Disunion presents a piece on Civil War photographers, but introduces it with the background of that most famous of slave pictures, “The Scourged Back”. I’d never heard it before, and assumed that the photo was from earlier than it was actually taken.
The image made its way back to New England, where it was converted by an artist into a wood engraving, a backwards technological step that allowed it to be published in the newspapers. On July 4, 1863, the same day that Vicksburg fell, “The Scourged Back” appeared in a special Independence Day issue of Harper’s Weekly. All of America could see those scars, and feel that military and moral progress were one. The Civil War, in no way a war to exterminate slavery in 1861, was increasingly just that in 1863. “The Scourged Back” may have been propaganda, but as a photograph, which drew as much from science as from art, it presented irrefutable evidence of the horror of slavery. Because those scars had been photographed, they were real, in a way that no drawing could be.