By the time he made it to a Union encampment in Baton Rouge in March 1863, Peter had been through hell. Bloodhounds had chased him. He had been pursued for miles, had run barefoot through creeks and across fields. He had survived, if barely. When he reached the soldiers, Peter’s clothing was ragged and soaked with mud and sweat.
But his ten-day ordeal was nothing compared to what he had already been through. During Peter’s enslavement on John and Bridget Lyons’ Louisiana plantation, Peter endured not just the indignity of slavery, but a brutal whipping that nearly took his life. And when he joined the Union Army after his escape from slavery, Peter exposed his scars during a medical examination.
Raised welts and strafe marks crisscrossed his back. The marks extended from his buttocks to his shoulders, calling to mind the viciousness and power with which he had been beaten. It was a hideous constellation of scars: visual proof of the brutality of slavery. And for thousands of white people, it was a shocking image that helped fuel the fires of abolition during the Civil War.
A photograph of Peter’s back became one of the most widely circulated images of slavery of its time, galvanizing public opinion and serving as a wordless indictment of the institution of slavery. Peter’s disfigured back helped bring the stakes of the Civil War to life, contradicting Southerners’ insistence that their slaveholding was a matter of economic survival, not racism. And it showed just how important mass media was during the war that nearly destroyed the United States.
Not much is known about Peter aside from the testimony he gave the medical examiners at the camp and the image of his back and the keloid scars he suffered from his beating. He told examiners that he had left the plantation ten days ago, and that the man who whipped him was the plantation’s overseer, Artayou Carrier. After the whipping, he was told he had become “sort of crazy” and had threatened his wife. As he lay in bed recovering, the plantation owner fired the overseer. But Peter had already determined to escape.
Peter and three other enslaved people escaped by cover of night, but one of their companions was murdered by slave hunters who came in pursuit of Lyons’ property. The surviving escapees rubbed onions on their bodies to escape the bloodhounds the slave catchers used to pursue them. Only after days of pursuit did they reach the Union encampment, weeping with joy when they were greeted by black men in uniform. They immediately enlisted.
The white soldiers who inspected Peter were horrified by his wounds. “Suiting the action to the word, he pulled down the pile of dirty rags that half concealed his back,” said a witness. “It sent a thrill of horror to every white person present, but the few Blacks who were waiting…paid but little attention to the sad spectacle, such terrible scenes being painfully familiar to them all.”
But though Peter’s experience was shared by thousands of enslaved people, it was foreign to many Northerners who had never witnessed slavery and its brutality with their own eyes. Mass media was still relatively new, and though escaped slaves and other eyewitnesses brought stories of whippings and other punishments north, few had seen the evidence of the oppression of slaves.
McPherson and Oliver, two itinerant photographers who were at the camp, photographed Peter’s back, and the photo was reproduced and distributed as a carte-de-visite, a trendy new photographic format. The small cards were cheap to produce and became wildly popular during the Civil War, providing a near-instant look at the war, and its players, as it unfolded.
Peter’s photo quickly spread across the nation. “I have found a large number of the four hundred or so contrabands [people who had escaped slavery and were now protected by the Union Army] examined by me to be as badly lacerated as the specimen represented in the enclosed photograph,” J.W. Mercer, a Union Army surgeon in Louisiana, wrote on the back of the card. He sent it to Colonel L.B. Marsh.
“This Card Photograph should be multiplied by 100,000, and scattered over the States,” an anonymous journalist wrote. The image was a powerful rebuttal to the lie that enslaved people were treated humanely, a common refrain of those who didn’t think slavery should be abolished.