Not too many people know that slave James Armistead had an enormous impact on the Revolutionary War. Armistead was born around 1748 in New Kent, Virginia, and was given permission by his master to join the revolutionary cause. Although many fought as soldiers, blacks, both free and enslaved were being used by the British and the Americans to gain intelligence against each other. Armistead, however, was used by both sides, making him a double agent.
Armistead served under the Marquis de Lafayette, the commander of allied French forces. He was employed as a spy in hopes that he would gather intelligence information about the military plans of the enemy. Armistead posed as a runaway slave and was able to successfully gain the trust of General Cornwallis and Benedict Arnold, providing information that allowed American forces to prevail at the Battle of Yorktown.
Despite his critical actions, Armistead returned to William Armistead after the war to continue his life as a slave. He was not eligible for emancipation under the Act of 1783 for slave-soldiers because he was considered a slave-spy, and had to petition the Virginia legislature for his emancipation.
Once he received his freedom, he moved south of New Kent and purchased land, where he started his own farm. He was later granted an annual pension of $40 for his services in the American Revolution. Armistead died in 1830.