The Incomplete Legacy of Gordon

By OckyDub | Posted Mar 26 2015 | 7 Comments  


I have seen this photo for most of my life. Sad to say I only learned of the man behind this gut wrenching image this year. Most of the features about him deal with the basics of who, when, what, where and how; however there were three things that captivated me beyond the overall escape from bondage of the general story.

In 1863 after months of recuperation from being whipped, Gordon (or Peter) made his escape. Gordon was a slave and the property of John Lyon. Lyon owned a 3000 acre plantation located on the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana. Gordon needed two months of bed rest after being whipped by Overseer Artayou Carrier. While bedridden, Gordon plotted his escape. Upon learning of his escape, Master Lyon organized with a group of neighbors to find Gordon and re-enslave him.

After crossing a creek or a swamp, Gordon would rub onions over his body to mask his scent from the bloodhounds. After 80 miles and 10 days of running for his freedom, he reached Baton Rouge where the Union’s 47th Massachusetts Infantry were stationed.

On April 2, 1863 Gordon underwent a medical examination at the Union camp  that revealed thick scars that crisscrossed his back. These grotesque scars were the result of numerous whippings he received as a slave.

There were two New Orleans-based photographers at the camp at the time and produced a carte de visite portrait of Gordon showing the mass of welts and ridges covering his back. The portrait of Gordon by William D. McPherson and his partner Mr. Oliver went on to be mass produced and appeared in Harper’s Weekly Journal, which extensively covered the American Civil War. Gordon’s portrait still continues to cause troublesome pause over a century later.

As stated earlier there are three things upon reading about Gordon that have me intrigued. First are the words from a clipping in The Liberator in June 1863. The full clipping is below but I will point out the last portion by the surgeon of the First Louisiana Colored Regiment, writing to his brother:

“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; but it may be new to you. If you know of anyone who talks about the humane manner in which the slaves are treated, please show them this picture. It is a lecture in itself.”


Even after seeing hundreds of black men in similar conditions, the surgeon knows that many outside of the south are not aware of the conditions and treatment slaves endure. It’s as though he has attempted to tell others (possibly in Boston-The Liberators home base) of the sights he has witnessed but finally he has visual proof to back up his claims. Now he can share photographic evidence of healed lacerations from merciless whippings produced upon slaves.

The second thing that intrigued me was the first hand recollection that Gordon told of his experiences when he arrived that the Union regiment camp:

“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.”

He said he was whipped two months before Christmas (October 1862). He made his 10 day escape in March 1863 (guessing) and received his medical exam in April 1863. I’m drawing attention to this time span to coincide with Gordon’s above statement to say, its more than possible enslavement, the whippings he endured in addition to the emotional torment of being on the run for 10 days; may have caused Gordon to suffer some psychotic mental ailments and or stress disorders.

Some of his “not remembering” could be contributed to possible infection and fever as a result of the whippings but 5 months is a long time to not fully remember the previous 6-7 months. Of course this is just my theory. I’m sure Gordon suffered from PTSD before and after enlisting in the Colored Troops Civil War Unit in the XIX Corps.

How was the trauma of all that encompasses slavery dealt with by the masses of black slaves throughout America? How did it impact post emancipation black societies and communities of those who were a couple of years or a couple of decades removed from bondage? Was or is there still a lasting effect?

The third and saddest part of this piece of American history is who really was Gordon? Did he even have a last name? All we know about him is that he was whipped in October 1862, escaped in 1863, joined the Colored Troops, was a Sergeant in the 2nd Louisiana Regiment Infantry, fought bravely during the Siege of Port Hudson in May 1863 and that’s it.

This brave, stoic man who escaped the horrors of slavery and went to war, has no end story. What was his real age? Did he survive the Civil War? If so, does he have any descendants pre or post enslavement? It’s as if without his portrait, we would have never known he existed.

One can only wonder how many men like Gordon have evaporated into oblivion, with their songs never heard?



About the Author

Octavius is a founder and editor of Cypher Avenue. He's here to help speak for us and show the world that masculine gay / bisexual men of color are not a part of the stereotypical gay normal that is seen and fed to the masses. No...we are a distinct breed, filled with character and pride. Cypher Avenue is here to show the world how we are different.

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7 Comments Feel Free To Join The Cypher.

  1. John | March 27th, 2015


  2. Ishmal
    Ishmal | March 27th, 2015

    A friend of mine, who has a PHD in public policy, calls this historical trauma and says there are some studies that suggest that the overall trauma and effect of slavery is the root of some of the issue within the black community today.

  3. se711 | March 28th, 2015

    For a majority, I think it pushed them to do more for themselves and their communities. To have their own. Despite everything they had to go through, now they could do for themselves; find and raise their families, learn to read, own land. Rosewood was mentioned not too long ago on here, and there were also ex-slaves who bought abandoned slave owners land in South Carolina during the Civil War.

    But in those cases, along with others, those towns and communities they built were destroyed or they were forced to leave. So with those outcomes, I think that affected some the members of those communities’ thoughts on who to really trust, is it worth it to create something great for them just for it to be destroyed, and other doubting or negative thoughts. And I feel it’s those thoughts that got passed down to the present-or are at least permeated-and why some in the community haven’t seemed to do much or criticize the ones that are trying.

    In that same token, after “emancipation,” blacks were still treated poorly, had laws set up against them, in turn affected and assisted in the closing of the Freemen’s Bureau, and by 1900 the blacks that held political office in the south, no longer did; Systemic issues. So looking at that and going forward 50-60 years there’s the Civil Rights Movement. Still facing some of the same issues. And go 50 years from there and we’re here today, and there sure enough is still systemic issues and racism. May not always be as blatant like it was, but it’s there. So yes, there is still a lasting effect.

    It’s stories like Gordon’s that make me enjoy family history. Finding lost stories of all types.

  4. NickAuzenneNOLA
    NickAuzenne | April 9th, 2015

    As a guy from New Orleans I grew up learning about the story behind this image and my grandmother even had a book that EBONY put out in the late 60s early 70s about what they called “negro” history and it had various images and this image was printed with a short excerpt and I dont think I’d ever forget that moment as a young guy.

    • Aloysius Senu | April 23rd, 2017

      Please why was he whipped

  5. Aloysius Senu | April 23rd, 2017

    Why was he whipped?

  6. Gordon | November 27th, 2017

    He was whipped for daring to parrot his master’s style of speech, which combined with pain-induced blackouts, made for the slaver’s worst nightmare: an intellectual well-behaved slave.

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