Long before there was a CIA, NSA, MI5 or KGB, a long time before there was James Bond or even movies at all, there was a 33-year-old slave named James Armistead. Despite having lived his entire life in slavery, James Armistead wanted to help his country. In 1781, James asked for permission to join the revolutionary cause, and it was granted.
James joined the army and landed in the service of the Marquis de Lafayette. What Lafayette needed most was information — and a spy. James Armistead was more than willing to oblige, becoming what well may be the first double agent in our nation’s history.
Posing as an escaped slave, James entered Benedict Arnold’s camp as a waiter and a guide, sending information back to Lafayette. He later returned north with Arnold, earning the British commander’s confidence, traveling freely between both sides. In addition to gaining knowledge about the British, he also fed them inaccurate data. It was incredibly dangerous work that would surely bring the death penalty should he be discovered.
One day, there was a huge breakthrough when Armistead discovered that the British naval fleet was moving 10,000 troops to Yorktown, Virginia, making it a central post for their operation. Lafayette and General George Washington were stunned by the news, recognizing this could be a big break for the Continental Army.
Using the intricate and detailed data Armistead provided, Washington lay siege to the town. A massive and devastating American victory at Yorktown resulted in the surrender of Great Britain on October 19th, 1781, essentially ending the war. The colonies had won, thanks to Armistead’s intelligence, defeating the greatest military might on the planet.
In 1783, as a reward to the slaves who fought for American independence, Congress passed the Emancipation Act. Unfortunately, the act applied only to soldiers, not spies. Thus, James was considered ineligible for emancipation. It was a tough ruling under the circumstances, but Virginia law dictated that slaves could not be freed from their owners — even upon the death of that owner. And the Emancipation Act did nothing to change that for James. That same Virginia law is the reason Thomas Jefferson was never able to free his slaves.
Given the heroic service James Armistead had devoted to his country, Lafayette found the ruling unacceptable. The marquess wrote a testimonial for James’ freedom. On November 30th, 1786, James with his owner’s support, used Lafayette’s testimonial to support his petition to the Virginia Assembly that he be granted freedom. On January 9th, 1787, the Virginia General Assembly finally granted emancipation to James Armistead.
As a free man, James purchased 40 acres of land, became a farmer, married and raised a family. Many years later, the Virginia legislature granted him a pension of $40 a year for his heroic service.
Forty years after he had last seen Lafayette, James heard the news that his old friend and commander was returning to visit the United States. Lacking the funds to travel, the white townspeople took up a collection to help. In 1824, the Richmond Enquirer reported that James was recognized by the marquess who called him by name and embraced him. The years had done nothing to diminish their respect, admiration and friendship.
Six years later, on August 9th, 1830, at the age of 82, our first war spy, the revolutionary war spy and former slave, James Armistead Lafayette died a free man on his farm in New Kent County, Virginia.