Gordon, also known as “Whipped Peter,” was a former enslaved man who became famous for being the subject of photographs that revealed the extensive scarring on his back from the brutal whippings he endured during slavery. These haunting images became one of the most widely circulated photos of the abolitionist movement during the American Civil War and remains one of the most infamous photos of that era.
Gordon was an enslaved man who worked on a plantation in Louisiana during the 1860s. In the fall of 1862, he was subjected to a severe whipping for reasons that remain unknown. The beating left his back covered in appalling welts and scars, a testament to the extreme violence that enslaved people faced under the system of slavery.
The trauma inflicted on Gordon was so severe that he spent two months bedridden, enduring excruciating pain. However, this brutal treatment only strengthened his resolve to escape the bonds of slavery. In March 1863, after months of recovery, he decided to take matters into his own hands and flee from the plantation.
Gordon’s escape was daring and resourceful. To avoid capture by Negro Dogs, he rubbed his body with onions, cleverly masking his scent. Over the course of ten days, he traversed more than 40 miles until he reached a Union Army encampment in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Upon arriving at the Union encampment, Gordon chose to enlist in the Union Army, taking advantage of President Lincoln’s recent decision to allow African Americans to serve in segregated units. However, it was during his medical examination that his story gained widespread attention. The military doctors were appalled by the extent of the scars on his back and recognized the significance of documenting this evidence.
Upon meeting Gordon, a camp Surgeon anticipated encountering a vicious and broken man due to the horrors he had endured. However, to his surprise, he found Gordon to be intelligent and well-behaved. Deeply moved by the encounter, the surgeon wrote a letter to his brother, attaching a photograph of Peter’s scarred back. In the letter, he made a request, urging his brother to share the image with anyone who dared to speak of the supposed humane treatment of slaves.
Camp photographers captured the horrifying images of Gordon’s back, which would go on to become one of the most iconic symbols of the abolitionist movement. These pictures were published in “Harper’s Weekly,” a widely read journal during the Civil War, and they evoked strong reactions among Northerners. The visual evidence of the brutal treatment endured by enslaved individuals fueled the determination to fight against slavery and sparked a renewed fervor in the fight for abolition.
Gordon’s image inspired many free blacks to join the Union Army, as they sought to fight for their own freedom and the liberation of others still in bondage.
Gordon himself joined the Union Army as a guide, and later as a soldier in a U.S. Colored Troops Civil War unit. Gordon’s bravery and service were recognized, and he even fought as a sergeant in the Louisiana Native Guard during the Siege of Port Hudson in May 1863, marking a significant milestone in history as African-American soldiers played a leading role in a military assault for the first time.
However, the fate of Gordon after this period remains unknown, as there are no further records detailing his life beyond this point. Nevertheless, his powerful image continues to serve as an evocative testament to the resilience and strength displayed by countless African Americans during the era of slavery.
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