Written by Peter Fitzgerald
History of War - Spies
James Armistead is famous throughout the history of America as he was the very first African American double spy and carried out his espionage activity during the period of slavery in America.
James Armistead was a slave himself, yet during his slavery became a pivotal and important member of American intelligence during the time of the American Revolutionary War with Britain.
While many would not have heard of James Armistead, he played a small but very important part in helping the Americans achieve success in the American Revolutionary War. This was an important and pivotal move, helping America gain independence from Britain by the end of the war.
James Armistead before the American Revolutionary War
There is no true confirmation of the year James Armistead was born but it is believed that he was born as James Armistead Lafayette in 1760 at Elizabeth City, Virginia.
From birth James Armistead was a slave to William Armistead, this was until he was 21 years of age in 1781 when his master William Armistead allowed him to leave his master and become an American soldier.
The Americans decided that rather than put James Armistead forward as a soldier, they would use him as a spy to find out information about the British.
Armistead was commanded by General Lafayette. Under his command James Armistead started by spying on Brigadier General Benedict Arnold, the former American General who defected to the British.
Brigadier General Benedict Arnold eventually left the camp he was in during the spring of 1781, this left James Armistead without someone to watch. At this point Armistead moved to the camp of Lord Cornwallis where he carried on his information gathering.
Both Cornwallis and Arnold started to take Armistead into their confidence; this is because Armistead acted as if he was a British Spy and was supporting the British cause.
The actions of James Armistead during the American Revolutionary War greatly supported the American Army as he was able to deliver information about the British that would help pave the way for America to win independence.
After the War
After the American Revolutionary War James Armistead was not given freedom by America and was still seen as a slave, this is because he was a spy and not a soldier. His former owner William Armistead petitioned on his behalf and he was given his freedom.
A story says that in 1824 when General Lafayette was visiting Yorktown it is said that he recognized Armistead in the crowd and hugged him in an embrace, although this story cannot be confirmed.
James Armistead lived his life as a married man with children and also a farmer. He had many children and enjoyed his life as a free man and an all round American patriot who was an important asset in the American Revolutionary War.
At the age of 70, in the year 1830, James Armistead passed on from this life. He was born a slave but died a free man and a proud man, father, husband and farmer.