The Confederate battle flag no longer flies over the South Carolina Statehouse, and that decision has sparked debate around the country about moving Confederate symbols and statues from public places.
Many of the noble-looking statues were erected to honor the Confederacy. But two 19th-century New Orleans photographers captured the cruel reality of the time.
In the 1860s, photographers William D. McPherson and J. Oliver were partners in a studio at 132 Canal St. in New Orleans. They photographed Lee Circle when it was Tivoli Circle and used as a Union army camp. The duo also took pictures of a nearby statue of Kentucky Sen. Henry Clay, at Royal and Canal streets. The statue was later moved to Lafayette Square, not for political reasons, but because it interrupted the city’s traffic and Mardi Gras parade route.
And McPherson and Oliver took what is perhaps the most indelible photographic image of slavery itself — the iconic picture known as “The Scourged Back.”
On April 2, 1863, a man named Gordon, who had escaped slavery 10 days earlier, most likely from St. Landry Parish, was photographed by the pair in a Union camp in Baton Rouge.
First, Gordon was photographed sitting in his muddied buckskin clothes, then, his shirt removed, he revealed his back to the camera. Gordon’s flesh was crisscrossed with scars from countless beatings from his white master’s whip.
A third photo in the series shows Gordon wearing a Union uniform as he enlisted in the Corps d’Afrique, a black infantry unit. The following month, Gordon and his comrades would make history at the Battle of Port Hudson.
Frank Goodyear, the former curator of photographs at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and the current co-director at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, said the images shocked the public.
“Photography mediates our understanding of the world.” Goodyear said. “I think many Americans had never seen what a beating literally looked like. Photographs provide an immediacy that resonates with viewers because photographs have the capacity of transporting a viewer to the site itself.
“Photography was the perfect medium for communicating the stark reality of slavery’s brutality,” he said.
The renowned African-American orator, abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass held up the photograph to audiences at his appearances to contradict the lies many Southerners told of the benign institution and paternalistic tradition of slavery.
“I think ‘The Scourged Back’ fueled support in the campaign to end slavery,” Goodyear said.
McPherson and Oliver’s three portraits of Gordon were reproduced as engravings in the July 4, 1863, edition of Harper’s Weekly, a major illustrated newspaper of the time. Hundreds of thousands of readers saw them.
Of the Corps d’Afrique, Michael Fraering, curator of the Port Hudson State Historic Site, said the area just north of Baton Rouge “was the first time in American military history where black soldiers, as part of the regular U.S. Army, made an assault.”
Previously, black soldiers served in supporting roles — digging or carrying — and were never part of battle plans.
McPherson and Oliver’s photographs of the battle’s aftermath were included with the official report of the Siege of Port Hudson, a Confederate stronghold that surrendered to Union forces in 1863 after a 48-day siege.
Gordon’s story after the Battle of Port Hudson is unknown.
Photographer J. Oliver was listed in an 1865 U.S. military draft and then disappears from the historical record. W.D. McPherson is listed in a New Orleans daily mortuary report of Oct. 11, 1867, having died of yellow fever. His burial site remains unknown.
Unlike the Confederate generals and politicians whose likenesses dot the city’s landscape, there is no plaque or statue for the escaped slave Gordon nor any public memorial of the Corps d’Afrique and its historic assault at Port Hudson.
Were it not for the work of McPherson and Oliver, their history might have been forgotten forever.
Matthew Hinton is a New Orleans Advocate staff photographer.