The names of the name and women who risked their lives for the British and patriot forces are just one of the many details that historians are still piecing together about the spies’ operations during the American Revolution, even over 100 years after the war’s events. The American war of independence, much like any other war in U.S., was a rebellion that 13 of Great Britain’s North American colonies waged between 1775 and 1783 in order to overthrow British control and build the independent United States of America, which was established with the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. During the Revolutionary era, African Americans faced challenging decisions, whether they were free or enslaved. While some sided with the British, others joined or provided help to the troops of the patriots. Frequently, their decision came down to choosing the side that gave them the best chance of escaping slavery. However, often neither free nor enslaved African Americans were paid or
rewarded for their efforts.
During the war, Black Americans who spied did so frequently—often at tremendous personal risk—for little payoff. These individuals were known as the Black Spies. Unnamed agents—enslaved African Americans who had access to sight and sound but were not considered a danger due to their mere position as an enslaved person—are responsible for many acts of espionage or intelligence collection. It is not difficult to see slaves serving at the table or slaves attending their owners in the same residences where commanders, soldiers, and the political elite openly discussed their plans. However, they did more than merely observe; they disseminated the information they heard.
Although most remained unnamed till this day, a few black spies stood out during that time. Firstly, we have James Armistead Lafayette. Armistead was an enslaved African-American who volunteered to join Lafayette’s army in 1781 and worked as a double agent for the Patriots. Armistead pretended to be a slave who had escaped and consented to serve with the British, but in reality, he was gathering information from them and relaying it to the Patriot soldiers.
Another popular black spy during the time was Harry Washington. One of the 17 slaves from Mount Vernon to escape on the British warship HMS Savage was Harry, a 40-year-old stable hand. Throughout the Charleston Siege, Harry constructed a series of earthworks. The majority of “Black Loyalists” were tasked with supporting non-combat operations. Harry Washington joined other settlers in Sierra Leone in denouncing unjust treatment and calling for rights. He was exiled after being prosecuted for insurrection.
Over the course of history, the British employed spies extensively. While spies and espionage did not win the war on their own, they did enable Washington to lessen the harm caused by inaccurate information. Washington’s victory in the Revolutionary War of Independence depended heavily on spy networks and this is why it’s important to remember them today.
Visit our website and follow us to learn more about these incredible people and much more.
This article was written by Maya Mitala.