The Spy Whose Powerful Decision Helped Get an American Victory at Yorktown: Meeting James Armistead Lafayette

The Spy Whose Powerful Decision Helped Get an American Victory at Yorktown: Meeting James Armistead Lafayette

Oct 09, 2023

Today I met James Armistead Lafayette- sort of.

If you've followed along the blog, you know Mr. Lafayette is likely a man from history who was brought to life in Colonial Williamsburg (CW) through an actor and historian.

I've heard the name James Lafayette in the past... he's referenced around here in the largest living history museum in the world! Some of y'all may have actually heard about him in your studies of early American history.

But I didn't really know this revolutionary spy until today, and now I want to know more. More than the fact he took the Marquis de Lafayette's name.

Necessary disclaimer: As a blogger, I use affiliate links sometimes! I may receive commission from purchases I share; it does not change your price but sometimes you might get a discount.

Mark Schneider portraying the Marquis de Lafayette in Colonial Williamsburg

Mark Schneider as Marquis de Lafayette

He was a spy that was so good, the English trusted him to spy on the Americans.

I'm kicking off this paragraph with a bit of a disclaimer: there is not much information in the form of primary sources for James. Much of what I saw on stage, I found out today (the day after initial publication of this post), is interpretation.

It's possible that what Mr. Stephen Seals, who portrays James, supposed about James having met the Marquis de Lafayette upon delivering supplies to him is possible. James was owned by William Armistead, who was commissary of the Public Storehouse - and therefore would've been supplying the troops, as those under the Marquis.

As an enslaved manservant, it might make sense to someone as astute as the Marquis, serving as a major-general under Washington, that James could slip over to the English side, pretending to be a runaway slave in search of freedom.

After all, Lord Dunmore had proclaimed any enslaved person belonging to a Patriot (not a Loyalist of course) could gain their freedom by crossing the battle lines and serving the King.

And what is the idea behind the statement that James was invited by the British to spy on the Americans? It's been said that James was with the Marquis when Lord Cornwallis arrived at his tent after the battle and Cornwallis uttered words that indicated his realization of James' role supporting the Americans.

RELATED: Read about primary sources by clicking here.

copy of Lord Dunmore's Proclamation to free the enslaved of Patriots if they serve the King in the Revolutionary War

Reprint of Dunmore's Proclamation, posted in CW.

A powerful decision needed to be made, and James chose family.

Let's back it up a minute.

And let's be real, James' choices were limited. He could say "yes" to the Marquis and spy for the Americans, he could say "yes" to the Marquis and never return- trusting the British to give him the freedom he desired, and that's really all. He couldn't say "no" could he?

Because we know the outcome, it's clear he chose to trust the Marquis, a Frenchman. Why? Possibly to hold onto the hope that the Americans would reward him with freedom. A choice that, should he live through the experience, would keep him with his wife and children.

RELATED: For a deeper dive, click here to go directly to CW's website and read about Mr. Stephen Seals as well as the man he portrays.

Stephen Seals portraying James Armistead Lafayette in Colonial Williamsburg

Mr. Stephen Seals portraying James Armistead Lafayette

Conclusion: every day is an example of why the people of history are important to meet.

Knowing Cornwallis' plans, and the efforts of spies during the war, were all important in the Yorktown victory of October 19, 1781. And while it took several years for James to get his freedom, he did it.

How did James gain his freedom? He applied to the Legislature as was his right under the law. To support his cause, he brought with him a letter from the Marquis. This letter IS one of the few documents, and a primary source of course, that sheds light on James' role during the war.

James' freedom was granted and he was able to purchase his family. According to Mr. Seals' performance, he also purchased land on the river in New Kent, where he was born. (and where I've heard his descendants still live- something I need to confirm)

This story is one of many millions out there. In my opinion, every person who lived throughout history has a story worth hearing. It's my hope some more documented information on James will someday appear (it happens! there are still trunks in the attics so to speak!)

Truly, whether it's learning about this spy who gained his freedom with support from a Frenchman or what Margaret Hunter sold at her millinery, these stories give us a glimpse into how history is made up of humans, just like us.

Personally, I cannot get enough of everything from everyday life to major decisions that built our country.

The Capitol building reconstruction in Colonial Williamsburg

Reconstructed Capitol Building in Williamsburg

I love sharing tidbits from history- here is a bit of a primary source for y'all.

Words about spies, directly from General Washington in 1781...(excerpt- read in full by clicking here)

From George Washington to Jacob Bayley, 9 June 1781

Head Quarters New Windsor 9th June 1781


I have recd your favors of the 14th, 24th and 27th of May by Mr Vincent....

You ought to be very careful of those persons who come from the enemy under the appearance of deserters, it is more than probable that some of them are spies.

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There is a huge practical disclaimer to the content on this blog, which is my way of sharing my excitement and basically journaling online.

1) I am not a historian nor an expert. I will let you know I’m relaying the information as I understand and interpret it. The employees of Colonial Williamsburg base their presentations, work, and responses on historical documents and mainly primary sources.

2) I will update for accuracy as history is constant learning. If you have a question about accuracy, please ask me! I will get the answer from the best source I can find.

3) Photo credit to me, Daphne Reznik, for all photos in this post, unless otherwise credited! All photos are personal photos taken in public access locations or with specific permission.