On this cold New England day, during the first week of Black History Month, I have been reflecting on the life of an unsung African American hero who lived during the cusp of the country. He was a Virginian slave named James who became enraged when his hometown was invaded by the British in 1781. Brits were turning up everywhere on the plantation in New Kent. As a result of this, the young man’s heart swelled with patriotism and he volunteered to serve in the Continental Army. Of course, this was highly unusual because most slaves didn’t volunteer to fight for America. If anything, slaves usually became Redcoats, not Patriots. After all, the British offered freedom to any slave who would defend the crown. On top of that, the Continental Army had only just started recruiting slaves. More importantly, they made no promises of freedom to anyone. In fact, lots of local farmers as well as town drunks and even convicted criminals were all duped into joining the military and were never properly compensated for their service. Still, James was determined to get the enemy out of his homeland. The reality was that twenty times more slaves fought for the British Army than the American Army, but James enlisted to serve the US regardless. At a time when only 1 in 5 colonists supported the American Revolution, and 1 in 3 colonists was a British loyalist, he became a soldier in the Continental Army.
Fortunately, the Lieutenant-General Marquis de Lafayette clearly understood that a literate black man would be the perfect spy, so he allowed James to enlist in the French Allied units, with the consent of his master of course. James then donned a red coat and went to the British to pretend that he would fight for the king in return for his freedom. Just as they had planned, the General of the Redcoats was totally fooled by the young rebel. Sir Charles Cornwallis assumed that all slaves were ignorant so he let James listen to important conversations and even look at their extensive battle plans. This was a huge mistake on his part, to say the least. The British officers all assumed that James couldn’t read or write, but in reality, he read almost everything that was made available to him and he wrote it all down perfectly. At one point, a loyalist slave named Cato saw what James was doing, but luckily he never snitched. James would have certainly been killed if he had been caught. More to the point, thanks to his revolutionary tactics, pun intended, James Armistead was able to tell General Washington and Lieutenant-General Lafayette the exact number of ships and boats that were to be in and around the Hampton Roads area including that of Yorktown. So, using the intel that their best spy had provided, America positioned the French Navy on the Chesapeake Bay to bottle up the York River. Then, General Washington and most of his troops marched south to Williamsburg to rally with Lieutenant-General Lafayette where they attacked the British, surrounding them by both land and sea. Thus, the British Empire was defeated in the Siege of Yorktown by the Continental Army. Against all odds, America was victorious.
The whole point is that, with the sensitive information that James brought back, General Washington was able to ambush the British for the first time in recorded history. This epic move forced General Cornwallis to surrender to the Continental Army, thus ending the Revolutionary War and ushering in American independence. The American dream had come true, at least, sort of. Unfortunately for James, even after helping the Patriots win the last major battle of the war, it turned out that the President wasn’t much different than the King after all. That is to say, after everything that he had done for America, James was still a slave once he got back home. Apparently, the new country was just as bad as the old one. Simply put, it seemed as though the US was no better than the UK, but James never gave up hope. He petitioned the government for several years to get his freedom, to no avail. Then, finally, one day the distinguished military officer Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette spoke up on his behalf to the Virginia General Assembly in 1784. He wrote a very compelling letter that showed how important the military career of James had been, and how influential his actions were in solely determining the course of the war. With that prestigious recommendation going on record, the country that James had so bravely served finally granted him his freedom. So, after he set the country free it eventually set him free in return. It was the least they could do, I guess. Such is the strange story of the slave turned spy who saved the states. Reality truly is stranger than fiction sometimes, and the whitewashed version of history is definitely just a tall tale.
Even though they don’t really teach any of this in school, the United States of America could have easily been destroyed before it was ever really even created were it not for one man. As a child born into slavery in Elizabeth City, Virginia in 1760 he was given the name “James” by his master William Armistead. Furthermore, as a black man, James couldn’t enlist without the written consent of a white man, so he had to plead with William just to get a chance to serve his own country. Thus, he enlisted in the Continental Army as “James Armistead” in 1781. Then, after General Lafayette was able to secure James Armistead his freedom in 1786 James then took on a new surname, thus becoming Mr. Lafayette. He was then awarded two horses and three slaves, living out the rest of his days as a US citizen until 1830 when he finally died in Baltimore, Maryland. The point is that, in spite of all of his struggles, he was undoubtedly one of the most important people in national if not global history, yet so many people have never even heard of him. There is absolutely no excuse for this. The textbooks need to be rewritten! If nothing else, James was not only a proud veteran, he was also the person who reported on the unforgivably traitorous activities of Benedict Arnold. Ultimately, James was a perfect secret agent and probably the greatest patriot of all time. Mister Lafayette helped to lay the foundation of the very freedom that America would become. We would all do well to honor him in every way possible.
BLACK LIVES MATTER!!!