March 20th, 2009
“This Card Photograph should be multiplied by 100,000, and scattered over the States. It tells the story in a way that even Mrs. [Harriet Beecher] Stowe [author of the 1852 book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin] can not approach, because it tells the story to the eye,” according to a writer for the New York Independent.
The photograph shows the brutal and permanent scars of slavery. Runaway slave Gordon’s exposed back is photographed, revealing horrific welts from physical abuse. Photographers, William D. McPherson and his partner Mr. Oliver from the Mathew Brady studio capture this powerful image in 1863.
Months after the vicious attack, Gordon escaped. Ten days and eighty miles later, he arrived at the Union Camp in Baton Rouge and enlisted in the Army. During his medical examination, the doctors saw the scarring. The photographers were at the camp and took the photos to brand a visual image in viewers’ minds, as the violence of slavery had branded Private Gordon.
This photograph took on a life of its own, being mass-produced and circulated widely throughout America and in London. This photograph along with two others turned Private Gordon into an African American icon of bravery and patriotism. Further, his story encouraged others to follow his brave example and enlist in the Union Army. The photograph is currently stored in the National Portrait Gallery.