Anyone who has studied any black history has seen the picture of Peter Gordon, although few knew his name. It is Peter Gordon, also known as “Whipped Peter.” He became known as the subject of photographs documenting the extensive scarring of his back from whippings received in slavery. Abolitionists distributed these carte de visite photographs of Gordon throughout the United States and internationally to show the abuses of slavery. Carte de visite is the name of the type of photograph.
Gordon escaped in March 1863 from the 3,000-acre plantation of John and Bridget Lyons, who owned him and nearly forty other slaves at the time of the 1860 census. The Lyons plantation was located along the west bank of the Atchafalaya River in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana. Gordon needed two months of bed rest after being whipped by Overseer Artayou Carrier. In 1863 after months of recuperation from being whipped, Gordon made his escape. Upon learning of his escape, Lyon’s organized with a group of neighbors to find Gordon and re-enslave him. In order to mask his scent from the bloodhounds that 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 with these onions in order to throw the dogs off his scent. He fled over 40 miles over the course of ten days before reaching Union soldiers who were stationed in Baton Rouge.
Upon arrival at the Union camp, Gordon underwent a medical examination on April 2, 1863, which revealed severe keloid scars from several whippings. Itinerant photographers William D. McPherson and his partner Mr. Oliver, who were in camp at the time, produced carte de visite photos of Gordon showing his back. During the 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. 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 anyone. My master’s Capt. JOHN LYON, cotton planter, on Atchafalya, near Washington, Louisiana. Whipped two months before Christmas.”
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’s unclear what Peter did during the rest of the war, or what his life was like after the Civil War came to an end. There is even some confusion as to his name. He was arbitrarily identified as “Gordon” in many newspapers of the day. The same as many of those who bore the scars of the sadistic slave master and his evil overseer, Gordon vanished into history like the millions of tortured and beaten African slaves before him. But he revealed to the world the true face of slavery in all its terrible abominations and we cry to this very day. Peter “Whipped Peter” Gordon died July 20, 1907. His burial place is unknown.