Following a severe whipping in the fall of 1862, Gordon, known as “Whipped Peter” an enslaved man, was left with horrific scars on his back. For the next two months as he recuperated, he planned to escape.
In March 1863, he fled. Upon learning of his escape, his owner recruited other men and together they chased after him with a pack of bloodhounds. Gordon rubbed onions on his body to throw the dogs off, reaching the safety of Union soldiers stationed at Baton Rouge 10 days later. He had traveled over 80 miles.
As a result, Gordon decided to enlist in the Union Army. President Abraham Lincoln had granted enslaved Africans the opportunity to serve in segregated units only months earlier, and Gordon was at the front of a movement that would ultimately involve nearly 200,000 Blacks.
During his medical examination prior to being enlisted, military doctors discovered the extensive scars on his back. He was asked to pose for a picture showing the scars. Mass-produced and sold, the photo provoked an immediate response as copies circulated quickly and widely. Gordon’s portrait was presented as the latest evidence in the abolitionist campaign.
An unidentified writer for the New York Independent wrote, “This Card Photograph should be multiplied by 100,000, and scattered over the States. It tells the story in a way that even Harriet Beeche Stowe can not approach, because it tells the story to the eye.” On July 4, 1863 Harper’s Weekly reproduced the image as a wood engraving with the article, “A Typical Negro.” Two other portraits of Gordon, one as he entered our lines, and the other in his uniform as a US soldier, were also included.
These three images transformed Gordon into a symbol of the courage and patriotism of Blacks. His example also inspired many free Blacks in the North to enlist.
@thedayafter2016 By Rani Whitfield, MD