Very little is known about the early life of an enslaved man named James from New Kent County, Virginia. He is believed to have been born between 1748 and 1760, and was owned by William Armistead. In 1781, General George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental army, sent the twenty-four-year-old French general, the Marquis de Lafayette, to Virginia in an effort to stop the British forces headed by General Charles Cornwallis, earl Cornwallis. Shortly after Lafayette arrived in New Kent, his activities caught the attention of James, who asked his owner, William Armistead, to allow him to serve Lafayette in his efforts against the British. His master agreed and James began what would become an important and lengthy relationship with the general that would change the course of his life forever.
In his attempt to learn as much as he could about Cornwallis's activities and movements, Lafayette had sent an enslaved man, James, who successfully infiltrated the camp of Benedict Arnold, providing information that nearly resulted in Arnold's capture. After Arnold and his men left the area, James focused his efforts on infiltrating the camp of General Cornwallis. He gained access to the camp of General Cornwallis by July 7, 1781, and within a short while, entered Cornwallis's service as a waiter. In that capacity James was constantly in the general's presence, serving food and drinks to Cornwallis and his officers, and listening to their conversations about military strategy. Through the months of July and August, James provided the American forces with critical information on the number of British gunboats and the amount of supplies. In a letter to George Washington dated August 25, 1781, Lafayette credited James with finding out that British forces were fortifying at Yorktown and that they had sixty vessels sailing on the York River. By early in September American and French forces positioned the French navy on the Chesapeake Bay, bottling up the York River. Meanwhile Washington and his troops had marched south to Williamsburg to join Lafayette, preparing to rout the British by land and sea. With large French siege cannons in position by early in October, the combined American and French forces began shelling the British position. After ten days of the barrage, Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, 1781. Their strategy was successful in ultimately forcing the British to surrender, thus ending the Revolutionary War and winning recognition of the new nation's independence.
After being awarded his freedom by the Virginia General Assembly in 1786 for his service during the American Revolution, James, now using the surname Lafayette, returned to New Kent County, Virginia. In 1816 Lafayette was living with his wife, son, and three slaves on forty acres of land. Just two years later, however, Lafayette appealed again to the Virginia General Assembly, this time requesting financial relief. In response to his claim of being now "poor and unable to help himself," the body granted him $60 and placed Lafayette on the Commonwealth's regular pension list, guaranteeing the veteran an additional $40 each year for the rest of his life.
Some years later, in 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette and James Lafayette met once more. In that year, the Marquis returned to the United States for a celebratory tour. In Richmond, the Marquis was to be feted in grand style. While riding through the streets of Richmond, the Marquis de Lafayette recognized James Lafayette, halted the procession, and warmly greeted his former comrade, embracing him on the street. The danger and honor they had shared at Yorktown years before had not been tarnished by the passage of time, nor as it turns out, by American racial etiquette. James Lafayette died a few years later in August 1830.
Wolf, Eva Sheppard. Race and Liberty in the New Nation: Emancipation in Virginia from the Revolution to Nat Turner's Rebellion. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.