James Armistead: The Double Agent of the Revolutionary War Essay Example

Future spy and double agent for the patriots during the Revolutionary war, James Armistead, determined the fate of how America came to be as it is today. Born around December 10, 1748, in New Kent, Virginia, Armistead spent his life working as a slave to owner William Armistead. However, as the war began to form in 1781, Armistead wanted to volunteer to join the patriots and fight for his country. This did not seem to be a common case however, as a grand total of 250,000 soldiers served during the revolution in total, with African American soldiers making up approximately only four percent of the Patriots' numbers. Nevertheless, after receiving permission from his owner, Armistead began serving under the allied French commander, Marquis de Lafayette, and was soon after given his job to spy against the British.

The art of spying in the Revolutionary war began with George Washington, as he declared, ''the necessity of procuring good intelligence is apparent and need not be further urged''. Washington warned that the process depended on secrecy, ''for upon secrecy, success depends in most enterprises of the kind, and for want of it, they are generally defeated, however well planned and promising a favorable issue''. The idea of employing the use of espionage as a frequent battle tactic spawned from the death of Nathan Hale, a famous spy for the confederates at the time. As espionage became more frequent, Washington established a secret service fund, which was utilized by other US presidents to help deceive and expand the nation through overseas operations. Even after the war had ended, Maj. George Beckwith, London's spymaster in the colonies, remarked bitterly that ''Washington did not really outfight the British; he simply out-spied us''! However, working as a spy during the time was extremely dangerous, because if one were to be caught in the act of committing espionage, they would immediately be put to death.

Armistead knew greatly of these dangers, and made it clear to government forces when attempting to acquire his freedom that he undertook intelligence missions for General Lafayette at significant personal risk. One of the documents proving this is his petition to the Virginia General Assembly of November 30, 1786 requesting freedom, otherwise known as his Manumission Petition. In the petition, Armistead stated that while serving Lafayette, he was able to successfully infiltrate enemy sidelines on multiple accounts at the risk of his life, and in doing so became one of, if not the most, useful assets to the war.

Espionage during this time was typically exercised by the use of Ciphers and Coded Letters, Invisible Ink, Hidden Letters, and more. These tactics all employed the idea of decoding letters, so if intercepted would look like gibberish, or at times nothing at all. Ciphers ensured that the contents of a letter could not be understood if correspondence was captured. The recipient would use a key, which referenced corresponding pages and letters from a well-known book, such as Entick's Dictionary, to decode the document’s true message. However, many spies also created their own key to use as a cipher, to make it just the more difficult to be detected by the enemy side.

James Armistead used ciphers primarily, even on his first ‘mission’. Posing as a runaway slave, Armistead acted as a desperate, pitied man hoping for shelter .He was ordered by Lafayette to look for a fellow ally with a blue feather in his shirt. He was told to tell the ally “I can supply the officers with fresh food”, which was the fish he was to catch on the way to the enemy base (Armistead was an excellent hunter in general). Armistead soon returned north with turncoat Benedict Arnold after delivering the message, and was only further pushed into the British forces to spy. In fact, he soon became so familiar with the enemy camp that General Cornwallis, leader of the British, employed Armistead to spy for the north on the confederates, unknowing of the true deception behind the situation. The irony of the circumstances only enhanced the originality of the affair.

Now able to frequently go to and from camps without raising suspicion, Armistead was able to dig up more information than ever before, what with him now having the personal trust of Cornwallis himself. Soon, Armistead was able to unveil perhaps the most important information to date in regards to how the Revolutionary war ended. Using the details he was able to acquire while on enemy bases, Lafayette and Washington were able to discover that the British were planning to send 10,000 reinforces to Yorktown, Virginia. The patriots had the advantage to launch a surprise attack on the unwitting soldiers, and thus severely crippled their military. Because of the Lafayette and Washington's victory in Yorktown, the British officially surrendered on Oct. 19, 1781.

Armstead’s accomplishments aided in, if not completely decided, the fate of the war, and yet after his critical actions, he was sent back to his owner William’s farm to resume his life as a common slave. Originally hoping for emancipation under the Act of 1783 for slave-soldiers, James was denied freedom as he was considered not a slave-soldier, but a save-spy. Refusing to give up on his hope for freedom though, Armistead began a petition (as discussed in paragraph three) and was even granted a recommendation for freedom by Lafayette. Finally, in 1787 Armistead was allowed his freedom and even changed his last name to Lafayette in commemoration to the general who supported his freedom and his success in aiding in the war. James moved nine miles south of New-Kent, Virginia, and began farming on his new land, growing a family and living out his days as a farmer in Virginia until his death on August 9, 1830. Overall, the success of the Patriots could possibly have been given to the British if not for James Armistead’s help spying for the war, and thus his actions will not go unnoticed any longer.


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