Why We Need to Talk About James Armistead Lafayette

Time Period
1764 to 1824
American Revolution
Black History
Military History

“Marquis de Lafayette and Body Servant James,” depicting end of Revolutionary War (1781), engraving after the painting by Jean Baptiste Le Paon in the collection of Lafayette College, Easton, PA. (VMHC 1993.178) 

A small plaque in The Story of Virginia exhibition at the VMHC tells the story of James Armistead Lafayette:

James Armistead Lafayette was an enslaved man who, during the American Revolution, volunteered to join the Continental Army and served under the Marquis de Lafayette. He was a spy, reporting to Lafayette the actions of Benedict Arnold (after he turned to the British) and eventually Lord Cornwallis leading up to the battle of Yorktown. He informed the Continental Army of the British movements and strategies while also feeding the British false information to keep them at bay.

James Armistead Lafayette played a pivotal role in leading the British to the attack at Yorktown, yet he is very rarely mentioned in accounts of the war. The Marquis de Lafayette abhorred slavery and wanted James to be free more than anything. When James was granted his freedom after the war, he took the last name Lafayette because the general had helped him so much. 


An 1824 engraving of James Armistead Lafayette, after a painting by John B. Martin. The print reproduces the handwritten text of a 1784 testimonial by the Marquis de Lafayette. (VMHC 1993.215)

James Armistead Lafayette’s story is exactly the kind that should be told today—he served his country even though it didn’t consider him as a whole person, and he found strength in the friendship of others. By talking about James Armistead Lafayette, we can take another step toward representing a broader view of America’s history. 

This article was written by Sarah Wells, a former student at St. Catherine’s School, while a VMHC Public Relations and Marketing intern.

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