Gordon, aka ‘Whipped Peter’: His Life and Daring Escape to Freedom
In 1863, one man’s daring escape from a nightmarish situation on a Louisiana plantation brought him together with the Union Army that was in a fierce and bloody war against the Confederacy. The man was Gordon, known today as ‘Whipped Peter’. He was a Black slave who had run more than 40 miles in less than 10 days just so he could escape the hellish conditions he’d endured all his life.
And just as Gordon was beginning to get used to his newfound freedom, fighting for the cause of anti-slavery Union forces, his nightmare began all over again when he was captured by Confederate forces.
But Gordon did not let his slavers have the last laugh; he fought very hard to stay alive and gain his freedom. How did he do so? And how did his story inspire people, especially free blacks, to enlist in the Union Army?
In the article below, World History Edu dives into the life and daring escape of Gordon, the Black slave who came to be known as ‘Whipped Peter’. Please note that the article contains some very horrific photos of Gordon’s scars. Viewers and readers discretion advised.
The brutality Gordon suffered at the Louisiana plantation
To this day, the early life and family background of Gordon remain a bit unclear. The reason for this is simple: slave owners rarely paid any particular attention to documenting the family history of the people they considered inferior human beings – i.e. chattels. This practice was particularly common among ruthless slave owners. Gordon happened to be on one of the plantations of such awful slave owners in Louisiana.
It is said that the plantation where Gordon toiled and broke his back was owned by John and Bridget Lyons. He served them for more than four decades, enduring all kinds of inhumane punishments and abuse.
The Lyons’ plantation was situated on the west side of the Atchafalaya River in St. Landry Parish. Established some time around 1807, St. Landry Parish originally emerged from a French settlement in an area largely dominated by the Opelousa Indians.
His daring escape from a Louisiana plantation to freedom
According to Gordon’s account of his daring escape, he smeared onions all over his body so as to mask his scent. Often times, escaped slaves were easily apprehended by their slave masters because they used bloodhounds that easily picked the runaway slave’s smell. Now, Gordon was fully aware that his masters would send a pack of ferocious bloodhounds after him.
Therefore, the only way to put those vicious dogs off his trail was to use onions. He also stated that he filled his pockets with onions.
In total, he covered more than 64 kilometers (roughly 40 miles) in 10 days. And he did all of that barefooted.
His ordeal only ended when he managed to make his way to the camp of Union soldiers of the XIX Corps stationed in Baton Rouge. The clothes on his back were ragged. Safe to say that those things were the least of his concerns as he had endured far worse things on the plantation.
In any case, Union soldiers quickly tended to him, offering him food and shelter.
After regaining his strength, he allowed war photographers William D. McPherson and his colleague Mr. Oliver take photographs of his back.
The sight of his back sent everyone in the camp into shock. Gordon’s back showed huge scars from all the decades of whipping he suffered at the hands of his masters at the Lyons’ plantation.
As Union medics and photographers examined him, Gordon, in a very calm demeanor, narrated his story. The Union doctors in the camp stated that they were taken aback by just how calm Gordon was, with one surgeon stating, in the usual stereotypical manner of the time, that Gordon seemed “intelligent and well-behaved”.
Time in the Union Army during the American Civil War
Perhaps out of gratitude for the hospitality Union Army gave him, Gordon enlisted in the army to fight against the Confederacy. Never in his life had he been treated as a human being. Therefore, it made a lot of sense that he offers his services to a group of people who were fighting in some way to bring an end to slavery.
Gordon is said to have joined the Union Army around April 1863, about three months after then-US President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which freed all enslaved African Americans in the secessionist Confederate states. With his legal status changed, Gordon and the almost 3.5 million enslaved African Americans in Confederate states.
READ MORE: Greatest Accomplishments of Abraham Lincoln
Did you know…?
According to the 1860 United States census, the total population of the country was 31,443,322. This included 3,953,762 slaves.
Gordon is captured by Confederate soldiers
Gordon served with all his heart as a guide in the Union Army. During one expedition, he was unfortunately taken prisoner by the Confederates.
It was often the case that Confederate soldiers felt an extra bit of hatred towards African Americans that fought in the Union Army. Many of them had a hard time coming to terms with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation that freed enslaved African Americans in the confederate States.
Therefore, when Gordon was captured, it did not come as a huge surprise that some his captors believed that they were entitled to have their pound of flesh. Believe it or not, there were some Southern slave owners that viewed the abolitionist movement as an evil entity that was bent on robbing them off their possessions – i.e. their slaves.
Gordon was beaten to a pulp by his captors. He was then left for dead. Once again, fate smiled on him, and he survived. Bruised from head to toe, he managed to crawl his way back to Union lines and got the needed medical attention.
The Siege of Port Hudson in May 1863
After recuperating, Gordon offered his service to the Union Army – this time around, he enlisted in a U.S. Colored Troops unit of the Union Army.
Hardened to the core by all those predicaments that he had gone through, Gordon distinguished himself in battle, especially during the Siege of Port Hudson in May 1863. The 48-day siege, which was led by Union General Nathaniel P. Banks, ended in a victory for Union forces as Confederate General Franklin Gardner surrendered the port. Subsequently, the Union Army gained control of the Mississippi River.
Photo of Gordon’s lashed and permanently scourged back makes the headlines
A few days after the Union’s victory at Port Hudson, photos of Gordon’s scourged back appeared in an article by Harper’s Weekly.
If there was any person in the North that denied the horrors of slavery at the time, then the New York City-based journal did indeed convince the person.
What the newspaper article did was to bring to forefront the nightmarish conditions enslaved African Americans, especially those in the South, faced on a daily basis. It added to the mounting evidence stacked against slave owners and the whole institution of slavery.
As Harper’s Weekly was at the time the most widely read journal in the country, the article on Gordon went a long way in convincing many free blacks to enlist in the Union Army.
Did you know…?
The 2022 American historical action thriller film Emancipation, which stars American actors Will Smith and Ben Foster, was based on Gordon’s escape. The film was directed by American filmmaker Antoine Fuqua.
How Gordon’s ordeal galvanized white Northerners to rally against slavery
Gordon’s story was indeed shocking; however, the surgeons that attended to Gordon at the camp noted that they encountered quite a number of such cases on a daily basis. So, what made Gordon’s story capture the attention of the whole nation?
It comes down to one important thing: photography. Prior to coming of photography, abolitionists struggled when it came to communicating the real plight slaves faced in America. The photos of Gordon’s scarred back advanced the cause of abolitionist in a massive way. The photos appeared in many newspapers.
Reaction from the Abolitionist movement
Abolitionists encouraged newspapers editors to publish more of such stories – stories with visual evidence that showed the brutal treatment of enslave people in the country.
Renowned American newspaper editor and abolitionist Theodore Tilton wholeheartedly believed that the photo of Gordon’s scourged back would make Northern men and women “move heaven and earth” in order to abolish slavery. There was the urgent need among Northerners to bring an end to slavery and give African Americans their dignity.
Answers to popular questions about Gordon, aka ‘Whipped Peter’
Why was Whipped Peter’s story picked up by the newspapers?
For his daring escape to freedom, Gordon became a talked about person among Union forces. It simply had to do with the ingenuity he used in delivering himself out of his cruel masters in Louisiana. Gordon told the newspapers that he rubbed onions all over his body so that he could cover his scent and lead the bloodhounds off. He also carried in his pocket onion just for extra measure. His technique worked, and for more than 40 miles, he managed to stay from the reach of his pursuers.
Secondly, the newspapers were fully aware that there would certainly be a huge public outrage when people viewed photos of the extensive back scars that were left on Gordon after his overseers whipped him almost to death. It’s safe to say that when one looks up the definition of nightmare in dictionary, the scars on Gordon’s back pop up. Even for the mid-19th century standard, those photos were nothing short of horrific. Gordon’s story was picked up by members of the abolitionist movement in order to drum home their message: Slavery is evil.
The photo of the physical abuse endured by Gordon became the most infamous photo of the Civil War era. It was up there with photos like that of Wilson Chinn, who like Gordon, suffered unimaginable ordeal at the hands of his masters in Louisiana.
What impact did photography as a medium have on spreading the story of Gordon?
The coming of photography undoubtedly did a lot to get the story of Gordon’s ordeal, as well as the horror stories of millions other slaves, to the public. Photos in so many ways provided hard evidence of the plight of enslaved African Americans.
Often times, the photos of wounds of escaped slaves were circulated as carte-de-viste, a newly introduced photographic format that was cheap to produce as they were made of small cards.
Disturbing as some of those photos are, they were absolutely to rally the entire nation against slavery. So, in a way, photography did change the course of our nation’s history.
Why was he called ‘Whipped Peter’?
“Whipped Peter” refers to an enslaved man named Gordon, who was subjected to severe physical punishment as a slave. He became known as “Whipped Peter” due to the scars on his back caused by the brutal whippings he endured.
What role did the photo of Gordon’s scarred back play in the nation’s history?
The photographs of Whipped Peter’s scars brought widespread attention to the physical abuse suffered by enslaved people and helped to galvanize public opinion against slavery. His story serves as a somber reminder of the inhumane treatment endured by countless enslaved individuals during this dark period in history.
Was there anyone that doubted the authenticity of the photo?
Basically, when photos of the horrific wounds of Gordon began to circulate in the North and beyond, individuals and organizations that sat on the fence when it came to the issue of slavery hopped on the side of the Northern cause.
As expected, there were quite a number of organizations in the South that called out the photo as a fake.
What is even more interesting is that there were a few organizations in the North that doubted the photo. The Copperheads called out the photo as a fake. Bear in mind, the Copperheads was a North-based organization that were infamous for their slight sympathetic stance towards the South and its institution of slavery. The group was also opposed to the Civil War.
What happened to Peter after the Civil War?
It is unclear what Peter did with his life after the war.
History of St. Landry Parish, Louisiana
Before European colonization, the area that is now St. Landry Parish was inhabited by Native American tribes, including the Attakapas and Opelousas tribes. These indigenous peoples lived off the land, relying on hunting, fishing, and agriculture for sustenance.
French trader Michel de Birotte is said to be the first European to venture into the Opelousa Indian territory. His first trip was around 1690, and just less than a decade later, the area of what is today’s the state of Louisiana became a French colony. Other French explorers, such as Antoine Simon Le Page du Pratz, explored the Opelousas Prairie and established relations with the local Native American tribes. French settlers gradually started to establish farms and plantations in the area.
In time, the place became a major trading post. It was populated by French soldiers and settlers that had received land grants.
Around the early 1740s, some French settlers began introducing enslaved Africans as the volume of trade with the Opelousa Indians increased. It is said the merchants Joseph Blainpain and Jean Joseph LeKintrek were the first French settlers to do this. They first brought three enslaved Africans.
Following the French and Indian War, the area came under Spanish control in 1763. The Spanish government encouraged Acadian exiles, who had been displaced from Canada during the Great Expulsion (Le Grand Dérangement), to settle in the region. Acadian families brought their unique culture and agricultural practices to St. Landry Parish, shaping its cultural landscape.
The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 brought the area under American control. St. Landry Parish officially became a parish in 1807, named after the Catholic Church’s patron saint, St. Landry. The region experienced a rapid growth of the plantation economy based on cotton and sugarcane production, with large plantations worked by enslaved African Americans.
The Civil War had a significant impact on St. Landry Parish. Many residents fought in the war, and the region experienced both Union and Confederate occupation at different times. After the war, during the Reconstruction era, efforts were made to establish civil rights for formerly enslaved individuals and to rebuild the local economy.
What is St. Landry Parish, Louisiana like today?
St. Landry Parish has a diverse cultural and religious heritage. Alongside the French and Acadian influences, immigrants from Germany, Ireland, and other European countries settled in the area. Catholicism became a dominant religion, with numerous churches and religious traditions still thriving today. St. Landry Parish is known for its vibrant Zydeco and Cajun music traditions, reflecting the area’s cultural diversity.
Today, St. Landry Parish is a mix of rural and urban communities. Its rich history, cultural heritage, and natural beauty make it an important part of Louisiana’s overall historical and cultural tapestry.