Thursday, August 13, 2015

The slave who caused the surrender of Cornwallis

After a miserable year of humiliation and defeats on the battlefield in 1780, American forces in the South under the command of General Nathanael Greene reversed their fortunes and had Cornwallis on the run. Lafayette had rejoined the Patriots after a lengthy trip to France to get support for the revolution. But the turncoat Benedict Arnold was wreaking havoc in Virginia. Lafayette needed information fast. There was only one spy who could get the information, a slave named James owned by William Armistead of Virginia.

Born on December 10, 1760, James at 19 begged his master to allow him to join the rebel cause. The slave owner agreed. The British had been offering manumission -- freedom -- to slaves who joined their cause. Americans did not. Nevertheless, James joined and Lafayette put him to work as a spy.

James posed as an escaped slave and won the confidence of Arnold and Cornwallis serving as Arnold's orderly and guide. The British used him as a spy but he was a double agent, giving the British bad information while giving Americans the good. He risked his life as they hanged spies once they caught them. The British caught Nathan Hale on September 21, 1776, and hanged the next day. Under the rules of war, spies were illegal combatants.

Legal or not, James discovered the British were moving 10,000 troops to Yorktown, Virginia, to set up a command post, and got the word to the Patriots on July 31, 1781. The quality of the information and the information itself stunned George Washington. James had very detailed information of the troop movements. The British planned to get reinforcements by sea.

That was all Lafayette and Washington needed to know. They sent the infantry and artillery in to lay siege on Yorktown, and sent the navy to establish a blockade. On October 19, 1781, Cornwallis surrendered, essentially ending the war although fighting continued in South Carolina and elsewhere. The slave who spied was bringing an end finally to six years of war.

"If he had not given the information that he gave at the strategic time he did, they would not have had the intelligence to create the blockade that ended the war," said Rex Ellis, vice president of Colonial Williamsburg's Historic Area.

The war's end meant James, now 20, had to go back to being the slave of William Armistead, who could not legally grant manumission while he was alive. Had James joined the British, he would have been free. The Americans passed a law in 1783 freeing all slaves who had served as soldiers, but James was a spy -- an illegal combatant -- and ineligible for freedom under that law. Learning of the plight of James, Lafayette wrote the Virginia legislature in 1784 on behalf of the slave, who needed legislative approval before he could be set free.

James rendered "services to me while I had the honor to command in this state. His intelligence from the enemy?'s camp were industriously collected and more faithfully delivered. He properly acquitted himself with some important commissions I gave him and appears to me entitled to every reward his situation can admit of," Lafayette wrote.

In 1787, the legislature freed James and he took the name James Lafayette in honor of the general. He became a farmer, married, and prospered -- and owned three slaves. When they call slavery a peculiar institution, they are not kidding.

Due to his work as a spy, it was not until 1818 that the Virginia legislature recognized him as a veteran, which entitled him to $60 cash and an annual $40 pension for the rest of his life.

But Lafayette recognized James Lafayette. During a triumphant return and march through Richmond, Virginia, in 1824, Lafayette saw James Lafayette in the crowd, stopped the parade, and leaped from his carriage to embrace his longtime friend, the spy who made the nation.

On August 9, 1830, James Lafayette died a free man and a national hero. Perhaps instead of Lafayette he should have taken the name Bond, James Bond.

My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here. And the Kindle version is here.


  1. Now that is some story! It could (should) be the basis for a short TV series. Why don't you write a proposal to the cable guys, Don? You could end up being the executive producer of a thrilling TV show.

  2. You find the most interesting people!

  3. Maybe this one? Earle Dickson,

  4. ahaha he 'begged' his massa that he could 'join the cause'. oh lol, Blacks were forcibly sent in whiteys place to fight but the moment they got near the front crossed over to the British! Why? Because the brits were freeing every black that could make it. oh 'he begged his massa' hahah