African Americans in the Revolutionary War
Courtesy of Library of Congress.
In 1781 James Armistead successfully petitioned his master to allow him to serve with the Marquis de LaFayette, the French noble fighting for the American cause. Armistead became a double agent in General LaFayette's service, infiltrating the headquarters of the British general Charles Cornwallis by pretending to be a Loyalist slave spying on the Americans. The intelligence he provided LaFayette helped secure the American victory in the last major battle of the war at Yorktown, Virginia in 1781. LaFayette was so impressed with Armistead's service that he successfully petitioned the Virginia legislature to grant him his freedom in 1786; in gratitude, Armistead added the general's surname to his own. Upon his return to America in 1824, when Lafayette saw Armistead in a crowd he called him by name and publicly embraced him. This engraving by Noel Le Mire from a painting by Jean-Baptiste Le Paon shows Lafayette in Virginia in 1781, directing American troops during the battle at Yorktown as a black soldier holds his horse. Although there is no evidence that the man in the painting is James Armistead, the Marquis remained a staunch enemy of slavery throughout his life and counted many blacks among his friends.