Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

A Spy Called James: The True Story of James Lafayette, Revolutionary War Double

A Spy Called James: The True Story of James Lafayette, Revolutionary War Double

Anne Rockwell
Illustrator:  Floyd Cooper 
Nonfiction Picture Book
For ages 6 to 8
Carolrhoda Books, 2016   ISBN: 978-1467749336

Because of the way history books are written and stories are passed down, we tend to think that wars are won only because of the actions of famous generals and leaders. For example, we believe that General George Washington, with the help of high-level people like the Marquis de Lafayette, won the American Revolutionary War. To be sure, the generals did play vital roles in the conflict, but they alone did not win the war. The actions and “courage of thousands of people whose names never became famous” also helped to bring about America’s independence.

One of these people was James, a slave who belonged to a Virginia tobacco farmer. When James heard that he could be granted his freedom if he fought for American independence with the colonists he decided to join Lafayette’s army. Soon after becoming a soldier, James was asked to spy on an American called Benedict Arnold.

Arnold had been a loyal and courageous soldier for the American cause but when he was passed over for promotion in 1779 he started spying for the British. In 1780 he was almost caught and fled to join the British army, where he fought alongside Britain’s General Cornwallis.

James, dressed in tattered clothing, offered to guide Cornwallis and Arnold’s men through unfamiliar territory, and he found food for the troops.  No one paid him much attention, which was “a big mistake” because James was watching and listening. In fact, the British had so much faith in James that they asked him to spy for them. So James passed on everything he learned about the British to General Lafayette, and he also fed the British false information, pretending all the while to be their spy.

James’ double agent work was terribly dangerous, but he kept on doing it, and in the end the information he provided helped bring about a much needed victory for the Americans.

This remarkable story serves as a tribute to a man who is rarely given the credit he is due. Indeed, this book is the first of its kind that tells James Lafayette’s story. Readers will be astonished to learn that even after all that he had done for the American cause, James was not freed until a friend stepped in and spoke up on his behalf.