James Armistead Lafayette- a name not many Americans know or recognize. But without him, America’s fight for freedom could have been at a loss.
The battle for independence came to a culminating end in Yorktown, Virginia. General Cornwallis of the British is surrounded and surrenders to General George Washington on October 19, 1781.
Let’s back up and see how the most powerful military force in the world is defeated at this decisive battle. At this point in the war, France had entered the scene and was actively helping the colonists fight against the British. This aid would prove to be instrumental in the victory of the colonists, particularly their Navy assistance.
The war was now in its sixth year; optimism on both sides was low and it seemed that the end was never in sight. Both the Americans and the British were wearing thin and General Cornwallis had his troops in Yorktown, Virginia awaiting the aid of the British Navy to come to the Chesapeake Bay to resupply their efforts. Word reaches Washington that the British are there, and he decides now is the time to march from New York to Virginia and surround the British. Cornwallis believes that relief is coming, but the British fleet is blocked by a fleet of French ships, which is disastrous for Cornwallis and his men. They will not receive the aid they were relying on. For 10 days, the Continental Army lays siege on the British troops, wearing them down and enclosing on them from all directions. On October 16th, Cornwallis decides his men need to retreat across the York River and escape the siege. The escape began around midnight, but the boats were only able to make one trip across the river before a storm settled over the York River and scattered the boats, making the retreat impossible. On October 17th, the Continental Army was surprised to see a white flag waving, signaling the British surrender. On October 19th, Cornwallis officially surrenders to General Washington.
The war is over; independence is secured once the Treaty of Paris is signed in 1783.
So how did James Armistead Lafayette contribute to this miracle?
James Armistead was a slave in Richmond, Virginia. When the war broke out, his owner became a military supply officer for the Continental Army. James accompanied him and witnessed many battles of the war. In 1781, General Lafayette of France was ordered to collect intelligence from the British so the Americans do not become trapped in a surprise attack. James, wanting to help in the war efforts, volunteered to help. He became a spy for Lafayette and ran to the British camp posing as a runaway slave. The British welcomed James and he was quickly welcomed into the tent of General Cornwallis, where he was able to gather information on their next moves and get that information to the colonists. Because of his information, the colonists were able to avoid many attacks that the British had set up and the British soon realized that there was a spy amongst them. They turned to James, who they had come to trust, and asked if he would go and find out who the American spy was. He agreed and was now able to move between the British and American lines, feeding correct information to the Americans, and incorrect information to the British. He is known as the first double spy in American history. When it became known that the British were sending reinforcements to the Chesapeake Bay for Cornwallis in Yorktown, James was able to warn the Americans. General Lafayette was able to send his French fleet to block the British ships in the bay. This act alone would be the downfall of the British. They desperately needed that reinforcement, and because they did not receive it, they were forced to surrender.
James was later granted his freedom in 1787 after General Lafayette sent a letter to the Virginia legislature praising his efforts in the war. He took on the name Lafayette as a sign of respect for the General.
“America in her revolution proclaimed the wider rights of mankind. Across the Atlantic shone a noble example of freedom which in the end was to exercise a formidable influence upon the world.” -Winston Churchill