By John M. Coski, Historian
The Museum’s April “House 200” program, “Seizing Freedom,” offered an immersive tour of the Confederate White House that considered the motivations and actions of African-Americans who escaped enslavement from the Confederate executive mansion. One of the historical actors featured in that program not only seized his own freedom, but spent the remainder of the Civil War working in the North and in England for the cause of African-American freedom generally.
William A. Jackson became an international celebrity in the spring of 1862 under the identity of “Jeff. Davis’ Coachman.” Jackson was born and raised in Hanover County, Virginia, north of Richmond. For 15 years, Jackson’s owner, G. W. Jones, had hired him out for a variety of jobs in Richmond; in the summer of 1861, he hired him to President Jefferson Davis to serve as coachman.
Jackson learned that his owner planned to sell him south. With the blessing of his wife, Jackson in early May 1862 reportedly forged a pass to Hanover County, then struck north toward the Federal army occupying Fredericksburg. His arrival in Federal lines caused quite a stir. “He brings a good deal of interesting gossip from Richmond,” wrote Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell to U.S. Secretary of War.
After being debriefed by the U.S. Army, Jackson gave a lengthy and widely reprinted interview to Harper’s Weekly. Although he was not a “spy,” per se, and his interviews yielded little or nothing of military value, they did offer insights about morale and attitudes inside the Confederate White House during a bleak time for Confederate fortunes.
Within a month, Jackson had begun walking in the footsteps of Frederick Douglass and other abolitionist speakers. The Alexandria (Virginia) Gazette on June 9, 1862 commented derisively on “The ‘cullud pusson’ who is travelling about the country as ‘Jeff. Davis’s coachman’ delivering lectures to admiring Greeleyites….”
America’s most famous abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, noted in his newspaper, The Liberator, in November 1862 that Jackson, “who adroitly made his escape to the Federal lines, and has since been lecturing in this quarter on the rebellion and slavery… has sailed for England, where he deems his testimony more wanted, by the perverted state of public sentiment in that country, than it is here. We trust he will meet with a kind reception.” Garrison himself reportedly provided Jackson with letters of introduction. Receiving him on the other side of the Atlantic, a British observer described Jackson as “quite a sharp person” who “makes some telling hits, and as a colored man is here always an oracle, there is no gainsaying him.”
According to Benjamin Moran, the assistant secretary of the American embassy in London, Jackson’s reception was not as enthusiastic as he hoped. “For some time after he reached the North he lectured on things in the South,” Moran recorded in his journal on November 8, 1862; “but having always heard that England was the true land of freedom he came here to enjoy liberty. So far, he tells me he is shocked at the deep rooted sympathy prevalent here for the South. He thinks the English either dupes or hypocrites.” During an interview with Moran and U.S. Minister Charles Francis Adams six days later, Jackson exclaimed that there must be “some great mistake about the English people being the foes of slavery. Nearly all the people he has met are for the South!”
Nevertheless, Jackson spent the rest of 1862 and most of 1863 speaking across the United Kingdom and occasionally helping to disrupt pro-Confederate gatherings. He worked for the Union and Emancipation Society and returned to the United States at the end of 1863 and continued lecturing for the remainder of the War.
What became of Jackson after the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution brought freedom to all African Americans is not clear. A Vermont newspaper ran a short notice on February 8, 1867 (unconfirmed by other sources) that “Wm. A. Jackson, who was once Jeff Davis’ coachman, is fitting himself for collegiate education at Pierce Academy, Middleboro.” Twenty-one years later, a Lt. William A. Jackson wrote to a Detroit newspaper identifying himself as the son off Jeff. Davis’ coachman. He urged the “the [N]egro to “make common cause with his white brother, north and south” and appealed for “aid from both sections in obtaining perfection of citizenship.”
We hope that further research will reveal more about the life story of William A. Jackson.