Interstate 64 connects the present capital of Virginia, Richmond, and the former capital, Williamsburg. About midway between sits New Kent County. Tourists drive through it on their way to history sites and amusements in Williamsburg, or to the beach, but most don’t pay it any attention. George Washington enthusiasts know it as the county where Martha Washington lived with her first husband and the site of George and Martha’s wedding.
I wish more people knew about a fascinating person from New Kent who played an important role leading up to the siege of Yorktown and the Allied victory which brought the end of the American Revolution. James Lafayette’s story is both intriguing and unique – because he was an enslaved Virginian who served as a spy for General Lafayette.
James was born enslaved in the county, most likely in 1748, and served the Armistead family. He grew up in an enslaved community that surely dreamed about what life would be like as free people. He had no control over his daily life or his future. But sometime in 1781 he decided to seize an opportunity that would ultimately set his course toward freedom. He could have chosen to run to the British — they invaded Virginia in 1781 and many enslaved people decided to seek freedom with the British, a risky venture with no guarantee in the end. But he didn’t.
In early 1781 General George Washington sent Major General Lafayette to Virginia to capture the traitor Benedict Arnold who was then working for the British. Lafayette, was the young man who, at age nineteen, had come from France to help the American cause. But soon General Charles Cornwallis moved his troops into Virginia from the south and Lafayette had more to worry about. The British cavalry roamed the land, leaving a wake of destruction in their path and terrorizing the citizens of the state. Outnumbered, Lafayette could only monitor British activity and engage in small skirmishes. Lafayette needed to find a way to learn the British military’s next move. He needed eyes and ears in the British camp. No doubt General Washington, a person who recognized the value of strong intelligence, encouraged him to develop a spy network.
While history sources don’t reveal the exact moment, at some point in either spring or early summer 1781 Lafayette and James met, and Lafayette realized that using an enslaved man as a spy would provide him with vital information. And so began an interesting relationship of two people who were unlike each other. Lafayette was from a French noble family. He had inherited his title Marquis from his father who had died in battle against the British. Lafayette, one of the wealthiest men in France, was friends with the King and Queen of France.
My new book, The World Turned Upside Down: The Yorktown Victory That Won America’s Independence tells the story of the pivotal last conflict in the American Revolution and one of its main characters is James. Since the book is nonfiction, it took me a while to decide whether enough historical source material existed to include James’ story. Enslaved people and spies did not leave much evidence behind. James remains a mysterious person today, but several key documents tell us about him.
Lafayette mentioned him in correspondence to Washington, but not by name. Letters often got intercepted by the enemy. He refers to him as “a correspondent of mine,” and “this servant I have once mentioned.”
Despite holes in James’ story, we know he risked his life to serve as a spy and ended up working in the British camp. Upon war’s end, he was not granted his freedom, and ended up petitioning the Virginia legislature for freedom. Lafayette wrote a letter endorsing his manumission, stating James had served as his spy. He wrote: “This is to certify that the bearer by the name of James has done essential services to me while I had the honor to command in this state. His intelligences from the enemy’s camp were industriously collected and faithfully delivered.”
Three main questions loom large in James’ story: When did he start spying for Lafayette and who initiated it? Where was he during the siege of Yorktown and the surrender? What exactly was his role with General Cornwallis? Was he a double agent?
James did eventually gain his freedom from the state of Virginia. On January 9, 1787, the Speaker of the House signed a bill that stated: “Be it there enacted, that the said James, from and after passing of this act, enjoy as full freedom as if he had been born free.” When asked to select a surname, he chose Lafayette and would be known for the rest of his life as James Lafayette.
It is impossible with present evidence to determine the exact relationship between the two men. Clearly Lafayette felt strongly about James securing freedom and spoke out against the practice of slavery on numerous occasions. The General and James were destined to meet one more time. In 1824 Lafayette, then 67 years old, the last living French general of the American Revolution, embarked on a tour of the United States. During his visit to the Yorktown battlefield, the Richmond Enquirer reported that “a black man… who had rendered him service by way of information as a spy, for which he was liberated by the state, was recognized by Lafayette in the crowd, called to him by name and taken into his embrace.”
At some point in later life, James took a job at a grist mill and purchased 40 acres of land in New Kent County. He encountered an artist, John Blennerhasset Martin, in Richmond, who became fascinated with his story and painted the only known portrait of James. At that point he was about seventy-six years old and living a quiet life in New Kent County. Today the portrait is on display at the Valentine Museum in Richmond.