In the early years of the Civil War, William A. Jackson rose to prominence as an escaped slave and spy. When the Civil War broke out, Jackson was imprisoned in Richmond, Virginia, where he served as a courier in the courts and also drove a coach. Jackson’s boss, G.W Jones, contracted him out as a coachman to Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, in 1861.
Jackson learned in May 1862 that Jones intended to sell him south. Despite having a wife and three children, Jackson chose to flee to Union lines, as did many other enslaved persons before him at that time in the war. Because of his relationship with Jefferson Davis, he drew the attention of Union commanders when he arrived behind Union lines. Jackson revealed a great deal about the low morale of Southerners, including the Davis family.
After escaping to Union lines, Jackson rose to prominence in abolitionist circles, giving public talks. He described his escape from slavery, his early life, and how he learned to read in a speech he gave in Boston. According to the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, Jackson discussed how enslaved people were able to obtain information about the War’s developments during his Boston lecture. Jackson also reassured his audience that slavery had prepared Black people to care for themselves, and he was opposed to colonization for newly freed slaves.
Jackson claimed that in the summer of 1862, he tried to join a regiment of Black soldiers raised by Governor Edward Sprague, but was unable to fight because the United States was not yet enlisting African Americans. Jackson’s speeches influenced the debate in the North about the Federal government’s policy toward enslaved Black people.
Jackson also went to England to give a talk about his experiences. He was a guest of famed abolitionist George Thompson while in England. According to the Liberator, Jackson boldly wrote Jefferson Davis from London saying he would be unable to spend the Christmas holiday with the Confederate President. Davis forfeited a substantial deposit to G.W. Jones because Jackson was a hired slave. William A. Jackson remained in Britain until 1863. When he learned of the substantial English support for the Confederacy, he returned to the United States and continued to give lectures.
There is little known about Jackson’s life after the Civil War. According to a Vermont newspaper, he enrolled in Pierce Academy, a New England preparatory school, to prepare for college, but there is no other evidence of this. Jackson vanishes from the public record after that report.