The Enslaved Spy who helped win the Battle of Yorktown
Today is the last day of February, Black History Month, and I wanted to pass along the story of one of the more remarkable Patriot spies of the Revolution. Enslaved servant James Armistead Lafayette asked his owner to volunteer him to serve the Marquis de Lafayette. The young French General then asked James to pose as a runaway slave to infiltrate the British forces under Cornwallis and glean vital information about the Redcoats’ plans and movements. See the Bio and the lecture below for the astounding details of James’ courageous work that made such a difference to General Lafayette’s stratagem leading up to and during the decisive Battle of Yorktown.
In one of those sickening ironies of the Revolution, James was sent back into slavery after the war, despite his critically important service to the American fight for freedom. He was not eligible for the 1783 emancipation of the Continental Army’s slave-soldiers because he had been a spy. It wasn’t until Lafayette petitioned the Virginia Assembly directly that James was freed in 1787.
It is a heartbreaking, disquieting fact that we did not do away with slavery when we fought for our own “emancipation” from the British Empire and that so many of our founding fathers bought and sold other human beings. Today, many historic sites, such as the Schuyler Mansion, try to give enslaved servants some degree of justice by presenting their narratives alongside their owner’s. This link will take you to the Mansion’s blog posts about the Schuylers’ enslaved servants and Hamilton’s actions regarding slavery https://schuylermansion.blogspot.com/search?q=slavery. You will meet several of them in HAMILTON AND PEGGY!
I am glad that tomorrow I have the chance to read from my first American Revolution novel, GIVE ME LIBERTY, for students attending the NEA’s Read Across America event—because that novel directly addresses this issue. I often joke that I wrote GIVE ME LIBERTY backwards, having found the novel’s ending first, after learning of the 1775 Battle of Great Bridge, south of Norfolk. There a ragtag, untrained band of patriots faced down a large contingent of Redcoats accompanied by the Royal Ethiopian, a small regiment of enslaved servants who had had to run away to the British for their freedom.
The Patriots, many of them illiterate, had stitched Patrick Henry’s rousing words “Liberty of Death” onto their hunting shirts. The run-away slaves fighting with the British wore a sash emblazoned with “Liberty to Slaves.” That horrible dichotomy told me to create a narrative featuring a young fifer with the 2nd VA Regiment, whose best friend, an enslaved servant, must seek his freedom with the British, meaning the two ultimately meet as enemies on the battlefield. It also set up what I hope is a thought-provoking theme, that of Americans having to seek their rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in very different and often troubling ways. History is not always easy, and it is so important that we look at its prism from all angles.
More on James Armistead Lafayette:
Spy Museum Lecture on James Armistead Lafayette:
Videos for students:
If interested in learning more about GIVE ME LIBERTY: