JAMES ARMISTEAD Biography - Military related figures


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Name: James Armistead                                                                 
Born: 10 December 1748                                                                 
Died: 9 August 1830                                                                   
James Armistead (December 10, 1748 - August 9, 1830)                                   
was an African American slave to William                                               
Armistead in Virginia during the American Revolution.                                 
Most sources indicate that Armistead was born in 1748 in New Kent County,             
Virginia as a slave to William Armistead. Other sources put his birth around           
1760 in Elizabeth City, Virginia some people really do not know.                       
After getting consent of his master, William Armistead, he volunteered in 1781         
to join the army under General Lafayette. He was stationed as a spy, acting as a       
slave in Lord Cornwallis' camp. He relayed much information about the British         
plans for troop deployment and about their arms. His intelligence reports             
espionage were instrumental in helping to defeat the British at the surrender at       
Because he was an intelligence agent and not technically a soldier, James could       
not qualify for emancipation under the Act of 1783, so with the support of             
William Armistead, he petitioned the Virginia State Legislature for his freedom.       
He received a letter of commendation dated November 21, 1784 from the Marquis de       
Lafayette (The facsimile of the letter of commendation can be viewed on the           
Lafayette College website.) On January 9, 1786, the Virginia State                     
legislature granted the slave known only as "James" his freedom for services           
rendered and bravery as a spy during the siege of Yorktown. It was at that time       
that he chose the name Armistead for his middle name and Lafayette for his             
surname, to honor the general.                                                         
He continued to live in New Kent County with his new wife, one son and several         
other children. He became a farmer and at one point owned three slaves. By 1818       
he applied to the state legislature for financial aid. He was granted $60 for         
present relief and $40 annual pension for his services in the Revolutionary War.       
In 1824, he was recognized and embraced by General Lafayette during his tour of       
Yorktown, the story of the event was reported by the Richmond Enquirer. It was         
also about this time that the artist John Blennerhassett Martin painted an oil         
on canvas of Armistead. This painting is owned by the Valentine Museum. The           
artist also created a broadside including both the painted likeness and the           
facsimile of Lafayette's testimonial.                                                 
Another possible likeness is John-Baptiste Paon's 1783 portrait of Lafayette at       
Yorktown with James Armistead holding his horse. This portrait is owned by             
Layfayette College and can be viewed on their website. A discussion on the             
images of Armistead may be found on the Common-place website                           
By 1828, James Armistead Lafayette was also featured as the general's aid and         
sidekick in the novel Edge- Hill or the Family of the Fitzroyals by James Ewell       
It has been suggested that some historians have tried to twist his full name to       
protect the Armistead families of Virginia from scandals. William Armistead, his       
owner, was the purser and chief financer of the Revolutionary War, and was             
secretly connected to the royal families of Prussia, who helped finance the war       
with English payments to mercenary Prussian troops, who surrendered upon command.     
William Armistead's only (white) daughter married Fairfax Washington, the son of       
Gen. Washington, after the Revolution and is believed to be a descendant of           
Shakespeare or King William I (The Silent) of Orange via John Armistead, The           
Councilor of Williamsburg. Some black Americans with the last name of Armistead       
are suspected of being descendants of James Armistead Lafayette as he is said to       
have had a number of children after the Revolution. Also it is possible that           
James was an illegitimate son of William Armistead, The Purser of the Virginia         
Regardless of his birth, he is remembered as an American patriot. His                 
intelligence contributions to Lafayette and Washington aided in the capture Gen.       
Cornwallis at Yorktown, Va. with few shots fired.                                     
He died on August 9, 1830 as a freed slave turned farmer.