Espionage was a factor in a number of successful Patriot efforts during the Revolutionary War, and the Siege and Battle of Yorktown was no exception. James (later known as James Lafayette) was a classic double agent who provided important intelligence during the months leading up to the Victory at Yorktown.  And he was an African American slave.

In 1781, with his master’s permission, James volunteered to join the Continental Army to fight in the American Revolution. James served under the Marquis de Lafayette, who employed James as a spy, rather than as a soldier, in the hope of gathering intelligence regarding enemy movements. James infiltrated the headquarters of Lord Cornwallis by posing as a runaway slave hired by the British to spy on the Americans.

Able to travel freely between both British and American camps, James relayed information to Lafayette about British plans and provided false information about American forces to the British. Using the details of James’s reports, Lafayette and General George Washington were able to prevent 10,000 British reinforcements from getting to Yorktown. The American and French blockade in the Chesapeake Bay surprised British forces and left them with no alternative but to prepare for a siege. Following the Battle of Yorktown, the British surrendered on October 19, 1781.  It would be the last major battle of the Revolution. Would the result have been different if Lord Cornwallis had an additional 10,000 men? Thanks to James Lafayette, we’ll never know.

After the war, James returned to life as a slave. He eventually petitioned the Virginia legislature for his emancipation, which was granted in 1787. Lafayette assisted him by writing a recommendation. In gratitude, James adopted Lafayette’s surname.

James Lafayette is just one of the many African American Patriots who helped to secure American independence and a reminder that the legacy of the Revolution belongs to all Americans of every race.

To learn more about James and see possible discussion questions for your local society meeting, download the Patriots of the Round Table James Lafayette Fact Sheet.

Historic marker at the New Kent County Courthouse honoring James.