James Armistead Lafayette: Patriot & Double Agent

James Armistead Lafayette: Patriot & Double Agent

James Armistead Lafayette

Patriot & Double Agent

One of the most prominent black Virginians to serve the newly independent United States during the American Revolution was a man history would know as “James Armistead Lafayette.” He would never personally use “Armistead” his surname and “Lafayette” wouldn’t come until much later in his life.

James was born into slavery and lived most of his life on a plantation in New Kent County, Virginia, originally owned by Colonel John Armistead that then went to his son, William Armistead.

During the Revolutionary War

As the tensions between Great Britain and the American colonies heated up in 1775, Virginia’s royal governor, Lord Dunmore, promised freedom to the enslaved people if they joined his forces. Instead, with permission from William Armistead, James enlisted in the French Allied units of Marquis de Lafayette. Under General Lafeyette, he became a spy for the Continental Army.

In this role, James was a double agent, providing detailed reports to the Americans while giving false information to the British. To do this, he posed as a runaway slave. Being a native Virginian, the British saw him as a valuable resource when he was actually providing the Continental Army direct access to their opponents, which included the troops under Benedict Arnold and Charles Cornwallis.

By relaying the British war strategies to the Americans, his espionage would become instrumental in helping the new nation alongside its French allies defeat the British at Yorktown.


The Americans would celebrate freedom after that decisive victory in 1781, but James wouldn’t for six more years. The Act of 1783 passed by the Virginia General Assembly would grant enslaved people their freedom in recognition of their military service but one quirk would prevent the spy from being one of those emancipated. The law specified the enslaved who were issued firearms and James was a spy, not a soldier.

Still, he continued to petition for his freedom. In 1786, he would petition the House of Delegates and was provided support by the general he served under, Marquis de Lafayette. With the signature of Virginia’s governor, Edmund Randolph, and the passing by both houses of the General Assembly, James was free. With this, he would adopt the surname “Lafayette” to honor the French general.

Marquis de Lafayette James Armistead Lafayette

Later Life

James Lafeyette would come to own land in New Kent County living with his family and became a slaveowner himself. He received a pension for his service during the revolution from the Virginia legislature.

In 1824, Marquis de Lafeyette returned to the United States for his farewell tour, which will begin its bicentennial this year. During his stop in Richmond on the tour, the Frenchman managed to spot James in the crowd and embraced him.


After his death around 1830-1832, James Lafayette would become a prime example of the contributions of African Americans during the American Revolution. There is a historical marker for his birth in New Kent County. The Lafeyette Memorial in New York City features the French general with a horse and another man, who many suspect to be James, though never directly confirmed.

As part of the 250th commemoration, his story and the under told stories of the black Americans who played a part in the founding of our nation will be told through events such as Portsmouth’s Front Porch Talk series and through exhibits such as the VA250 Mobile Museum Experience.


This is to certify that the bearer by the name of James has done essential services to me while I had the honour to command in this state. His intelligences from the enemy’s camp were industriously collected and faithfully delivered. He perfectly acquitted himself with some important commissions I gave him and appears to me entitled to every reward his situation can admit of.

Done under my hand, Richmond,
November 21st, 1784.

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