In school we learned about the blockade at Yorktown which led to the surrender of Lord Cornwallis – which led to a quick end to the war for independence. We were told of the leadership of George Washington. We were told of the French hero who led French soldiers to aid us in the fight.
We were not told of the spy working with Lafayette whose information helped led Washington and Lafayette to the successful blockade of Yorktown.
Born a slave on a plantation in Virginia, James Amistead was granted permission by his master, William Armistead, to enlist in the French units fighting with the colonists for freedom from England.
The army employed James as a spy. He infiltrated General Cornwallis’ headquarters by pretending to be a runaway slave. The British welcomed him because as a native Virginian, he would know the terrain well. Armistead served as a double agent, supplying Lafayette with information on the British movements while giving the British misleading information. In this position, Armistead risked his life. He had no papers to carry showing he was a soldier and if discovered, could be hung for treason.
In 1781 the information Armistead was able to give Lafayette and Washington helped them in their plans for a blockade in Yorktown. This blockade led to the surrender of Lord Cornwallis – which quickly brought the war for dependence to an end.
So – with his help you would expect Armistead would have won his right to be free. However, because he served as a spy and not a regular soldier he was forced to return back to his master as a slave.
For over four years he continued to be a slave – having risked his life for the freedom of the colonists, but denied his own freedom. For over four years he petitioned Congress for his freedom. When Lafayette learned his comrade in arms was still a slave, he wrote to Congress and finally he won his freedom.
Armistead was able to buy a farm in Viriginia, marry and live the rest of his life as a freeman. In gratefulness Armistead added Lafayette to his name.
Another hero we were never told about in American history classes.