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“A Typical Negro”: Gordon, Peter, Vincent Colyer, and the Story behind Slavery's Most Famous Photograph


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The image of the “scourged back” remains one of the most visually arresting depictions of slavery. Based on a photograph taken in Baton Rouge in April 1863 and later published in Harper's Weekly, it has become one of the most widely reprinted and recognizable images of American slavery. However, despite the image's ubiquity, we know relatively little about the image and the man featured in it. Most historians who have examined the image accept the narrative in the accompanying Harper's article as an accurate account of the subject's life and the image's origins. This article argues, however, that there is good evidence to suggest that the accompanying article was largely fabricated and much of what we think we know about “Gordon” may be inaccurate.
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“A Typical Negro”: Gordon, Peter,
Vincent Colyer, and the Story behind
Slavery's Most Famous Photograph
David Silkenata
a School of History, Classics, and Archaeology, University of
Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK
Published online: 08 Aug 2014.
To cite this article: David Silkenat (2014) “A Typical Negro”: Gordon, Peter, Vincent Colyer, and
the Story behind Slavery's Most Famous Photograph, American Nineteenth Century History, 15:2,
169-186, DOI: 10.1080/14664658.2014.939807
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A Typical Negro: Gordon, Peter, Vincent Colyer, and the Story
behind Slaverys Most Famous Photograph
David Silkenat*
School of History, Classics, and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK
(Received 29 January 2014; accepted 24 June 2014)
The image of the scourged backremains one of the most visually arresting
depictions of slavery. Based on a photograph taken in Baton Rouge in April 1863
and later published in Harpers Weekly, it has become one of the most widely
reprinted and recognizable images of American slavery. However, despite the
images ubiquity, we know relatively little about the image and the man featured
in it. Most historians who have examined the image accept the narrative in the
accompanying Harpersarticle as an accurate account of the subjects life and the
images origins. This article argues, however, that there is good evidence to suggest
that the accompanying article was largely fabricated and much of what we think
we know about Gordonmay be inaccurate.
Keywords: Civil War; photography; Vincent Colyer; slaves
The image of Gordon, his back scarred from whipping, remains one of the most
visually arresting depictions of slavery. Based on photographs taken in Baton Rouge
in April 1863, the image gained notoriety originally as a carte-de-visite (CDV), before
being published as an engraving in Harpers Weekly in a special Fourth of July issue
that same year. The image illustrated to the northern public and Union soldiers the
brutality of slavery. In the 150 years since the image was created, it has become one
of the most widely reprinted and recognizable images of American slavery, a
common fixture in textbooks, university lectures, museum displays, and document-
aries. However, despite the images ubiquity, we know relatively little about the image
and the man featured in it. Most historians who have examined the image have
accepted the narrative in the accompanying Harpersarticle as an accurate account of
the subjects life and the images origins. This article argues, however, that there is
good evidence to suggest that the accompanying article was largely fabricated and
much of what we think we know about Gordonmay be inaccurate.
As Carole Emberton has recently observed, the transition embodied in the
Gordontriptych played an important role in the redemptive narrative of the war.
It was a part of a larger genre of images that chronicled the transition from slave
to soldier, from bondsman to citizen. Gordonssuffering, the focal point of the
American Nineteenth Century History, 2014
Vol. 15, No. 2, 169186,
© 2014 Taylor & Francis
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triptych, helped to justify his assumption of the uniform and the rifle. For a public
uncertain about the merits of African American as soldiers, the redemptive nature
of the image helped to justify the enlistment of black soldiers and later black
This article will demonstrate that in the process of creating a
sympathetic and politically powerful image, abolitionists and newspaper publishers,
even the most well-intentioned, were willing to homogenize African Americans and
their individual experiences in the service of the redemptive narrative. In creating the
image of Gordon,they simultaneously highlighted slaverys brutality and dismissed
the individual experience of the man in the image.
The scourged backimage was published in Harpersat a critical moment in
Northern public sentiment toward the Union war effort and emancipation. The
disastrous defeats at Fredericksburg in December 1862 and Chancellorsville in early
May 1863 had pushed many Northerners to conclude that the war was unwinnable,
or at least to question the merits of continuing to fight. The Emancipation
Proclamation, only months old, remained deeply unpopular among major segments
of the northern populace. So too was conscription, with the first Federal draft of
soldiers into the Union army scheduled for July 1863. Six months before it published
the scourged backimage, Harpers Weekly lamented that the people have borne,
silently, and grimly, imbecility, treachery, failure, privations, loss of friends.
scourged backappeared, therefore, during a nadir in public support for the war
The origins of the image
The image printed in Harperswas part of a triptych, in which the image of the
scourged back, labeled in the article as Gordon Under Inspection,was flanked by
two smaller images, labeled Gordon as He Entered Our Linesand Gordon in His
Uniform as a U.S. Soldier(Figure 1). The accompanying article, entitled A Typical
Negro,indicates that the three images were based on photographs taken by
McPherson and Oliver. The article names the subject as Gordon,a slave who
escaped from his master in Mississippi, and came into our lines at Baton Rouge in
March last.The article indicates that the scarring on his back was the result of
whipping he had received the previous Christmas, and that he had escaped from
slavery using onions to disguise his smell from dogs sent in pursuit. The article also
mentions that Gordon had served at one point as a guide for Union troops in
Louisiana and was captured by Confederate soldiers, who tied him up and beat him,
leaving him for dead,but somehow he survived and returned to Union lines.
Only a few elements in the Harpersarticle can be independently verified. The
photographers William D. McPherson and his partner Oliver were present in Baton
Rouge at the time when the images were purportedly taken. Although several dozen of
their photographs survive, comparatively little is known about the men themselves or
their partnership. Some historians have argued that they were originally from Baton
Rouge, while others claim that they arrived with the Union occupation in May 1862.
The vast majority of their surviving photographs are exterior images of buildings,
fortifications, cannons, Union ships, and groups of Union soldiers. Compared to their
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other surviving photographs, the images that later featured in Harpers Weekly are
unusual, as the studio apparently did little business in individual portraiture. Unlike
most Civil War era photographers, McPherson and Oliver did not often create
portraits for soldiers. The scourged back image is also unusual in that all of the copies
purportedly taken by McPherson and Oliver lack a backmark naming the photo studio,
a feature common in all of their other known images. Its absence should cause us to
doubt whether McPherson and Oliver were responsible for the photo, and provides
some indication that the narrative in A Typical Negromay not be entirely accurate.
The photos were taken in a new medium known as a CDV. Invented in Paris, the
CDV became popular in the United States in 1860. Measuring 2.5 by 4 inches, the
fragile albumen prints were mounted on stiff cardboard. CDV differed from earlier
photo formats in several important respects. Unlike the ambrotype or daguerreotype,
which required a fragile glass case to protect the image, the CDV images could be
easily mailed, allowing the images to circulate with unprecedented speed. CDV were
also much cheaper to produce, especially in volume. Whereas making multiple prints
from an ambrotype or daguerreotype negative was often impossible or prohibitively
expensive, mechanical reproduction of CDV was easy and inexpensive. Selling a
dozen for a dollar, the CDV was the first mass-market photograph medium.
The photographer, whether it was McPherson and Oliver or some unknown party,
made at least three prints of the scourged back, each of which saw wide circulation as
CDV and was reprinted in a variety of media. Although all three photographs display
Figure 1. Harpers Weekly, 4 July 1863. Image courtesy the Library of Congress.
American Nineteenth Century History 171
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ostensibly the same pose and camera angle, several features distinguish them. In two of
the pictures, Gordon has his left hand at his waist facing down with a prominent peak
in his hair. Of these two images, the chairs back is visible in one photo (Figure 2a) and
not in the other (Figure 2b), and the orientation of the head is slightly different. In the
third picture, his hand is twisted upward and his hair is noticeably curlier, longer, and
lacking the projecting knot (Figure 2c). The most significant difference in the final
photograph is that Gordons neck is twisted more to the left toward the camera,
revealing his full profile and his beard, which is either totally or partially obscured by
his shoulder in the other images. The combined effect of these minor changes in the
photos composition made the final image subtly, but noticeably more arresting. The
differences between the photographs suggest that they were taken on separate days.
Having developed prints for the first two images, the photographer saw the potential
for a more dramatic image and recalled Gordon to the studio, recreating the image with
slight improvements.
It was this final image, with his face in full profile that became
the basis for the image in Harpers Weekly.
Two sources suggest that the initial photo session took place on 2 April 1863. The
first is a copy sold at a private auction. The handwritten inscription on the back by
J. W. Mercer, an assistant surgeon with the 47th Massachusetts Volunteers, indicates
that the photo was taken from life at Baton Rouge, La., April 2nd, 1863.Mercer
also notes that I have found a large number of the four hundred contraband
examined by me to be as badly lacerated as the specimen [r]epresented in the
enclosed photograph.
The second is a copy at the National Archives, whose reverse
inscription reads:
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. The very words of poor
Peter, taken as he sat for his picture. (Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 2 April 1863)
Figure 2. Images courtesy National Archives, Cowan Auctions, National Portrait Gallery.
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These two images, showing both of the early versions of the scourged back photo,
agree both on the time and the place where the photos were taken. The third version
was probably taken sometime later that month.
Distribution and use of the photograph
Whoever took the initial photographs, the scourged back image was widely reproduced
by other photography studios, including those of Mathew Brady in Washington, D.C.
and New York, McAllister & Brothers in Philadelphia, C. Seaver in Boston, and
Frederick Jones in London. The reverse of some of these reproductions features a
quotation from S. K. Towle, Surgeon of the 30th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers,
stationed at Baton Rouge:
I enclose a picture taken by an artist here, from life, of a Negros back, exhibiting the
scars from an old whipping. Few sensation writers ever depicted worse punishments
than this man must have received, though nothing in his appearance indicates any
unusual viciousness but on the contrary, he seems INTELLIGENT and WELL-
Some historians have posited that Towle himself participated in Gordons medical
examination, although there is no evidence of this.
Abolitionists were quick to make use of the image. On 28 May 1863, Henry Ward
BeechersIndependent published the first account of the photograph in an article
entitled The Scourged Back,giving the image its most common title. According to
the article, the image of a slaves naked back, lacerated by the whiphad been taken on
2 April 1863 in Baton Rouge, and the whipping had taken place in October 1862.
Unlike fugitive slave narratives or novels such as Uncle Toms Cabin, the photographs
veracity could not be doubted, according to the Independent, as the instrument cant
lie.The black man with the scarred back,it argued, was symbolic of the brutality
of the
slave system, and of the society that sustains it. This card photograph should be
multiplied by one hundred thousand, and scattered over the States. It tells the story in a
way that even Mrs. Stowe cannot approach, because it tells the story to the eye.
William Lloyd GarrisonsLiberator first mentioned the image two weeks later in
an article written by Garrisons son, entitled The Dumb Witness.The Liberator had
obtained the photo courtesy of the brother of the surgeon for the 1st Louisiana
Colored Regiment, who had enclosed it in a letter. Excerpted in the article, the
accompanying letter described the image as a slave as he appears after a whipping,
noting that the surgeon had seen hundreds such sights.
Significantly, the article
noted that the photograph was readily available for sale in Boston. In the same issue,
a notice in the Liberator indicated that interested parties could obtain copies of
the photo by writing to the papers editor, obtaining one copy for 15 cents Seven
copies for one dollar, or $1.50 per dozen.The notice ran regularly in the Liberator
for two months.
American Nineteenth Century History 173
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The CDV of the scourged back entered into well-developed abolitionist networks
that had long recognized the importance of photography in demonstrating the evils of
slavery and the humanity and resilience of African Americans. Frederick Douglass,
Charlotte Forten, and Sojourner Truth all saw the value that photography had in
disseminating images of themselves in giving a public face to the political issue
of slavery. They knew that Civil War-era Americans believed that the medium of
photography, unlike drawings or paintings, had greater claims to objectivity. Douglass
recognized that photography could serve as a meaningful counterweight to the racist
imagery rampant in northern culture. In 1849 he claimed that Negroes can never have
impartial portraits, at the hands of white artists. It seems to us next to impossible for
white men to take likenesses of black men, without most grossly exaggerating their
distinctive features.He saw photography as a truth-telling medium that could bore
through racist preconceptions.
While the image of the scourged back that would become the centerpiece for the
triptych published in Harpers Weekly was ubiquitous in the two months before its
publication, the two images that were to flank it were very rare. While more than 50
versions of the scourged back exist in archives and museums, the only copy of the
photo that became Gordon as He Entered Our Lineswas sold in a private auction
in 2008, and no copies of the photograph that served as the basis for Gordon in His
Uniformhave been located.
This singular Entered Our Linesphoto differs from
any of the myriad versions of the scourged back photos in two important respects
(Figure 3). First, its reverse bears the McPherson and Olivers imprint, unlike any of
the extant scourged back CDV. Second, it appears that the photo that served as the
basis for Entered Our Linesis a different individual than the person depicted in the
scourged back photos. Although the different camera angles and poses make direct
comparison difficult, the individual in the Entered Our Linesphoto has a more
prominent nose and brow line and lacks the facial hair present in the scourged back.
He also appears to be significantly younger than the individual in the scourged back
The scourged back received its widest dissemination when it was published in
Harpers Weekly in early July 1863. Established in 1857, Harpers Weekly was the
second illustrated newspaper established in the United States, after Frank Leslies
Illustrated Weekly which began printing two year earlier. During the Civil War, the
circulation of both papers often exceeded 100,000 per issue. The competing papers
vied with each other for the quality of illustrations (sometimes made by soldiers who
received a free subscription in exchange for their sketches, as well as dispatched
artists employed by the newspapers) and the speed with which they published images
of significant events. Under ideal conditions, two to three weeks passed between
the sketching of an image in the field and its appearance in print. During this
critical interval, both papers scrambled to send images from the front lines to their
headquarters in New York, where they would be translated by engravers into
woodcut block prints and then a copper duplicate which was attached to the rotary
printing press. Although both Harpers Weekly and Frank Lesliesrepeatedly assured
their readers that the published images accurately represented events in the field,
both papers routinely cut corners in an effort to reach their readers first. The easiest
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way to shortcut this publication schedule was for illustrators in New York to fabricate
depictions of events they did not witness. The eras most famous illustrator, Thomas
Nast, who worked first for Frank Lesliesand then for Harpers Weekly, rarely left
New York, building his images from written accounts. Fellow illustrator Theodore
Davis, who did spend considerable time on the front lines, criticized Nast for
cultivating a reputation of a war artist, without the unpleasant necessity of exposing
himself either to the hardships of campaign life or the dangers of the battlefield.At
times, the images printed in illustrated newspapers bore only a passing resemblance
to the events depicted.
The article in Harpers Weekly does not reveal how the newspaper acquired the
images that it reprinted in July 1863, although versions of the scourged back would
have been in wide circulation in New York City for at least a month. Historians have
attributed the drawings to either Thomas Nast or Theodore Davis, both well-known
artists in Harpers Weekly stable of illustrators.
The mostly likely illustrator for the
Figure 3. Courtesy Cowan Auctions.
American Nineteenth Century History 175
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three images that appeared in Harperswas neither Nast nor Davis, but the much less
well-known artist Vincent Colyer.
The illustrator and the soldier
Born in Bloomington, New York, in 1825, Colyer had studied painting at the
National Academy in New York City, an institution that produced many of the
illustrators employed by Harpers Weekly. A devoted Quaker and abolitionist, Colyer
volunteered in the early months of the Civil War to provide spiritual and physical
comfort to soldiers, becoming one of the founding leaders of the U.S. Christian
Commission in November 1861. In February 1862, Colyer volunteered to accompany
General Ambrose Burnsides invasion of coastal North Carolina. There he played a
vital role aiding not only soldiers but also the thousands of black refugees who
flocked to the Union standard, supporting them in the early tentative months in their
transition from slavery to freedom. Colyer resigned his post to protest Abraham
Lincolns appointment of Edward Stanly to the post of military governor of North
Carolina. From a slaveholding family, Stanly had been appointed to re-establish
civilian government in Union-occupied eastern North Carolina. To Colyers horror,
Stanly interpreted his mandate to include enforcing North Carolinas antebellum
laws on slavery, including returning fugitive slaves to their owners. After an
unsuccessful personal appeal to President Lincoln, Colyer returned to his home in
New York City in July 1862. There he provided aid for black families hurt during the
July 1863 Draft Riots and worked as a recruiter for the United States Colored Troops.
After the Civil War, Vincent Colyer established tandem careers as a humanitarian
and as a landscape artist. In the half dozen years after Appomattox, Colyer worked to
improve relationships between Native Americans and the federal government. As
member of the Board of Indian Commissioners, Colyer traveled extensively in the
American West, working with the Apache in New Mexico and Arizona, and Aleuts
in Alaska. He also returned to his pre-war occupation as a painter, becoming one of
the best known landscape painters in the country, drawing heavily upon his travels in
the West, as well as local scenes near his studio in Connecticut.
Several factors point to Colyer as the likely illustrator of the triptych. First, Colyer
had returned to New York a few months before the image appeared in Harpersand
would have been interested in both the financial and political advantages that
creating abolitionist images for Harperswould provide. Second, Colyer later
published several images in Harpersbased on his western travels among Native
Americans, revealing that he had some connection with the newspaper.
Third, and
most critically, however, Colyer reprinted the two flanking images in the triptych one
year later in his illustrated volume Report of the Services Rendered by the Freed People
to the United States Army, in North Carolina. Here, however, the images are
described as not Gordon, a runaway slave from Mississippi, as he was described in
Harpers, but as Furney Bryant, a runaway slave from North Carolina who came
within our lines dressed in the rags of the plantation.
In Report of the Services Rendered, the two images have been relabeled as images
of Furney Bryant rather than Gordon: Gordon as He Entered Our Lineshas become
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Furney Bryant, the Refugee,and Gordon in His Uniform as a U.S. Soldierhas
become Sergeant Furney Bryant, 1st North Carolina Colored Troops(Figure 4).
Although the caption on the second image describes Bryant as a sergeant, his uniform
prominently displays only two chevrons, indicating a corporal, rather than three
chevrons as would be appropriate for a sergeant. According to Colyer, Furney Bryant
arrived in New Bern, North Carolina in 1862, probably shortly after the Union
occupation of the city in March. He attended the schools in New Bern run by Colyer,
ventured into the nearby Confederate military camp at Kinston to spy under Colyers
supervision, and, after Colyers departure, enlisted in the First North Carolina Colored
Regiment. Fighting under Major General Quincy Gillmore in South Carolina, Bryant
was promoted to First Sergeant for his bravery, earning him a thirty-day furlough.
During his furlough, Bryant returned to New Bern via New York, where he visited
Colyer. During his brief stay in New Bern, he participated in the defense of the city in
February 1864 against an attack by Confederate General George Pickett, before
returning to his unit, now stationed in Florida. Shortly thereafter, he fought in the
Battle of Olustee, the largest Civil War battle in Florida. On 23 March 1864, Bryant,
now stationed in Jacksonville, Florida, wrote to Colyer to thank him for all the care
and affectionwhich you have shown towards the colored people.
Much of Colyers account of Furney Bryants life can be independently verified.
Bryant enlisted in the 1st North Carolina Colored Troops (later rebranded the 35th
USCT) on 21 May 1863, making him one of the first black men in North Carolina to
Figure 4. Vincent Colyer, Report of the Services Rendered by the Freed People to the United
States Army (New York: Vincent Colyer, 1864), 1314.
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formally volunteer. Military records indicate that he was 28 years old at the time of
his enlistment and that he had come to New Bern from Kinston. He enlisted at the
same time as several other men with the same surname, including Lewis Bryant,
whom Furney Bryant also mentions by name in his March 1864 letter to Colyer.
After a brief time in camp at New Bern, the First North Carolina Regiment was
ordered to Charleston on 30 July 1863. They arrived at Folly Island two weeks after
the failed efforts by the 54th Massachusetts to assault the Confederate position at
Fort Wagner. He fought in several battles in Florida, was mustered out of service in
1866, and died in 1900.
In Services Rendered, Vincent Colyer provided a third depiction of Furney Bryant
in addition to the two images that had previously appeared in Harpers(Figure 5). In
it, Bryant fights alongside another black soldier in the defense of New Bern during
the first week of February 1864. Several features of this image are worth noting. First,
whereas the two dozen other images in the text purported to be taken from life, this
image is clearly a creation of Colyers imagination, as he was in New York during the
attack on New Bern. Second, Bryants uniform lacks the chevrons appropriate to his
rank, chevrons that feature prominently in the Sergeant Furney Bryant, 1st North
Carolina Colored Troops/Gordon in His Uniform as a U.S. Soldierimage. Third,
although the pose of the third image makes direct comparison difficult, the person
depicted appears to resemble, at least superficially, the first two depictions of Furney
In all likelihood, none of Vincent Colyers three depictions of Furney Bryant
accurately represents him. The McPherson and Oliver CDV upon which the
Gordon as He Entered Our Lines/Furney Bryant, the Refugeeimage is based
clearly indicates from the photographersimprint that the image was made in Baton
Rouge. The most likely scenario suggested by the evidence is that the two flanking
Figure 5. Vincent Colyer, Report of the Services Rendered by the Freed People to the United
States Army (New York: Vincent Colyer, 1864), 18.
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images that appeared in the Harperstriptych and were later reprinted by Colyer in
his Report on Services Rendered are based on photos taken in Baton Rouge.
A Typical Negro
Several claims made in the Harpers Weekly article contradict other sources about the
identity of the subject, his origins, and the date of his whipping. Sources published or
written prior the publication of the Harperspiece uniformly claim that the subject
was from Louisiana and that the scars on his back were the product of a whipping in
October 1862. The article in Harpers, however, claims that the subject was from
Mississippi and that the whipping occurred on Christmas day, 1862. The article also
introduced a new attribute, a name for the subject: Gordon. In earlier published
descriptions of the scourged back image, the subject is nameless. The Independent
called him merely the black man with the scarred back,while the Liberator referred
to him as a former slave now, thanks to the Union army, a freeman.The CDVs
also fail to provide the subject with a name, with the exception of the copy housed
at the National Archives, which identifies the subject as Peter.The subjects
subsequent career as a guide and a soldier is also unique to Harpers.
Where did Harpersobtain these details about the life of the man in the scourged
back image? Published without a byline, the article does not indicate how it obtained
the images, although the scourged back CDV was in wide circulation in New York by
the time Harperswent to print. One possibility is that Vincent Colyer was responsible
not only for the illustrations in Harpersbut also for the accompanying article.
Comparing the brief but detailed narrative in the accompanying Harpersarticle with
Colyers descriptions of fugitive slaves in Report on the Services Rendered reveals some
striking similarities. Harpersdescribes Gordonrunning through the swamps and
bayous, chased as he had been for days and nights by his master with several neighbors
and a pack of blood-hounds.Colyer describes a fugitive slave named Charley running
through swampsbeing chased by a pack of blood-hounds,another fugitive slave
named William Kinnegy hiding in the woods and swamps,and an unnamed fugitive
slave-scout through woods and swamps.
Gordon rubbed plantation onionson
his body after crossing every creek or swampto throw the dogs off his scent.
Colyers Charley took to the water in the swampsto throw off the scent of the dogs,
while an unnamed slave from Tarboro was chased by dogsand escaped by bathing
his feet of his party in turpentine, which is said to effectively destroy the scent, and
prevent the dogs from following the trail.
To be sure, the methods that fugitive slaves
would have used to evade blood-hounds would have been similar in the swamps of
Colyers eastern North Carolina and Gordonslower Mississippi Valley, and many of
these elements are familiar tropes from fugitive slave narratives. Nonetheless, the way
they are described hints that they may have been written by the same man.
Another passage in the Harpersarticle echoes a passage in ColyersReport on
Services Rendered. According to Harpers, Gordon:
served our troops as [a] guide, and on one expedition was unfortunately taken prisoner
by the rebels, who, infuriated beyond measure, tied him up and beat him, leaving him
for dead. He came to life, however, and once more made his escape to our lines.
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In Report on Services Rendered Colyer describes black scouts and spies who,
under Colyers supervision, went on expeditionsinto Confederate territory and
were pursued on several occasions by blood-hounds, two or three of them were
taken prisoners; one of them was known to have been shot.
Although these brief
passages are insufficient to attribute authorship of the Harpersarticle to Colyer, in
conjunction with his likely role in the composition of the accompanying illustrations,
his later association with Harpers, and his New York residence in the months prior
to the articles publication point in his direction. If so, this suggests that the narrative
in the Harpersarticle about Gordonis likely a composite based on Colyers
experience with fugitive slaves in North Carolina. This interpretation is supported by
the articles title, A Typical Slave,which suggests that it does not necessarily
describe a specific slave and by Colyers willingness to repurpose the Entered Our
Linesand In His Uniformillustrations in his Report on Services Rendered.
Although readers of Harpers Weekly may have appreciated the symbolic value of
the triptych, there is little evidence to suggest that they interpreted the images and
the accompanying article as literal. The publication of the scourged back in Harpers
Weekly came at the intersection of two forms of new media the illustrated
newspaper and the CDV. While Civil War-era Americans placed a great deal of faith
in the veracity of photographic evidence, they were often skeptical of the accuracy of
the illustrated press, whose coverage at times bordered on the sensational. Readers,
therefore, would have been much more likely to believe in the imagesreliability than
in the accompanying text. One way to gauge how much faith readers put in the
Harpersarticle is how often the details were reproduced. In the months after the
publication of the scourged back in Harpers Weekly on 4 July 1863, many
newspapers made reference to the scourged back image.
In few of these references
did the novel elements contained within the Harpersarticle reappear, suggesting that
readers did not take the text of A Typical Negroto accurately reflect the experience
of the individual in the image. The name Gordon,for instance, rarely appears in
references to the image made in the four months after its appearance in Harpers.
Not unsurprisingly, the Copperhead press rejected the validity of both the images
and the article. One commentator observed that: no sooner had this heart-striking
picture begun to circulate and awaken a thrill of horror among the loyal and humane
portion of the community, than the Copperhead press at once spit forth their
poisonous venom, and boldly asserted that the whole story was a fabrication
from beginning to end,claiming that the narrative was the product of a fanatical
Abolitionists deluded imagination.
Some Copperhead newspapers suggested that
the photographed slave was guilty, no doubt, of crimethat justified his whipping.
Others claimed that the whipping depicted paled in comparison to the brutality
enacted on pro-Confederate white women, citing the case of female political prisoner
who was lashed across the shoulders with a cowhideand dragging her down stairs
by the hair and kicking her on the way to the cell.
Similarly, the Boston Courier called
for a “‘photographic likenessof the scourged back of the man flogged by the provost
marshal in Pittsburg without the color of law, to accompany the picture which the
abolitionists got up of the Louisiana slaves back.’”
180 D. Silkenat
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In response to the Copperhead critique, the New York Tribune published a letter in
December 1863 that purported to be from the individual who had brought the images
from Louisiana to Harpers Weekly. The letter writer, who identified himself only as
Bostonian,was moved to come forward to counter the “‘Copperheadfalsehood.He
claimed that:
the original photographs from which the two faithful engravings in Harpers Weekly were
copie[s] I brought from Louisiana last June, and I can therefore vouch for their entire
accuracy, as well as the truthfulness of the brief account of the outrages perpetrated upon
the unoffending negroes which was published in connection with the pictures.
However, despite his assertion of the truthfulness of the brief account,Bostonian
suggested a narrative behind the images that differed in places from one that
appeared in Harpers Weekly. He claimed that on 24 March 1863, four slaves
belonging to Capt. John Lyons and Louis Fabyan of Clinton, La. started off at
midnight in search of freedom, which they well knew would be guaranteed them as
soon as they reached our lines at Baton Rouge.On the second day after their escape,
one of the four fugitive slaves, whom Bostonian referred to as John,went off in
search of food, only to be killed by slave hunters that had been sent to search for
them. According to Bostonian, the three other members of the party made it to
Union lines on 2 April 1863, where they were interrogated in the Provost Marshals
office. Bostonian named two of the three slaves: Gordon and Peter. According to
Bostonian, poor Peterwas the name of the negro whose lacerated back has
excited the sympathy and indignation of every humanitarian that has seen it.He
spoke little English, and that in broke accents,as the majority of the negroes in
Louisianaspoke French. Questioned in French, Peter was asked why he had run
away. He pulled down the pile of dirty rags that half concealed his back, and which
was once a shirt, and exhibited his mutilated sable form to the crowd of officers and
others present in the office.According to Bostonian, the sight:
sent a thrill of horror to every white person present, but the few Blacks who were
waiting for passes, both men, women and children, paid but little attention to the sad
spectacle, such terrible scenes being painfully familiar to them all.
Peter claimed not to remember the whipping that left him scarred, although he said
that it had happened two months before Christmas,and that his overseer Artayon
Carrier had held the lash. During the two months he spent recovering from the
whipping, Peter was told that he had been whipped because he was sort of crazy and
tried to shoot everybody,including his wife, and had burned up all my clothes,
events that Peter claimed not to remember. Peters wife told him after he recovered that
he no [sic] do these things.Seeing Peters scars, his owner, John Lyon, dismissed the
overseer. Bostonian says far less about the second slave, Gordon, whom he describes as
the sable youth clad in variegate and torn garments and whose likeness also appeared
at the same time in Harpers Weekly.
Several elements of Bostonians account conform with that provided in Harpers
Weekly. He notes, for instance, that the fugitive slaves were chased by hunterswith
American Nineteenth Century History 181
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their savage pack of hounds; however, except for the unfortunate John, they evaded
them by swimming through every stream they could find,and rubbing every
portion of their body with onions and strong-scented weeds, in order to elude the
trail of the bloodhounds.On other points, however, they differ significantly. The
Harpersarticle claimed that the whipping occurred at Christmas, while Bostonian
claimed it was two months before Christmas.Harpersclaimed that the subject of
the scourged back image was from Mississippi, while Bostonian claims he was from
Louisiana. Bostonian also omits any mention of black military service, a prominent
element in the Harpersarticle.
The most significant feature of the Bostonian letter is its revelation that Peter and
Gordon were two distinct individuals, and not, as some historians have claimed,
alternate names for the same individual. According to Bostonian, Gordon was featured
in the leftmost image in the triptych, a negro slave sitting for his photograph, clad in
the peculiar and ragged nondescript habiliments of the plantation, tattered, torn, and
barefoot,while the central image of the scourged back depicted Peter. The veracity of
Bostonians account is supported by the copy of the scourged back image in the
National Archives, whose inscription provides the name of the subject (Peter) and of
the overseer (Carrier).
If the Bostonian letter helps to clarify many of the muddy elements behind the
scourged back image, it also creates new questions. At several points during his letter,
Bostonian refers to two photographs that he passed on to Harpers, clearly describing
the left and center images of the triptych. He notes that there appeared in Harpers
Weekly Journal of Civilization two excellent illustrations,and that he had provided
the original photographs from which the two faithful engravings in Harpers Weekly
were copied.Bostonian takes entirely no notice of the existence of the right image
in the triptych, an image for which no surviving photograph remains. Bostonian
apparently wrote his letter without the Harpers Weekly article in front of him, as he
begins his letter with uncertainty about the date the images appeared in the
newspaper, believing them to have been published during the latter part of June, or
first of July.His omission of any discussion of the triptychs third image suggests
that he was not the source of this image. One possibility is that the third image was
fabricated by Vincent Colyer to mirror the first image in the triptych. While
impossible to prove, the fabrication of the image labeled Gordon in his uniform
would help to support the narrative elements in A Typical Negroabout Gordons
experience as a soldier. Its fabrication would also allow Harpersto employ the
evolutionary trope of slave to soldier that Carole Emberton has described so
powerfully. Although the image may have played a powerful role in persuading the
Northern public about the merits of emancipation and the enlistment of black
soldiers, it did so at the expense of the individual experiences of the real Gordon and
The ways in which the image of the scourged back was disseminated in 1863 and
used over the century and a half since it appeared in Harpers Weekly can be revealing.
The image arrived in New York as a CDV in May 1863 at a low point in popular
support for the war effort. Recognizing the images emotional power in dramatizing
182 D. Silkenat
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the brutality of slavery, abolitionists sought to use it to rally flagging public sentiment.
Publishers of illustrated newspapers, such as Harpers Weekly, would have seen the
images value as well, not only to bolster the Union cause (which Harperssupported
enthusiastically) and emancipation (where their enthusiasm was lukewarm at best), but
primarily to have the image in print prior to its rivals, most notably Frank Leslies
Illustrated. The appearance of the scourged backin Harpers, flanked by images of a
separate individual (one of which may have been fabricated) and accompanied by a
partially invented narrative, therefore, served the interests of both abolitionists and
publishers at a critical moment in the battle for Northern public opinion. Both Vincent
Colyer, the presumptive author and illustrator, and the editors at Harpershad
incentives to create a narrative to accompany the image. It was too powerful an image
at too critical a time not to.
1. Many scholars have commented on the scourged backimage, including Collins,The
Scourged Back;Jackson,Violence, Visual Culture, and the Black Male Body,1324;
Mitchell,Raising Freedoms Child,624; Wood,Blind Memory, 2669; Willis and
Krauthamer, Envisioning Emancipation, 37; Abruzzo,Polemical Pain, 2015; Nelson,
Ruin Nation, 1734; and Emberton,Beyond Redemption, 1024. On its use in textbooks,
see Masur,Pictures Have Now Become a Necessity.On the contemporary uses of the
scourged backimage, see Trodd,Am I still Not a Man and a Brother?A vexing
problem, one that this essay will not try to answer, is how singular the image of the
scourged backremains among the photographic representations of slavery. Although
there are a handful of other images from the same time as the scourged backthat intend
to show the brutality of slavery, we have far fewer of these images than one might expect.
Of these, the only images that might rival the scourged backare the photographs of
Wilson Chinn, a branded slave,sometimes pictured with the instruments of torture
used to punish Slaves.Like the man in the scourged back,Wilson Chinn came from
Louisiana and was photographed in 1863. If the scarring featured in the scourged back
was not unique and the sources tell us that it was not then why do we not have a
much larger photographic inventory to accompany the scourged back? Given the
popularity of the scourged backfirst as a CDV, and then as an engraving, why did not
ambitious photographers produce more?
2. Emberton,Beyond Redemption, 1024.
3. Harpers Weekly, December 27, 1862.
4. A Typical Negro,Harpers Weekly, July 4, 1863.
5. Palmquist and Kailbourn, Pioneer Photographers from the Mississippi to the Continental
Divide, 4301; Zeller,Blue and Gray in Black and White, 145; and Moneyhon and Roberts,
Portraits of Conflict, 5. For images by McPherson and Oliver, see images at the Louisiana
Digital Library (
%20Oliver,%20photographers/mode/exact) or at the Library of Congress (http://www.loc.
6. Perry,The Carte de Visite in the 1860s; and Volpe,The Middle is Material.
7. Margaret Abruzzo presents an alternative interpretation of the differences in hair style.
She argues that the version with shorter hair represents a shaved Gordon; that the image
with the longer hair was taken first and the other image taken later. Abruzzo only
identified one of the two versions of the image with short hair. See Abruzzo,Polemical
Pain, 2012.
American Nineteenth Century History 183
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8. For examples of images purported taken by McPherson and Oliver, see International
Center of Photography,$0040937/0?t:
11. Collins,The Scourged Back,435.
12. On Towles medical role in Baton Rouge, see Towle,Notes of Practice in the U.S.A.
General Hospital.Towle suggests that he did not start working in the hospital in Baton
Rouge until May 1863, after the scourged backimage was taken.
13. The Scourged Back,[New York] Independent May 28, 1863. The article may have been
written by Rev. Octavius Brooks Frothingham, a Unitarian abolitionist. See The Scourged
Back,Christian Inquirer, August 1, 1863.
14. The Dumb Witness,Liberator, June 12, 1863.
15. Liberator, June 12, 1863.
16. North Star, April 7, 1849; Willis and Krauthamer, Envisioning Emancipation,178, 28;
Stauffer,Black Hearts of Men, 50; and Zackodnik,The Green-Backsof Civilization.
17. Cowan Auctions.
18. Pearson,Frank Leslies Illustrated Newspaper and HarpersWeekly;Thompson,Illustrat-
ing the Civil War;Brown,Beyond the Lines,157; and Gallagher,The Union War,95100.
19. Thompson,Pictorial Images of the Negro during the Civil War,291.
20. Colyer,Report of the Services Rendered by the Freed People;Colyer,Report of the
Committee of Merchants for the Relief of Colored People;Colyer,Report of Mr. Vincent
Colyer,3552; Colyer,Peace with the Apaches;Colyer,Alaska Report of Hon. Vincent
Colyer;Colyer,Report of Christian Mission to the United States Army,210; Colyer,Notes
Among the Indians;Bishop,A Memorial Record of the New York Branch of the United
States Christian Commission,912; Henry,The United States Christian Commission in
the Civil War,3746; Raney,In the Lords Army;Harris,Lincoln and Wartime
Reconstruction in North Carolina, 18611863,1656; Howard,The Freedmen during
the War,3812; and Click,Time Full of Trial,156; Daily Alta California, October
15, 1871.
21. For instance, see Harpers Weekly, February 19, 1870; August 18, 1877.
22. Colyer,Services Rendered, 13.
23. Ibid., 134.
24. Reid,Raising the African Brigade; Descriptive Rolls, 35th Regiment, United States
Colored Troops, RG 94, NARA. Images of Bryants grave are available here: http://www.
25. Colyer,Services Rendered, 15, 19, 24.
26. Ibid., 15, 24.
27. Ibid., 9.
28. Christian Inquirer, August 4, 1863; Independent, August 13, 1863, February 4, 1864;
Dollar Weekly Bulletin (Maysville, Kentucky), September 3, 1863; and Indiana State
Sentinel, January 4, 1864.
29. New York Tribune, December 3, 1863. On the Copperhead press, see Weber,Copperheads;
and Abrams,Copperhead Newspapers and the Negro.
30. Philadelphia Age, quoted in Dollar Weekly Bulletin (Maysville, Kentucky), September
3, 1863.
31. Crisis (Columbus, Ohio), quoted in Dollar Weekly Bulletin (Maysville, Kentucky),
September 3, 1863.
32. Boston Courier, quoted in Dollar Weekly Bulletin (Maysville, Kentucky), September
3, 1863.
33. New York Tribune, December 3, 1863.
34. Emberton,Beyond Redemption, 1024.
184 D. Silkenat
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Notes on contributor
David Silkenat is a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of Moments of
Despair: Suicide, Divorce, and Debt in Civil War North Carolina (Chapel Hill: University of
North Carolina Press, 2011).
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Age America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
Click, Patricia. Time Full of Trial: The Roanoke Island Freedmens Colony. Chapel Hill:
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Collins, Kathleen. The Scourged Back.History of Photography 9 (1985): 4345.
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in North Carolina, in the Spring of 1862, after the Battle of Newbern. New York: Vincent
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History Textbooks.Journal of American History 84, no. 4 (1998): 14161419.
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Towle, S. K. Notes of Practice in the U.S.A. General Hospital, Baton Rouge, La., during the
Year 1863.Boston Medical and Surgical Journal 70 (1864): 4660.
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... Even images of violence circulated to promote compassion (Putzi 2002;Silkenat 2014) anticipate a response of shock and awe in order to exploit Black pain as a means to an end. Likewise, the contemporary spectacles of Black death in the media largely serve as a commodity for economic interests rather than social justice (Noble 2014). ...
... There is a long history of Black pain and injury serving as a quintessentially American spectacle (King 2008;Raiford 2009;Wood 2011). Examples include images meant to inspire empathy and action, such as pictures and exhibitions of slaves' lashed backs circulated by abolitionists (Putzi 2002;Silkenat 2014), news footage of dogs and hoses turned on Civil Rights protesters (Bodroghkozy 2013;Brasell 2004), and video documentation of police killing Black people (Hardeman et al. 2016;Marcus 2016). In contrast, images of lynchings are an equally American phenomenon that have nothing to do with inspiring empathy, and instead these images (and lynching itself) are deployed as acts of terror and to reaffirm white supremacy (Markovitz 2004;Raiford 2009;Wood 2011). ...
College GameDay (CGD) commentary and imagery is one source of socialization that reinforces ideologies that rationalize police violence (and our tolerance thereof). As the most watched college sport broadcast of all time (Volner D, More than 179 million fans watched 100 billion minutes of college football games on ESPN’s TV networks during the 2016 college football season; 15 million unique devices streamed ESPN games. ESPN MediaZone. Retrieved from, 2016), CGD primes audiences to make certain associations (Moy P, Tewksbury D, Rinke EM, Agenda-setting, priming, and framing. In: Jenson KB, Craig RT, Pooley JD, & Rothenbuhler EW (eds), The international encyclopedia of communication theory and philosophy. Wiley, 2016). Through analysis of regular- and postseason CGD pregame and game-of-the-week broadcasts during the 2016 football season, the authors examine the use of animal metaphors and the belief that Black people possess superstrength. The chapter documents prominent narratives promoting Black players as invulnerable in the broadcasts while making the case these narratives serve to prime audiences—including law enforcement—to ascribe inhuman abilities to Black people, thus reinforcing the belief lethal force against them is justified.
... 'Scars of Peter'(Silkenat, 2014). ...
Social media, including sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, provides a platform for racist ideology, making this dysfunction of American society more evident. Social media can provide insight into the world of the racist-individuals who cling to their tribal identities, irrationally rejecting those who they perceive as different. Studying social media may provide insight into processes that can assist in healing American society of its segregationist views-a way toward healing the racist. The purpose of this paper is to analyse social media posts to better understand racism, its causality and to develop initial steps for addressing racist ideology. A qualitative review consisting of a content analysis of 600 American Facebook posts was completed to reveal patterns in cognition, problem-solving, personality structures, belief systems and coping styles. The content analysis consists of both a descriptive account of the data and an interpretive analysis. Rackham, A. M. (2018). Using social media to understand and guide the treatment of racist ideology.
... 'Scars of Peter'(Silkenat, 2014). ...
Full-text available
Social media, including sites such as Face Book, Twitter and Instagram, provides a platform for racist ideology, making this dysfunction of American society more evident. Social media can provide insight into the world of the racist – individuals who cling to their tribal identities, irrationally rejecting those who they perceive as different. Studying social media may provide insight into processes that can assist in healing American society of its segregationist views – a way toward healing the racist. The purpose of this paper is to analyze social media posts to better understand racism, its causality, and to develop initial steps for addressing racist ideology. A qualitative review consisting of content analysis of 600 American Face Book posts was completed to reveal patterns in cognition, problem solving, personality structures, belief systems, and coping styles. The content analysis consists of both a descriptive account of the data and an interpretive analysis. Keywords: Racism, social media, violence, social conditioning, sexism, ageism, anti-Semitism, able-bodyism, heterosexism, paranoia, Christianity, Cluster B Personality Traits, clandestine.
Historically, victims of sexual violence have rarely left written accounts of their abuse, so while sexual violence has long been associated with slavery in the United States, historians have few accounts from formerly enslaved people who experienced it first-hand. Through a close reading of the narrative of Louisa Picquet, a survivor of sexual violence in Georgia and Louisiana, this article reflects on the recovery of evidence of sexual violence under slavery through amanuensis-recorded testimony, the unintended evidence of survival within the violent archive of female slavery, and the expression of “race” as an authorial device through which to demonstrate the multigenerational nature of sexual victimhood.
The end of slavery in the United States inspired conflicting visions of the future for all Americans in the nineteenth century, black and white, slave and free. The black child became a figure upon which people projected their hopes and fears about slavery's abolition. As a member of the first generation of African Americans raised in freedom, the black child-freedom's child-offered up the possibility that blacks might soon enjoy the same privileges as whites: landownership, equality, autonomy. Yet for most white southerners, this vision was unwelcome, even frightening. Many northerners, too, expressed doubts about the consequences of abolition for the nation and its identity as a white republic. From the 1850s and the Civil War to emancipation and the official end of Reconstruction in 1877, Raising Freedom's Child examines slave emancipation and opposition to it as a far-reaching, national event with profound social, political, and cultural consequences. Mary Niall Mitchell analyzes multiple views of the black child-in letters, photographs, newspapers, novels, and court cases-to demonstrate how Americans contested and defended slavery and its abolition. With each chapter, Mitchell narrates an episode in the lives of freedom's children, from debates over their education and labor to the future of racial classification and American citizenship. Raising Freedom's Child illustrates how intensely the image of the black child captured the imaginations of many Americans during the upheavals of the Civil War era. Through public struggles over the black child, Mitchell argues, Americans by turns challenged and reinforced the racial inequality fostered under slavery in the United States. Only with the triumph of segregation in public schools in 1877 did the black child lose her central role in the national debate over civil rights, a role she would not play again until the 1950s.
During the Civil War, cities, houses, forests, and soldiers' bodies were transformed into "dead heaps of ruins," novel sights in the southern landscape. How did this happen, and why? And what did Americans-northern and southern, black and white, male and female-make of this proliferation of ruins? Ruin Nation is the first book to bring together environmental and cultural histories to consider the evocative power of ruination as an imagined state, an act of destruction, and a process of change. Megan Kate Nelson examines the narratives and images that Americans produced as they confronted the war's destructiveness. Architectural ruins-cities and houses-dominated the stories that soldiers and civilians told about the "savage" behavior of men and the invasions of domestic privacy. The ruins of living things-trees and bodies-also provoked discussion and debate. People who witnessed forests and men being blown apart were plagued by anxieties about the impact of wartime technologies on nature and on individual identities. The obliteration of cities, houses, trees, and men was a shared experience. Nelson shows that this is one of the ironies of the war's ruination-in a time of the most extreme national divisiveness people found common ground as they considered the war's costs. And yet, very few of these ruins still exist, suggesting that the destructive practices that dominated the experiences of Americans during the Civil War have been erased from our national consciousness.