Gordon (slave)

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Gordon, scourged back, colored slide 2.png
Antique colored slide of Gordon during his 1863 medical examination
Other names Peter. Gordon is possibly a surname[1]
Known for Pivotal figure in exposing the brutality of slavery

Gordon or Peter was a slave on a St. Landry Parish, Louisiana plantation[2] who made his escape from bondage in March 1863. The carte de visite images showing Gordon's flagellation scars were frequently used by abolitionists throughout the United States and internationally,[3] providing visual evidence of the brutality of slavery.


In order to foil the scent of the bloodhounds who were chasing him, Gordon took onions from his plantation, which he carried in his pockets. After crossing each creek or swamp, he rubbed his body freely with these onions in order to throw the dogs off his scent. He fled over 80 miles (130 km) over the course of ten days before reaching Union soldiers who were stationed in Baton Rouge.[4]

Arrival at Union Camp[edit]

Upon arrival at the Union camp, Gordon underwent a medical examination which revealed severe keloid scars from several whippings. During the April 2, 1863 examination, Gordon is quoted as saying "Ten days from to-day I left the plantation. Overseer Artayou Carrier whipped me. I was two months in bed sore from the whipping. My master come after I was whipped; he discharged the overseer."[5] My master was not present. I don't remember the whipping. I was two months in bed sore from the whipping and my sense began to come - I was sort of crazy. I tried to shoot everybody. They said so, I did not know. I did not know that I had attempted to shoot everyone; they told me so. I burned up all my clothes; but I don't remember that. I never was this way (crazy) before. I don't know what make me come that way (crazy). My master come after I was whipped; saw me in bed; he discharged the overseer. They told me I attempted to shoot my wife the first one; I did not shoot any one; I did not harm any one. My master's Capt. JOHN LYON,[6] cotton planter, on Atchafalya, near Washington, LA. Whipped two months before Christmas."[7]

Colored Troops[edit]

Gordon served the Union troops as a guide, and on one expedition was taken prisoner by the rebels, who, infuriated beyond measure, tied him up and beat him, leaving him for dead. He survived, however, and once more made his escape to Union lines. Gordon soon afterwards enlisted in a Colored Troops Civil War unit, and was said to have fought bravely in the Union assault on Port Hudson in May 1863, the first time that African-American soldiers played a leading role in an assault.[8]


The Atlantic's editor-in-chief James Bennet noted "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.'"[9]

There has lately come to us, from Baton Rouge, the photograph of a former slave--now, thanks to the Union army, a freeman. It represents him in a sitting posture, his stalwart body bared to the waist, his fine head and intelligent face in profile, his left arm bent, resting upon his hip, and his naked back exposed to full fiew. Upon that back, horrible to contemplate! is a testimony against slavery more eloquent than any words. Scarred, gouged, gathered in great ridges, knotted, furrowed, the poor tortured flesh stands out a hideos record of the slave-driver's lash. Months have elapsed since the martyrdom was undergone, and the wounds have healed, but as long as the flesh lasts will this fearful impress remain. It is a touching picture, an appeal so mute and powerful that none but hardened natures can look upon it unmoved. However much men may depict false images, the sun will not lie. From such evidence as this there is no escape, and to see is to believe. Many, therefore, desired a copy of the photograph, and from the original numerous copies have been taken.

The surgeon of the First Louisiana regiment, (colored,) writing to his brother in the city, encloses this photograph, with these words: -

"I send you the picture of a slave as he appears after a whipping. I have seen, during the period I have been inspecting men for my own and other regiments, hundreds of such sights--so they are not new to me; but it may be new to you. If you know of any one who talk abut the humane manner in which the slaves are treated, please show them this picture. It is a lecture in itself."

"Picture of a Slave". The Liberator (Boston, Massachusetts). 12 June 1863. p. 2. 


Gordon in 1863 after his escape from slavery
Upon arrival at Union camp 
Medical examination photo 
Medical examination photo 
In uniform 
Harper's Weekly 1863 article 
Title Page of an 1863 anti-slavery book 



  1. ^ Abruzzo, Margaret (Mar 29, 2011). Polemical Pain: Slavery, Cruelty, and the Rise of Humanitarianism. JHU Press. p. 309. ISBN 9781421401270. Retrieved 30 July 2014. 
  2. ^ http://historylink101.com/bw/American_Image/slides/4-j-IMG_1583.html
  3. ^ "The Scourged Slave's Back". The Liberator (Boston, Massachusetts). 4 September 1863. p. 3. Retrieved 25 August 2014 – via Newspapers.com.  open access publication - free to read
  4. ^ Harper's Weekly, July 4, 1863, p. 429.
  5. ^ Scars of Slavery, National Archives.
  6. ^ Lyons Shaw, Adonica. "Captain John lyons of st landry parish". 
  7. ^ http://historylink101.com/bw/American_Image/slides/4-j-IMG_1583.html
  8. ^ Shumard, Civil War Trust.
  9. ^ Norris 2011, NPR.


Further reading[edit]