Why We Need to Talk About James Armistead Lafayette
The following blog was written by Sarah Wells, a senior at St. Catherine’s School, who just completed an internship in the public relations and marketing department at the Virginia Historical Society.
I, like many other young people these days, am undeniably obsessed with the Broadway musical Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Not only did the beautiful music and incredible performance change my life when I saw the show, but so did the history. Because of the show, I want to learn all that I possibly can about the men and women who were influential during the American Revolution. Hamilton has encouraged me to go out and learn more about the interesting people that fought in the war. I know, it sounds crazy—a seventeen-year-old girl actually doing research on something that is not required for school? Madness! This miraculous occurrence just further proves how important Hamilton really is.
When listening to the musical, I heard about a lot of men whose names I had either never heard or had only seen mentioned off-hand in a section of a textbook. One of these men was the Marquis de Lafayette. I had heard of him, but while listening to the musical I found out how important he really was. I had seen a picture somewhere on the internet of an engraving of the Marquis de Lafayette standing with a horse and another man. The caption below the engraving only mentioned the name of the Frenchman, and I saw a series of comments questioning who the other man could be. I never thought I would learn the truth about that mysterious man, but then I saw a small plaque in the Story of Virginia exhibition at the Virginia Historical Society. This plaque told the story of James Armistead Lafayette.
James Armistead Lafayette was a slave during the Revolution who volunteered to join the Continental Army and served under the Marquis de Lafayette. He was a spy, reporting to Lafayette the actions of Benedict Arnold (after he turned to the British) and eventually Lord Cornwallis leading up to the battle of Yorktown. He informed the Continental Army of the British movements and strategies while also feeding the British false information to keep them at bay. Lafayette played a pivotal role in leading the British to the attack at Yorktown, yet he is very rarely mentioned in accounts of the war. The Marquis de Lafayette abhorred slavery and wanted James to be free more than anything. When James was granted his freedom after the war, he took the last name Lafayette because the general had helped him so much.
Lafayette’s story is exactly the kind that should be told today—he served his country even though it didn’t consider him as a whole person, and he found strength in the friendship of others. Hamilton helps everyone relate to American history, and by talking about James Armistead Lafayette, we can take another step toward helping everyone find a place in America’s history. The VHS strives to connect people to American history through the story of Virginia, and to “inspire future generations,” and by showing the lives of underappreciated heroes like James Armistead Lafayette, the historical society achieves just that.
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