In praise of an unsung hero

James Armistead Lafayette. Not a household name.

He’s a true national hero. Yet because of his color, his location and the time in which he lived, it took much too long for him to receive justice and his well-deserved compensation.

To get this out of the way now: Lafayette is his last name because he chose it when he was well into his 30s. The reason for that fact is what his story is about.

When his life-changing experience began, he was James Armistead, a black slave of William Armistead of New Kent County, Va. It was during the American Revolution. He had been owned by the Armistead family since his childhood. He had served as manservant to William, who was six years younger than he, for many years.

At some point during the Revolutionary War, probably in the late 1770s, William Armistead was placed in charge of the commissary of the public stores in Williamsburg, at that time the capital of Virginia. James accompanied William there, continuing in manservant service.

At some point a shipment of musket flints was ordered to be sent from the commissary to the Marquis de Lafayette, the young French military officer who served as a valuable volunteer aide to the American army and Gen. George Washington. At that time Lafayette was stationed near Williamsburg.

However, when the Marquis opened the shipment container, he discovered it contained wool soldier caps. Woolen caps had no wartime role to play in coastal Virginia in July.

So William Armistead sent James to Lafayette’s headquarters with the missing musket flints, as well as a sealed shipping crate for the Marquis with contents unknown to James.

When James delivered the flints and the crate to Lafayette, the opened crate revealed numerous bottles of fine wines of all varieties. Lafayette invited James to share a bottle with him, and the two began to talk.

The Marquis was interested to discover that James was well educated, could read and write, and spoke Latin and (marvelous for the Marquis!) French as well. James, as a young manservant to the young William Armistead, had been at William’s side during his education on the farm in New Kent County, and learned along with him.

James was now 33 years old. Lafayette was only 23. The two bonded over the wine and conversation, in English, Latin and French.

Shortly after James returned to his master in Williamsburg, the Marquis sent a letter to William Armistead, asking if William would be willing to have James serve under the Marquis in the Continental Army. William agreed, and James returned to the Army camp and joined Lafayette.

But not as a soldier. The Marquis had a special role for James in the American war effort.

He asked James to cross the British lines, represent himself as a runaway slave and see what information he could pick up in the British camp, where Lord Cornwallis was the top commander. He would then return to Lafayette and report what he had heard as an American spy.

James asked the Marquis if he would be freed after the war as a reward for his service. Lafayette was sympathetic, but couldn’t give any assurance on that score.

James realized he had two choices.

He could perform as requested and assist the American army, but with the probability that he would continue as a slave thereafter. Or he could simply remain on the British side of the line as a free man, because the British were offering freedom to any slaves who joined the British cause.

Tough choice, you would think.

But James had a wife, Sylvia, and three children. He discussed the situation with Sylvia, who urged him to opt for freedom. James chose the other path, unwilling to abandon his family.

So he crossed the lines and ingratiated himself with the British, who assigned him to scout for them in his home county of New Kent. His British superior officer? Benedict Arnold, who by then had turned traitor to the United States.

Over the next few months James reported valuable information to Lafayette back across the American lines. When Arnold prepared to leave the Virginia theater of operations, he recommended James to Lord Cornwallis ... as a potential spy back in U.S.-held territory.

Cornwallis agreed, and James thereafter had safe passage back to Lafayette at anytime. The Marquis was highly amused by the arrangement.

The heroic aspect of James’ efforts followed shortly thereafter. He learned that Cornwallis was planning to take his British troops to Yorktown, Va., in order to have a deep-water port at his back in case the Americans laid siege to the British army and an escape by sea then proved necessary.

James informed Lafayette, who informed Gen. Washington, who secretly moved his army south to encircle Yorktown and Cornwallis.

You know the rest.

A French fleet from the West Indies moved north to blockade the Yorktown port, Washington bottled Cornwallis up in Yorktown and before long Cornwallis surrendered his entire army to Washington in 1781. The surrender effectively ended the British war effort, and a treaty declaring the United States a free and independent nation followed two years later.

But James Armistead? Not so fortunate.

After the war, the state of Virginia freed slaves who had served as soldiers for the Americans. James was a spy, not a soldier, so his freedom did not come immediately.

But Lafayette wrote a letter on his behalf, and in 1787 James was finally declared a free man. He had saved up enough money to buy his wife’s freedom and that of his three children. His and Sylvia’s subsequent eight children were born free.

James Armistead took the last name of Lafayette in gratitude for what the Marquis had done for him. He bought 40 acres of land, which he and his family farmed the rest of his life.

When the Marquis de Lafayette returned to the United States in 1824, he spotted James in the parade crowd, and they enjoyed a very heartfelt reunion, over another bottle of wine.

Someone should make a movie.

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