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"James Armistead - A Spy Story"

Started by Newsletter, September 26, 2023, 04:39:05 PM

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"James Armistead - A Spy Story" by AH1Tom

The pivotal summer of 1781 played a critical role in the American Revolutionary War for both King George III's military forces in America and the colonial forces opposing the British. Earlier that year, in March, General George Washington had issued orders to Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, instructing him to leave Philadelphia and take command of Continental forces in Virginia. Lafayette's mission encompassed countering a British invasion of the American South, confronting the traitor Benedict Arnold and his raiders, who were operating in Virginia, and gathering crucial intelligence on British troop strength, positions, and strategies.

In August, upon arriving in Virginia, British General Charles Lord Cornwallis, who commanded British forces in the South, dispatched Arnold and his troops to New York. From New York, British Commander-in-Chief General Henry Clinton ordered Cornwallis to secure a strategic location on the Virginia coast with a harbor capable of accommodating a fleet of warships to reinforce British ground troops. Cornwallis subsequently relocated his forces from Portsmouth to Yorktown in anticipation of a confrontation with the American and French forces. Remarkably, American and French forces seemed to anticipate Cornwallis's movements, doggedly shadowing the British general and his troops.

Unbeknownst to Cornwallis, a secret agent had been dwelling within his camp for months, and this agent was not merely a spy passing information to the Americans. Instead, this enigmatic figure served as a double agent, actively supplying Cornwallis with false information about the colonials. This little-known figure, whom a Time writer described as "arguably, the most important Revolutionary War spy," was James Armistead, an enslaved African American.

Born into slavery around 1748, James Armistead was the property of William Armistead, a farmer from New Kent County, Virginia, who also sold supplies to the American army during the Revolutionary War. James Armistead learned that enslaved individuals who served the revolutionary cause might be able to secure their freedom upon the war's conclusion, provided the Americans emerged victorious. With his owner's consent, James Armistead volunteered to serve in Lafayette's Virginia campaign. Recognizing his abilities, Lafayette initially employed him as a forager, laborer, and courier. Impressed by Armistead's capabilities, Lafayette later assigned him to undertake a far more perilous role: posing as a runaway slave, Armistead infiltrated Benedict Arnold's camp, ostensibly seeking employment but covertly gathering and transmitting intelligence about British activities and troop strength.

Cornwallis appointed Armistead as an orderly, a role that required him to serve at the officers' tableâ€"a prime position for eavesdropping on British military discussions regarding strategy, maps, and planned actions. Though illiterate, Armistead committed what he overheard to memory, whispering this invaluable information almost daily to a fellow operative. This operative formed part of a network of spies who clandestinely traversed British lines to relay intelligence to Lafayette. Armed with this constant stream of intelligence, Lafayette, whose forces numbered a mere 3,000, managed to evade confrontations, monitor British activities undetected, and submit detailed reports. James Armistead also conveyed instructions from Lafayette to other American operatives operating behind British lines.

Impressed by Armistead's acumen, Cornwallis eventually approached the supposed runaway with a request to spy on the enemy. Armistead accepted, maintaining contact with his Continental Army contacts, who provided him with counterfeit intelligence.

As the summer of 1781 drew to a close, the American army encircled Cornwallis's forces in Yorktown. In early September, Cornwallis began receiving credible reports from trustworthy sources that a French fleet would soon arrive off the Chesapeake Capes to reinforce the Americans. Simultaneously, General Washington and his army, having marched from locations in the mid-Atlantic, from New York to Pennsylvania, arrived at Williamsburg.

Cornwallis, writing to Clinton, his anticipated rescuer, expressed his fear that he could not hold out. In the September 5-9 Battle of the Chesapeake Capes, which ultimately proved to be the decisive engagement of the war, Admiral Francois Joseph Paul de Grasse's fleet effectively blocked arriving British ships and forced them to flee from the Chesapeake. By shutting off British sea access to Yorktown, de Grasse deprived Cornwallis of the expected reinforcements.

In early October, American and French forces commenced their siege of Yorktown. A French fleet positioned itself at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, dashing Cornwallis's hopes of Royal Navy assistance. With his back to the sea and no means of escape, Cornwallis dispatched an aide to Washington's camp to discuss surrender terms.

A few days after capitulating, Cornwallis, in a gesture characteristic of the era, visited Lafayette. Upon entering the Frenchman's tent, the British leader was surprised to find James Armistead standing near Lafayette. Armistead had served as Cornwallis's orderly, personal servant, and, unbeknownst to the British general, a loyal spy. Although sporadic fighting continued until the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the Revolutionary War effectively concluded at "the trenches before York," marking the conclusion of James Armistead's tenure as an American spy.