The Viral Photo of a Beaten Slave that Changed America in 1863

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On the Fourth of July in 1863 — an Independence Day that dawned with twisted, bloated bodies carpeting the fields and orchards of Gettysburg — tens of thousands of Americans who thought themselves numb to violence learned they were wrong. Leafing through the new issue of Harper’s Weekly, they encountered the graphic sight of a shirtless black slave in profile revealing a barbaric web of welts across the canvas of his bare back, testament to a ferocious whipping.

To many Northerners who had never set foot on a plantation, the image offered the first visual evidence of slavery’s inhumanity that they had ever seen. “It’s one of the first photographs to show a slave who clearly had been beaten badly,” says Frank Goodyear, codirector of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, who has long studied the picture. “It suggests that the Southern idea that slavery was a benign institution was in fact a lie.”

A century-and-a-half later, the revolting visual still steals the breath. Now, new research by Bruce Laurie, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, reveals how the image came about: A pair of Union soldiers from Western Massachusetts who were shocked by the cruelty of slavery they confronted produced the iconic picture in the hopes of making virtual eyewitnesses of those back home.

When the photograph went viral, it demonstrated the ability of the visual medium to expose racial injustice and foster social change — long before cellphone videos of fatal police shootings rose to the civil rights forefront.

In his new study, “‘Chaotic Freedom’ in Civil War Louisiana: The Origins of an Iconic Image,” Laurie identifies Hampshire Gazette publisher Henry S. Gere and Marshall Stearns as the soldiers responsible for the famous photograph. While Gere was a “firebrand abolitionist” from his teenage days, his fellow soldier in the 52nd Massachusetts Regiment had a more complicated relationship with race. Laurie writes in his essay, which will be released as an e-book later this month by the Massachusetts Review, that Stearns was “an ignorant and naive racist” who had no contact with African-Americans before enlisting in the fall of 1862. “Like most men in the regiment,” Laurie says, “he went to war probably because he was a Unionist first. I don’t think he gave a second thought to slavery.”

That all changed once Stearns joined Gere in Baton Rouge, La., in December 1862 and was given charge of the so-called contrabands — slaves who had escaped to the Union camp. After witnessing the hardships and risks they experienced, Stearns refused to return slaves to planters and reprimanded officers who disparaged African-Americans. “Reading his letters very carefully, he’s becoming an abolitionist,” Laurie says. “Little by little, it’s clear that he’s appalled by what he sees in and around Baton Rouge, and he becomes more sympathetic. After about a month, he drops his racist language as a sign that he’s more enlightened.”

One day in the early spring of 1863, Stearns and Gere joined a crowd of soldiers and medics in the recruiting office as a recently escaped slave named Peter removed the shroud of rags that partially concealed his back to reveal a vast network of scars. The wounds from the whip of an irate overseer also lashed the sensibilities of Stearns and Gere, who called it “one of the most horrid and singular objects I have ever beheld.”

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SOURCE: Christopher Klein 
The Boston Globe