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William A. Jackson
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Seizing Their Own Freedom
By 1862, as the realities and hardships of war grew around the city of Richmond and United States Army lines moved closer to the Confederate capital, enslaved individuals within the Davis household began to take opportunities to seize their own freedom.
William A. Jackson
William A. Jackson was born into slavery in Hanover County, Virginia ca. 1831. He was a husband, father of three children, and a lecturer who promoted abolitionism and the Union cause throughout the Northern states and abroad.
Prior to his time at the executive mansion of the Confederacy, Jackson lived and worked in Richmond, Virginia for 15 years, where he was hired out to work various jobs, such as a driver, a waiter, a caretaker at city hall, and as a messenger for the courts. Jackson was literate and would use this to his advantage in his eventual escape from the Davis home.
In 1861, George W. Jones, the man who enslaved Jackson, hired-out William A. Jackson to Jefferson Davis, to work as a coachman for the rate of $20 a month. Davis put down a $1050 deposit of insurance against the loss, death, or injury of Jackson while under his enslavement.
As coachman to the President of the Confederacy, Jackson was witness to not only the private conversations of the Davis family but also those between Davis and his general staff, giving him an inside knowledge of the increasingly at risk position of the Confederacy in the early days of the war.
Upon learning that he was to be sold south away from his wife and children, Jackson seized the opportunity to claim his own freedom by forging a pass and making his way north towards United States Army lines.
On May 5th, 1862, William A. Jackson arrived at the Federal position near Fredericksburg, Virginia, where he identified himself as Jefferson Davis’ coachman. He was taken to report to General Irvin McDowell where he gave a revealing account of the conditions in Richmond and of the inner life inside the executive branch of the Confederate Government.
Jackson reported on a Confederate Government in dissension between the executive and legislative branches, a failing economy, and a Black population eagerly awaiting liberation from the United States Army moving up the Virginia Peninsula. Jackson conveyed that Jefferson Davis was considering withdrawing his army and abandoning the city of Richmond, as the Davis family had their “books, clothing, and pictures ready to move off” at a moment's notice.
Through these exploits, William A. Jackson was greeted with acclaim and attention in the Northern press where his story and first-hand account of the Davis family appeared in publications across the country. Jackson found work on the Unionist and abolitionist speaking circuit over the duration of the war where he relayed to audiences the story of his life and his experiences as an enslaved person in the South where he labored and witnessed the grim realities at the heart of the Confederate Government.
Jackson’s public speaking career took him as far as England, where he had an encounter with James Mason, the Confederate Commissioner to Great Britain. Jackson was snuck into a party and introduced to Mason as “Mr. Jackson, late coachman to your friend, Mr. Davis.” Mason hesitantly shook Jackson’s hand and quickly departed.
Following the Civil War accounts of Jackson’s life became less frequent with various reports of his pursuing an education at the Pierce Academy in Middleboro, Massachusetts and serving as a Delegate at the 1868 Constitutional Convention of Alabama, much to the racist outrage of the Southern press.
The last account linked to Jackson on record is conveyed through his son, Lt. William A. Jackson (Jr.) who was quoted in the March 1st, 1888, edition of the Fort Worth Gazette while speaking about his experiences in the executive mansion of the Confederacy through his father:
“I played with the children of Jefferson Davis. Slavery is dead, thank God! What is left is for the negro to make common cause with his white brother, North and South, and we expect aid from both sections in obtaining perfection of citizenship. What the negro needs now is mental and political freedom. Money will produce that and self-government, patriotism and home interest will follow.”
Etching of WIlliam A. Jackson taken from Harper’s Weekly, June 7, 1862
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