognized by any Tories or escaped slaves in Cornwallis’s camp, he would have been tortured and hanged. However, James succeeded in convincing the Brits that he was, indeed, anti-Colonial, and Cornwallis’s army took him in as a servant in camp.

After a while, James gained the confidence of the Brits, and he once again found himself employed as a procurer and transporter of supplies, this time for Cornwallis’s Army. This allowed James to reestablish contact with General Lafayette, and he began supplying general information about Cornwallis’s army to the Continentals.

James must have had that ability that is so valuable to spies—he must have been what we today call a “people person.” In spite of the prejudices that were so prevalent in the British Army, James somehow managed to befriend and gain the trust of senior officers on Cornwallis’s staff. When we consider that the average British officer considered even white English recruits to be serfs, James must have had quite a high intellect and remarkable people skills for the British officers to take him into their confidence.

James then took the next big step. Rather than merely volunteering as a spy for the Continental Army within the British Army, he suggested to the British Army that he be sent to the Continental Army to pretend to volunteer for the Continentals as a spy against the British. The suggestion was brilliant because it gave James perfect cover in case he was discovered to be on friendly terms too quickly with the Continental Army.

The English officers were famously bigoted, but they were not stupid. In particular, they were adept at handling “native” spies in Colonial and foreign lands. Like all the major world powers of the time, the British Army and Royal Navy had centuries of experience in running spies. Fortunately for James and for the American rebellion, Cornwallis and his staff were sufficiently charmed by James that they were delighted by his suggestion, and they happily dispatched him to act as a double agent against the Continental Army. The British equipped James with suitable false information and sent him to make contact with the Continental Army. James, of course, was quickly taken to Lafayette.

Lafayette was delighted by the ruse, and he received both the false and real information that James had to offer.

In knowing what Cornwallis wanted the Continental Army to believe, Lafayette was better able to understand Cornwallis’s thoughts. James then returned to Cornwallis’s camp and filled Cornwallis and his staff with precisely whatever false information Lafayette wanted them to have. And so the happy arrangement continued. The Brits grew more certain of their false assumptions concerning the Continental Army, and Lafayette and Washington developed a better intelligence picture with each visit from James.

The British had multiple spies watching the Continental Army, so Lafayette and James had to be careful what they fed to the Brits. James had to convince the British that any inconsistencies in his information, as compared to the information received from other spies, were due to his own superior abilities and his choice position as a double agent. Lafayette and Washington had multiple spies working against the British military in America who would have provided the Continental Army with plenty of accurate information about the location and strength of the British Armies. What James was uniquely able to provide was solid insight as to Cornwallis’s individual perspectives and intentions.

Eventually, James and Lafayette were able to use James’s access to Cornwallis’s staff to help manipulate the British into moving their army to Yorktown, Virginia. At the same time, James and other Continental spies convinced the British that Washington was planning a siege against British forces in New York City. This deception made it important for the British to keep adequate naval and land forces in and near New York City—which also kept them away from Yorktown.

Cornwallis’s position at Yorktown was a defensible one for the British Army, with direct access to the mouth of the York River. However, it was also an isolated position if the Continentals could delay the British Navy from resupplying and reinforcing Cornwallis. That, in itself, was only important if Lafayette, Washington, and the French Navy were aware of the situation in time to make use of it and act on it quickly. Thanks to James, they had information on Cornwallis’s position and condition in time to use the information effectively.

The history of intelligence work is filled with examples of good intelligence being ignored until it is too late to be useful. Fortunately, James’s remarkable successes did not go to waste. Thanks to the combined wisdom of Washington, Lafayette, French General Comte de Rochambeau, Prussian Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, and French Admiral Comte de Grasse, the Continentals accepted the information and used it in time.

Washington and Lafayette concentrated their combined forces and marched toward Yorktown.

As the two predicted, Cornwallis was unconcerned with their maneuvers and in no rush to be drawn into open battle away from his comfortable defensive position in Yorktown. Cornwallis knew, or he thought he knew, that much-needed food and ammunition would soon be arriving via the York River, along with ten thousand fresh reinforcements.

Admiral Comte de Grasse, commander of the French Caribbean Fleet, sailed from the West Indies with a force of twenty-four ships and intercepted a Royal Navy squadron of nineteen ships under the command of British Admiral Thomas Graves off the Virginia capes. Graves’s squadron was on its way to deliver supplies and reinforcements to Cornwallis. The Royal Navy was an excellent Navy, and their numerically-inferior squadron had 1,410 guns compared to the French’s 1,542 guns. In spite of the numbers of ships on each side, the outcome of the clash was not a certainty.

On September 5, 1781, the two naval forces clashed. Admiral Graves maneuvered the British squadron adeptly, and the units of the opposing forces that actually came within range of each other were evenly matched in numbers and guns. Fortunately, the French force also fought well under Admiral de Grasse, and though they suffered more casualties than the British, they inflicted more damage to the British ships.

Also thanks to James’s excellent work, Admiral Comte de Grasse was aware that French Admiral de Barras had sailed from Rhode Island with reinforcements for Washington and a supply of potentially game-changing heavy siege guns.

He knew that de Barras was attempting to reach Yorktown via the York River. Rather than pressing the contact then and there off the Virginia capes, Admiral de Grasse rightly assumed that the British Admiral Graves would not wish to leave a now evenly-matched naval force behind him to continue to the York River. Admiral de Grasse therefore decided to appear to be making a slow retreat, drawing the British squadron further away from the York River.

De Grasse’s strategy worked. De Barras delivered the siege guns and troops to Washington’s army, and Washington’s army was able to bombard the British positions from beyond the range of the British artillery. This, of course, was a pleasant arrangement for the well-fed and well-supplied Continental Army, but a miserable situation for Cornwallis’s isolated troops. Cornwallis needed to leave his defensive position and attack the Continental Army just as soon as the British reinforcements and supplies arrived.

Once de Grasse was reasonably certain that de Barras had arrived on the York River, de Grasse broke off contact and sailed to the York River to join forces with de Barras. Admiral Graves failed to deliver the supplies and reinforcements to Cornwallis at Yorktown. He instead sailed to New York City to organize a larger fleet to force their way up the York River, but he was too late. Time was running out for Cornwallis and his nine thousand British and German troops at Yorktown. Eight thousand soldiers of the Continental Army, three thousand militia, and eight thousand French soldiers established a strong siege against the outmanned and outgunned British forces.

On October 19, 1781, Cornwallis surrendered his army. It was a bitter defeat for the British, but it was easily sustainable. However, his defeat, in combination with growing pressure from the merchant class in Great Britain, was enough to convince Great Britain that it would make more sense to trade with the rebellious colonies than to continue to make war with them. Peace negotiations began in Paris, and a treaty between the new United States of America and Great Britain was signed on September 3, 1783, with open trade resuming in May of 1784.

After the revolution, American slaves who had joined the Continental Army were granted their freedom.

Although William Armistead felt that James should be granted his freedom and given full citizenship, James was not eligible to receive his freedom because he was not on the rolls of the Continental Army. James and Armistead petitioned the Virginia legislature for his freedom and citizenship.

When Lafayette heard of James’s situation, he wrote a letter and a formal petition to the Virginia legislature explaining James’s valuable service. Finally, on January 9, 1787, James the Slave took the name James Armistead Lafayette, a free citizen of the United States of America.

James established a forty-acre farm next to Armistead’s plantation.

James owned slaves himself, but he struggled economically. In 1818, the aging James Armistead Lafayette petitioned the Virginia legislature for financial assistance. He was given sixty dollars and an annual income of forty dollars thereafter. In 1824, when General Lafayette made his triumphant return to the United States, he spotted his old friend James Armistead Lafayette in the cheering crowd at Yorktown. The general ordered his carriage driver to halt. He climbed down and made his way through the adoring crowd to James. In what must have been a very happy and emotional moment, the two men embraced. Six years later on August 9, 1830, James Armistead Lafayette died on his Virginia farm a free man.

We in the United States owe a debt of gratitude to James Armistead Lafayette. All of us in the Western intelligence services would do well to remember his example and know that the most effective operatives do not always come from the most impressive backgrounds. It is better to know well and judge well a person’s abilities and loyalties than to judge a potential operative by their pedigree. 

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