An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

News | June 8, 2014

Good intelligence led to victory at Yorktown

By DIA Public Affairs

After the American Revolution, British officer Major George Beckwith noted that “Washington did not really outfight the British, he simply outspied us.” American intelligence operations tipped the balance in favor of the Patriots against the numerical and operational superiority of the British. Particularly at the final Battle of Yorktown, intelligence operations played a critical role in ensuring American victory.

One example is the story of Charles Morgan, who was sent into British General Charles Cornwallis’ camp posing as an American deserter. During his interrogation by the British, Morgan was able to convince the British that the French Marquis de Lafayette had enough vessels to move all French forces in a single landing operation. Believing Morgan’s story, Cornwallis responded by further hunkering down in Yorktown rather than retreating. After successfully completing his operation, Morgan then escaped back to the American forces disguised in a British uniform and brought with him five British deserts and a prisoner of war.

Another compelling example of how intelligence operations affected the outcome at Yorktown is the story of James Armistead, the first African-American double agent. Armistead was a slaved owned by Virginia William Armistead during the war. After gaining his master’s blessing, Armistead joined Lafayette's army in 1781. Lafayette soon realized Armistead’s utility as a double agent.

Pretending to be an escaped slave, Armistead walked into Cornwallis’ camp and then recruited as a spy for the British. Over time, Armistead gained the confidence of both Cornwallis and traitor turned British officer, General Benedict Arnold. Unsuspecting of an assumed former slave, British officers spoke openly about strategies and battle plans in front of Armistead, who relayed all the information to Lafayette.

At one point, Armistead and Lafayette also employed deception operations. Lafayette gave Armistead a fabricated order that was intended for Patriots forces that did not exist. Armistead gave the fictitious order to Cornwallis, who believed him and altered his plans as Lafayette wanted.

Armistead’s intelligence reports were instrumental in ensuring American victory at Yorktown. Because of his service, the Virginia Legislature granted Armistead freedom a few years after the revolution. 

Editor’s Note: This article is the ninth and final installment in a series highlighting the origins of American military intelligence and how it led to the birth of DIA. The American military intelligence system during the Revolutionary War was an active and effective instrument that helped counterbalance British numerical and operational superiority by informing American generals about their movements while it also deceived the British into making strategic errors. From the Revolutionary War to the early years of the Cold War interest in and resources devoted to military intelligence surged during wartime and diminished or disappeared during peacetime. This lack of a sustained commitment to military intelligence contributed to several intelligence failures. These issues were not resolved until the establishment of DIA in 1961, which would serve as the centralizing hub of all military and defense intelligence.