By Susanna Speier
Denver Private Investigator Blogger
For the last day of Black History month we're playing tribute to double agent, James Armistead. Born into slavery James Armistead was owned by William Armistead, who granted him permission to join the American Continental Army where the Marquis de Lafayette urged him to pose as a runaway slave so he could join the British army and gather enemy intelligence.
After securing the trust of British officer's Benedict Arnold and British General Charles Cornwallis, Armistead guided British troops through the Virginia thoroughfares he'd grown up navigating, while listening in on officer discussions regarding upcoming raids and battle plans. Most of the time he actually listened in plain view of British officers --who didn't regard him as a threat-- and then delivered intelligence reports to Lafayette before returning to British headquarters to gather more intelligence.
One of Armistead's detailed reports, dated July 31, 1781, provided the intelligence that Washington and Lafayette used to secure the American/French blockade and force a British surrender at Yorktown. The big reveal happened when Cornwallis showed up at Lafayette's headquarters to surrender and was greeted by the person he, up until that point, had regarded as a personal slave.
The Missed in History: Double Agent: James Armistead and the American Revolution podcast looks at possible reasons he fought for the country that enslaved him as well as the reasons he may have returned to slavery after fighting in the Revolutionary War.
According to the podcast there was actually strong early support for the Revolutionary war among African Americans and the early continental army, who counted a lot of black soldiers among its ranks. Perhaps they felt the army would provide a better life?
The Emancipation Act of 1783 freed slave-soldiers, however the law didn't apply to slave-spies. One year later, in 1784, when Lafayette learned that Armistead was still enslaved, he wrote a testimonial on his behalf.
The testimonial resulted in the Virginia General Assembly paying off his owner two years later so he could be freed. Armistead bought his own land, began farming in Virginia and eventually even started receiving a military pension. He died a free man.
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