James, a Slave Spy for Lafayette

James Lafayette. The Great Unsung American Hero | by Joshua Hehe ...
James, a Slave Spy for Lafayette

James was a slave in Virginia who was granted permission to serve with General Lafayette. Lafayette was the French officer who became vitally important to George Washington as friend and also became an important commander in Washington’s Continental army. James was not Lafayette’s slave.

James served Lafayette as a spy, readily entering the British lines, posing as a runaway slave. He was remarkably convincing, winning the confidence of Benedict Arnold (the American general and turncoat) and British commander Lord Cornwallis. James reported to Lafayette about the conditions of the British army, its location and numbers

The results of his spying were important in the Yorktown campaign that resulted in the definitive American victory at Yorktown in 1781. 

After the war, James returned to William Armisted, his owner. He was not eligible for the 1783 Act that emancipated slave soldiers who served with the Continental Army. He had been a spy, not a soldier, and the technicality kept him in slavery.  In 1784, Lafayette was angered to find that James was still a slave

In 1787, James petitioned the Virginia legislature for his freedom and a pension, helped by a letter from Lafayette. The Virginia legislature emancipated him and gave him a life pension of $40 a year. It’s not clear why James wasn’t freed until almost three years after Lafayette found him in slavery

The now-freed slave added Lafayette’s name to his own, becoming James Armisted Lafayette. He lived a full life, had a large family and died in 1832.

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