This carte-de-visite photograph of a formerly enslaved man named Peter was taken in Louisiana in April 1863. In late March 1863, Peter fled a Louisiana plantation to find freedom at an encampment of the Union army in Baton Rouge. Days after gaining his freedom, he sat for this photograph.
The image of his scourged back reached a national audience when a woodcut engraving made from the image appeared on the pages of Harper’s Weekly magazine on July 4, in 1863. The photograph became one of the most iconic images of slavery in the United States.
Who was Peter? What happened to him when he resisted slavery? How did he achieve his freedom? Why and how did he pose for this photograph?
What was life like for self-emancipated people who fled plantations for Union army camps during the Civil War? And what happened with a white northern audience saw the scars on his back?
Two soldiers from western Massachusetts - Henry Gere of Northampton and Marshall Stearns of Northfield - served at the Union army camp where Peter arrived. Gere and Stearns played a role in the creation of this iconic image. Both men sent letters North describing what they witnessed when the formerly enslaved came entered the Baton Rouge camp. A journalist, Gere wrote long reports of his wartime experience for publication in the Hampshire Gazette. In his "Letters from the 52nd" published in the Gazette on May 5, 1863, Gere informed readers in western Massachusetts that he sent the photograph of Peter to Northampton and invited people to view the image at a bookstore on Main Street.
Peter was one among thousands enslaved individuals who liberated themselves from slavery by entered the Baton Rouge camp. Stearns and Gere witnessed their plight and the disorder that followed emancipation. Gere called the situation Peter and thousands like him faced in Civil War Louisiana “chaotic freedom.”