Photography has been very important in history and has greatly influenced the way society recorded and responded to social issues. Mass production and wide distribution of images was a major help to the abolitionist movement. In the Civil War years, photography made heroes out of the lead politicians as well as the military officers preserved the memory of sites in which the war raged, and remarkably during that time, exposed the violence and deadliness of the battles involving the Union and the Confederate forces. Most importantly, photography also played a major role in the broadening of national debate on slavery.
Just as confirmed by the famous photograph, Scars of Slavery, photography made it possible to communicate of powerful ideas relating to the aptly-named peculiar institution. These influential ideas about slavery ultimately weakened and destabilized the established view then, that slavery was a benevolent institution. Many of the people coming across the image were to note that the part of the extraordinary influence of the image was the dignity of the man in it. He had posed his expression almost being indifferent and this is what many found remarkable. It was as if he was telling them certain facts.
One of the most significant photographic pictures was of the runaway slave widely known as Peter but also called Gordon. The iconic photograph picture by two journeying photographers, William D. McPherson with his colleague, Mr. Oliver exposed the slave Gordon’s scourged back through the camera. The terribly scourged back was the result of Gordon receiving a very brutal whipping from a plantation overseer for unrevealed reasons during the fall of 1862. This severe whipping left Gordon with horrific wounds on most of his back. The owner of the plantation where Gordon had been assaulted ultimately discharged the cruel overseer who carried out the violent attack, for the next two months but as he was recuperating in bed over next two months, Gordon made the decision to escape.
Gordon fled from home in March 1863, and headed east towards the Mississippi River. On realizing about his escape, Gordon’s master enlisted a number of neighbors with whom he pursued him with the help of the pack of bloodhounds. Because Gordon had rightly expected that his slave masters would definitely come looking after him, he had taken onions which he rubbed on his clothes and body so as to throw search dogs off his scent. This resourcefulness helped Gordon immensely and with almost no clothes on his body and himself dirty and muddied, he reached the safety at the station of Union soldiers at Baton Rouge ten days after escape and he was ultimately enlisted into the Union Army.
President Lincoln had permitted African Americans to be in service through segregated units a few months earlier and at the forefront of a movement which ultimately involved almost 200,000 African Americans, was Gordon the scarred former slave. It was in the course of the routine medical examination before enlisting into the army that the military doctors encountered the immense scarring on Gordon’s back. McPherson and Oliver had then been in the same camp, and Gordon was requested to pose for the historic picture which was to reveal the cruel handling he had received at the hands of his masters.
The photograph was ultimately produced in large numbers and copies of Gordon’s portrait were sold in the small format referred to as the carte-de-visite that was popular during that time. The picture elicited immediate reaction and responses as copies of the image were widely and quickly circulated. Samuel K. Towle, a surgeon in the 30th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteers stationed at Baton Rouge, sent the Surgeon-General of the State of Massachusetts a copy of the photograph. In a letter accompanying the picture, he was to write that not many sensational writers had ever illustrated such worse punishment as what Gordon had received but also noted, though that nothing in Gordon’s manner indicated any unusual viciousness.
On the contrary, Samuel K. Towle observed that Gordon seemed both intelligent and well-mannered. In a matter of months, commercial photographers from London, New York, Philadelphia as well as Boston were supplying the picture on their various studio mounts. One particularly famous copy was produced by the well known Mathew Brady, the New York portrait photographer. Recognized as a powerful condemnation of slavery, Peter’s or Gordon’s portrait represented overwhelming evidence for the abolitionist campaign. The photograph told a powerful story in a manner that not even authors could approach as it told a visual story that was worth thousands of words. The proponents of Abolition leaders including William Lloyd Garrison often made reference to this important photograph many times in their work.
The image with many of the articles that in many of the instance accompanied the image was a clear revelation of the brutal and vicious nature of slavery as well the tormenting experience that the slaves went through. However for Peter or Gordon, this cruelty turned him into a representation of courage and patriotism and his example also encouraged many African Americans to enlist and fight against the confederates. There have been no other or records to indicate what happened to Gordon however, his famous photo lives on as a permanent testament of the brutality and injustice of slavery as well as the resilience demonstrated by many African Americans during the period.