How One Photograph Helped Change the Course of History in America
The man depicted in the above photograph was an escaped slave named Gordon who was popularly known as Whipped Peter. He fled from a Louisiana plantation in March 1863 to a Union encampment in Baton Rouge where he gained his freedom. The picture above depicts the torture and abuse inflicted on enslaved African Americans by their slave owners.
In July 1863, this image appeared in an article about Gordon published in Harper’s Weekly, the most widely read journal during the Civil War.
Gordon lived and worked at a 3,000 acre Louisiana plantation owned by John and Bridget Lyons in 1863. The Lyon plantation was located along the west bank of the Atchafalaya River in St Landry Parish, between present-day Melville and Krotz Springs, Louisiana. The couples owned forty slaves at the time of the 1860 census.
During his time in the Lyons’ plantations, Gordon didn’t only endure the indignity of slavery but also the brutal whipping that almost took his life. He was stuck in bed for two months healing from it. The harsh treatment did not only affect his physical body but his mind as well. It was told that he was “sort of crazy” to the point he had threatened to shoot his wife with a gun.
When the plantation owner, John Lyon, finally heard of what had happened, he went over to see Gordon in bed and later fired his overseer. However, by that time, Whipped Peter had already made up his mind to escape.
Gordon and three other slaves escaped the plantation one night. They crossed swamps all the while being chased by slave catchers and their bloodhounds. Unfortunately for one of the slaves, the bloodhound caught up with him and killed him. But the rest of the escapees took out onions from their pockets and rubbed them on their bodies to throw the bloodhounds off their scents.
Gordon and his group had fled over forty miles to the north over the course of ten days before reaching Union soldiers of the XIX Corps who were stationed in Baton Rouge. Joy filled their faces when they were greeted by black men in uniform and immediately, they enlisted in the Union Army.
During his examinations, white soldiers were horrified to see the wounds that were hidden behind the pile of dirty bandages. According to a witness:
“It sent a thrill of horror to every white person present, but the few Blacks who were waiting…paid but little attention to the sad spectacle, such terrible scenes being painfully familiar to them all.”
McPherson and his partner, Mr. Oliver, who were in the camp at the time, photographed Gordon’s back, and the photo was reproduced and distributed all over the country as a carte-de-visite. The small cards were cheap to produce and became wildly popular during the Civil War, providing a near-instant look at the war, and the people involved, as it unfolded.
“I have found a large number of the four hundred or so contrabands (people who had escaped slavery and were now protected by the Union Army) examined by me to be as badly lacerated as the specimen represented in the enclosed photograph,” — a report from J.W. Mercer, Asst. Surgeon 47th Massachusetts Volunteers, to Colonel L.B. Marsh, Camp Parapet in Louisiana.
“This Card Photograph should be multiplied by 100,000, and scattered over the States,” wrote an unknown journalist.
The photograph stood as proof that enslaved people were not treated humanely. It also helped bring the stakes of the civil war to life, contradicting the southerners’ insistence that their slave-holding was a matter of economic survival, not racism.
Gordon joined the Union Army as a guide three months after the Emancipation Proclamation allowed for the enrolment of freed slaves into the military forces. On one expedition, he was taken prisoner by the Confederates, they tied him up, beat him, and left him for dead. He survived and once more escaped to Union lines.
Afterward, he soon enlisted in a U.S. Colored Troops Civil War unit. He was said to have fought bravely as a sergeant in the Corps d’Afrique during the Siege of Port Hudson in May 1863. It was the first time that African-American soldiers played a leading role in an assault.
It’s unclear what Peter’s life was like after the Civil War. Even though slavery had been abolished, he and the others who had been subjugated, beaten, and demeaned during hundreds of years of slavery in America still carried the scars of slavery.
The Atlantic’s editor-in-chief James Bennet noted in 2011:
“Part of the incredible power of this image I think is the dignity of that man. He’s posing. His expression is almost indifferent. I just find that remarkable. He’s basically saying, ‘This is a fact.’”
The images of Gordon’s scarred back provided the Americans of the North visual evidence of the harsh treatment of enslaved people. The images also inspired many free African Americans to enroll in the Union Army.
Gordon's photos served as a dramatic example of how the new trendy medium of photography at that time, helped change the course of history.