“I remember that Jasper Gray told me that he had herded sheep in Australia”

“I remember that Jasper Gray told me that he had herded sheep in Australia”

In 1906, Oscar Nelson, a local African American living in Tennessee, provided testimony on the extraordinary life of Jasper Gray, a United States Colored Troops (USCT) veteran, of the Thirty-First United Colored Infantry (USCI). Gray was a man whose entire life—in bondage and freedom—was one of constant physical movements and changes. In numerous instances, each step Gray took allowed him to redefine how he self-identified. By traversing spaces that spanned the Southern and Western hemispheres, Gray announced that he was there—as an African American man—demanding the recognition of his dignity, humanity, and his cultural citizenship on a global scale. His physical declarations occurred during periods that often frame African Americans as victims of systemic racial oppression rather than seeing them as agents of change fighting, in a multitude of ways, for equality.[1]

The lives of many enslaved people (and later freedpeople) were usually marked by continual change, often with physical movements being a key component of their experience. Numerous scholars, including Chandra Manning, denote how enslaved people frequently circumvented the oppressive structures through their physical movements (both temporarily and permanently) to claim agency over their lives, humanity, and personal bonds to others.[2] In the postwar, scholars, including Heather A. Williams, denote how freedpeople seized upon their freedom to move throughout the South seeking to reconnect with dislocated kin that slavery stole from them.[3] Their collective scholarship highlights how African Americans were never complacent as many whites created and maintained an evolving system of racial discrimination that sought to dehumanize and destroy African American bodies, lives, and families.

Jasper Gray was a unique example of an African American man whose travels and declarations, throughout his life, illustrate his enactment of the General Strike, through his self-liberation and then enlistment into the Thirty-First USCI. After the Civil War, Gray’s understand of the revolutionary moment empowered him in ways that have been obscured by focusing on white oppressors.[4] To be clear, Jasper Gray is not a representative case. Still, his life is another example of how African Americans, like others, did not have a singular experience. Instead, Gray illustrates the multiple forms that agency manifested. Ultimately, Jasper Gray reveals that the Civil War provided a sense of freedom that stretched far beyond the limits many people, including scholars, envision.

Before the Civil War, Jasper Gray spent his entire life in bondage. During that time, he shifted locations throughout Tennessee, including his birthplace in Knox County, as three different slaveowners claimed Gray as their property. By the fall of 1863, the Civil War enveloped Tennessee (which initially claimed neutrality) as Confederate and U.S. armies battled in Chattanooga, much to the dismay of slaveowners. It was in this moment that Gray’s life forever changed. As historians Amy Murrell Taylor and Joseph P. Reidy note, enslaved African Americans, such as Gray, defined freedom and citizenship in the middle of a war zone. Moreover, that emancipation process involved large swath of space.[5]

Group of Black men sitting on lumber and standing in pose for a group photograph.
Courtesy of Camp Nelson National Monument NPS.

Through his own volition, Gray self-emancipated (in a state where the Emancipation Proclamation had no authority). He traveled nearly two hundred eighty-four miles to Camp Nelson in Nicholasville, Kentucky.[6] His actions, along with many others, illustrate his participation in a labor strike that allowed enslaved people to demand the recognition of their humanity and cultural citizenship (or cultural belonging). After signing a labor contract with the U.S. Army, Gray claimed agency to work as a freeman and wage-earning laborer. By signing a contract, men such as Gray had their humanity acknowledged by the U.S. Army, giving them the ability to enter a legally binding contract, as people, who paid them regulated wages for their labor, which aligns with the work of historian Chandra Manning.[7]

Rather than remain in Camp Nelson and enlist in a Kentucky USCT regiment, as many freedmen in the area did, he left the military base after three months and continued northward. Gray never revealed his motivation(s) for leaving Camp Nelson. However, his decision to go illustrates that he wanted to define freedom, on his terms, as he avoided enlisting in Kentucky. It is also possible that he chose to leave Camp Nelson where some military officials listened to white Kentucky slaveowners. Ultimately, he traveled over 773 miles to Long Island, New York, where he enlisted in the Thirty-First USCI on April 14, 1864. To enlist, he passed through two other states, where USCT recruitment was well underway, to join in a New York regiment. As scholars note, his enlistment reinforced his demands for cultural citizenship, in addition to demonstrating citizenship duties as soldiers.[8]

Gray stated that his birthplace was New York City, New York, to claim agency over his identity further. Perhaps Gray falsified his origin to receive an enlistment bounty that only freemen were eligible to get. Alternatively, maybe he did it as a declaration that Jasper Gray was a new man. Expanding on historian Adam Domby’s argument of lies as an analysis, Gray recreated historical narrative that gave him agency.[9] Thus, whatever Gray’s motivations for changing his birthplace, the result is that he took control over his identity, and his movements made it possible.

During his eighteen months in service, Gray traversed the Confederacy armed as a purveyor of freedom for enslaved people.[10] His movements were physical articulations that he and the world around him fundamentally changed. Moreover, Gray was an active participant in ending the Civil War. For instance, his regiment was a part of a contingent that chased Robert E. Lee’s forces to Appomattox Court House, where Gray witnessed Lee surrender.[11]Participating in this pivotal moment reveals how Gray’s movements, as part of the regiment, were crucial in ending slavery and forcing Lee to admit defeat, even though imagery and conversations often ignore the involvement of USCT regiments.

When Gray’s military service ended in November of 1865, his thirst for travel persisted. As a USCT veteran and freeman, Gray continued to seize upon opportunities to move and travel in ways that defied white societal attempts to keep Black people (especially freedpeople) tied to southern land, via vagrancy laws.[12] Furthermore, Gray’s actions where demands of his American citizenship and humanity and not his former status as an enslaved man.[13] His wanderlust, a quality sometimes attributed to white veterans, influenced his continued exploration of the world as a free man, this time making way westward to California.[14] However, rather than look towards the Pacific Ocean as the end of his journey, Gray boarded a ship and first headed to the independent state of Hawaii and later reached Australia. Unfortunately, Gray never discussed his time in Hawaii. Still, by visiting the independent nation, a freeman symbolically declared his independence as he visited Hawaii. Gray resided in the Land Down Under for two years while working as a sheepherder. Eventually, Gray returned to the U.S., making his way back to Tennessee in 1869.

The life of Jasper Gray is unique from most USCT veterans, and arguably many African Americans in general, at the time. Nevertheless, he is a compelling case study of a man who, using physical movements, refashioned himself across multiple states and nations on his terms. On land and sea, Gray made people witness his demands and demonstrations of citizenship—in and outside of the military. He was not a politician, skilled orator, or an entrepreneur. However, he was a freedman with a level of mobility that gave him agency over his life, even as racial discrimination continually attempted to stop him.

[1] 1906 Deposition of Oscar Nelson, in Jasper Gray’s pension file. Thirty-First USCI. National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. (hereafter pension file.)

[2] See Chandra Manning, Troubled Refuge: Struggling For Freedom in the Civil War (New York: Vintage Books, 2017).

[3] See Heather A. Williams, Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016

[4] This piece heavily leans on the collective scholarship of historians W.E.B. Du Bois, Manisha Sinha, Robin D.G. Kelley, and Steven Hahn to argue that Jasper Gray’s political emancipation from bondage and postbellum racial hierarchies becomes clearer. See W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (1935; New York: The Free Press, 1999); Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017); Robin D. G. Kelley, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (New York: The Free Press, 1996); and Steven Hahn, A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005).

[5] Joseph P. Reidy, Illusions of Emancipation: The Pursuit of Freedom and Equality in the Twillight of Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019); Amy Murrell Taylor, Embattled Freedom: Journeys Through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

[6] 1895 Deposition of R.F. Boyd, in Jasper Gray’s pension file.

[7] See Manning, Troubled Refuge.

[8] See Paul D. Quigley, The Civil War and the Transformation of American Citizenship (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2018).

[9] Adam H. Domby, The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2020).

[10] After the Thirty-First USCI departed New York, the regiment stayed in the Eastern Theater, mainly in Virginia, until May 1865. From May 1864 to May 1865, the regiment took part in the Battle of Cold Harbor; siege operations at Petersburg and Richmond; military operations at Fort Sedgewick, Hatcher’s Run, and Weldon Railroad; and the pursuit of Confederate General Robert E. Lee to Appomattox Court House. Afterward, the regiment remained in Texas until November of 1865.

[11] 1895 Deposition of Jasper Gray, in Jasper Gray’s pension file.

[12] See Elizabeth Stoudeur Pryor, Colored Travelers: Mobility and the Fight for Citizenship Before the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of Chapel Hill Press, 2016).

[13] See Martha Jones, Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

[14] See Paul A. Cimbala, Veterans North and South: The Transition from Soldier to Civilian after the Civil War (Santa Barbara: Prager, 2015).

Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr.

Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr. is an Assistant Professor of History at Furman University. He received his bachelor’s degree (2008) from the University of Central Florida. Later, he earned his master’s degree (2010) and doctoral degree (2017) from the University of Iowa. His research focuses on the intersectionality of race, gender, and class in the military from 1850 through the 1930s. His monograph, The Families’ Civil War, is forthcoming June 2022 with the University of Georgia Press in the UnCivil Wars Series.  You can find him on Twitter at @PHUsct.

One Reply to ““I remember that Jasper Gray told me that he had herded sheep in Australia””

  1. Fascinating man and study of him. Makes one think differently about the postwar and post-slavery diaspora.

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