Sam Aleckson was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1852 to enslaved parents who lived with different families. Sam grew up in his father's master's household, where slaves were treated humanely and even taught to read. Although Aleckson and the other slaves in the house were liberated shortly before the Civil War, Aleckson served in the Confederate army. After the war ended, he remained in South Carolina, married, and had ten children. He and his family later settled in a predominantly white rural community in Springlake, Connecticut. According to the title page of his autobiography, Aleckson died in Windsor, Vermont in 1914, fifteen years before the publication of Before the War, and After the Union; An Autobiography in 1929.
In Before the War, Aleckson describes his memories of growing up in Charleston, memories which include playing with the neighborhood children and home schooling. He also devotes a section of his narrative to a detailed description of life at "Pinetop," a plantation outside of Charleston where he lived during the war. In addition to autobiographical sections, Aleckson's work includes anecdotes and biographical sketches, especially of those people he encountered during his years in slavery. Although he presents a view of slavery that is mild compared to many other slave narratives, he nonetheless offers a sharp critique of slavery as an American institution: "There is nothing good to be said of American slavery. I know it is sometimes customary to speak of its bright and its dark sides. I am not prepared to admit that it had any bright sides, unless it was the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln" (29-30). Aleckson ends his narrative with a description of his family's journey to New England and his favorable impressions of both his northern and southern homes.