His photograph displaying scars stunned Americans in the north and still evokes a peculiar sadness regarding human cruelty.
Gordon also known as “Whipped Peter” was photographed at a union camp upon escaping slavery in the south.
Gordon escaped from a Louisiana plantation owned by John and Bridget Lyons in March 1863. The Lyons plantation was located along the west bank of the Atchafalaya River in St. Landry Parish, between present-day Melville and Krotz Springs, Louisiana. The pair owned nearly 40 other slaves at the time of the 1860 census.
According to Gordon himself, it was the overseer of the plantation Artayou Carrier who whipped him causing the lacerations on his back. They were so severe that he had to be bedridden for two months to heal. He added when his master John Lyons became aware of the beating for which offense we cannot tell, he sacked the overseer. But Gordon had already purposed to flee.
“Ten days from to-day I left the plantation”, he told the black union soldiers he saw when he crossed over.
Gordon and his companions under the cover of darkness made a dash for freedom crossing swamps, being chased by bloodhounds and slave catchers. To outwit them, Gordon rubbed his body with onions he carried along to throw the dogs off his scent.
Before reaching Union soldiers of the XIX Corps who were stationed in Baton Rouge, Gordon and his party had fled over 40 miles (64 km) over the 10-day journey.
Gordon’s picture documenting the torture inflicted on enslaved by their owners were widely circulated during the Civil War as anti-slavery propaganda. The photo was extensively reproduced and helped to turn public opinion against slavery. The American Civil War was the first conflict in which photography played a major role.
The famous anti-slavery image is attributed to McPherson and Oliver of New Orleans. It was published on July 4, 1863, in Harper’s Weekly particularly stunning northerners about slavery’s cruel practices. The Weekly was the most widely read journal during the Civil War.
It was when Gordon decided to enlist in the Union Army and being examined that the officers saw his back “furrowed and scarred with the traces of a whipping administered on Christmas Day last.”
Meanwhile, the photograph of Gordon’s scars took on a life of its own as a weapon of the abolitionists. It was reproduced and sold in the carte-de-visite form by C. Seaver of Boston; by McAllister of Philadelphia, who first titled it “The Scourged Back”; and by other American photographers, including Mathew Brady.
On the back of the British version were printed remarks from newspapers, including this from The New York Independent: “This Card Photograph should be multiplied by the 100,000, and scattered over the States.”
Gordon’s disfigured back helped bring the stakes of the Civil War to life, contradicting Southerners’ insistence that their slaveholding 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 enrollment 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.
Gordon soon afterwards 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.
Gordon like Wilson Chinn’s photos serves as two of the earliest and most dramatic examples of how the newborn medium of photography helped change the course of history.