Enjoy this excerpt from my book, Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War.
One of the heroes of Yorktown was a slave.
William Armistead of New Kent County, Virginia, gave his slave, James Armistead, permission to offer his services to the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette decided not to employ the slave as a servant. Instead, he turned him into a spy.
“Lafayette’s attempts at infiltrating British headquarters were futile until the first week of July, when Cornwallis hired James Armistead to spy on the Americans,” noted historian Robert Selig, who participated in Colonial Williamsburg’s 1997 Brothers in Arms symposium on African American soldiers in America’s wars.
It took time before Armistead discovered any worthwhile news. But he was probably the one who informed Lafayette that Cornwallis was expanding his Yorktown fortress. “The written and oral reports of the unlikely double agent kept the allies apprised of British plans. On August 25th, Lafayette could report that Cornwallis had begun ‘fortifying at
Armistead returned to Lafayette’s service before the siege of Yorktown began. “When Cornwallis [as a prisoner of war] paid a courtesy call on the marquis, he was surprised to encounter a black man there he considered to be in his pay,” Selig explained of the custom of opposing generals meeting each other after the battle.
Armistead was far from the only black man to serve the Continental cause at Yorktown. About fifteen hundred African American men, one fourth of the army, fought at Yorktown for the patriots. Former African slaves also served in the English, French, and Hessian ranks.
Although it took several years, Armistead ultimately received freedom for his service. He had infiltrated the enemy camp at the peril of his life. Lafayette wrote him a certificate citing Armistead’s “Essential Service” in collecting “Intelligence from the Enemy’s Camp” and asserted he (Armistead) was therefore “Entitled to Every Reward His Situation Can Admit of.” Armistead used the document to prove to the Virginia legislature that he qualified for emancipation under a law they had passed for slaves who had fought in the Revolution on behalf of their masters.
Because of the Revolution, Armistead underwent tremendous change. He went from a slave to a freeman to a landowner. He bought forty acres of land in New Kent County, Virginia, in 1816 and raised a family. Virginia gave him a regular pension of $40 a year.
But he also made another significant change because of the Revolution. Because he was no
longer the slave of William Armistead, James Armistead changed his name to James Lafayette, in honor of the man who trusted him to spy on the enemy.
A name change is occasionally a sign of a revolutionary change. Saul became the apostle
Paul after his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus. Abram became Abraham after receiving God’s promise to build a nation through him. It is fitting that a
name change sometimes follows life’s most significant moments.
Author Jane Hampton Cook is known for making history memorable and relevant to today’s news, current events, and modern-day life. A frequent guest on the Fox News Channel and other outlets, Jane is the author of eight books, including American Phoenix, America’s Star-Spangled Story, and Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War. Jane is also a former White House webmaster. She lives with her husband and three sons in Fairfax, Virginia.