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The Path From Confirmation Bias to Airtight Identification

By Kurt Luther 

Many a Civil War photo enthusiast has stumbled across an unidentified tintype or carte de visite whose subject looks “exactly” like a beloved ancestor or famous historical figure. Or perhaps we’ve attempted the delicate and often fruitless task of convincing someone else they might be mistaken. Confirmation bias, in which we get fixated on a single, preferred conclusion—trust me, it’s a young Robert E. Lee!—leads us to disregard any evidence to the contrary, no matter how compelling. Given the thrill of a potential new discovery, such temptations are understandably hard to resist.

But even if our motives are pure, facial similarity and physical appearance are fundamentally subjective. Two people can look at the same portrait and see very different things. So, we can make a more convincing case by considering all the available evidence together. Faces can help us narrow down the possibilities and generate a promising hypothesis. But careful follow-up research, weighing the clues in the image against the biographical details of identified soldiers and sailors, often leads to an airtight conclusion—one way or the other.

Carte de visite by Alexander Gardner of Washington. Author’s collection.
Carte de visite by Alexander Gardner of Washington. Author’s collection.

As an example, I recently acquired a CDV of three unidentified Union officers. Two men wore the uniforms of lieutenants or captains. The man seated in the center wore a brigadier general’s frock coat, indicated by a double row of eight buttons each. Although his face was unfamiliar to me, it was distinctive. I reasoned that since brigadiers were a small enough group, I could at least narrow down the possibilities. I plopped down on my couch with Ezra Warner’s Generals in Blue and started flipping pages.

A couple of hours and 583 generals later, I’d finished my scan of the book but had little to show for it, aside from strained eyes and a paper cut. Had I missed the right one? Revisiting hundreds of portraits was not a particularly enticing prospect. Then, it dawned on me that not all men wearing that pattern of buttons were brigadier generals. Brevet brigadier generals, who received their honorary title for valor on the battlefield or meritorious service, were also permitted to wear the uniform until 1870, and some did.

Invigorated by the new lead, I retrieved my copy of Roger Hunt and Jack Brown’s Brevet Brigadier Generals in Blue. With photos of nearly 1,400 officers to examine, the going was slower than before. it was even slower going than before. As I approached the surnames beginning with “R,” though, I hit a breakthrough. A bust portrait of George V. Rutherford, with his full head of dark hair, prominent nose, and scruffy mustache and goatee, bore a striking resemblance to the man in my CDV. He was the first soldier of the night to ping my radar, but for the sake of thoroughness, I completed my scan of the book. No one else, at least to my eye, had the right look other than Rutherford.

Carte de visite of Gen. Rutherford from Brevet Brigadier Generals in Blue.
Carte de visite of Gen. Rutherford from Brevet Brigadier Generals in Blue.

As promising as this discovery was, I remained cautious. My next task was to learn everything I could about Rutherford to determine if he fit the clues provided in the image. I began sifting through service records, obituaries, and other sources to uncover his story.

George Valentine Rutherford, born in 1830 in Rutland, Vermont, was a successful lawyer who moved to Alabama to supervise the construction of telegraph lines across the South. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he served as Assistant Quartermaster General for the state of Illinois, until accepting a captain’s commission in the U.S. Volunteers Quartermaster’s Department in Washington. By the fall of 1864, Rutherford held the rank of colonel, and headed the department’s Inspections division. His position brought him in frequent contact with his direct superior, Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, and other Washington elites.

After President Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre on the night of April 14, 1865, Rutherford found himself at the center of the action. He spent the tense night notifying officials and, fearing the conspiracy would also target the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, stationed two companies of infantry and a detachment of cavalry to guard Stanton’s residence. Rutherford then assisted at the Petersen House, across the street from Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln lay dying, leaving only at 6 o’clock the following morning to get some rest. About an hour later, the president was dead. When Rutherford returned, Stanton asked him to place pennies over the departed leader’s eyes. Rutherford complied, but soon substituted two silver half-dollars for them. “The performance of so small a function in connection with so great a man, is an honor which cannot but be intensely gratifying to the doer,” he recalled a few weeks later in an account published in an Illinois newspaper. The coins, one of which was gifted to Rutherford by Maj. Gen. Benjamin H. Grierson, are now held in the Chicago History Museum, along with signed affidavits from Rutherford, Meigs, and several other generals present at the scene.

Rutherford resigned from the army in October 1866, and returned to Illinois. He was among the many Union officers who received a brevet promotion dated March 13, 1865—in his case, to Bvt. Brig. Gen. of Volunteers. As many brevets were antedated, it’s not clear exactly when Rutherford received the honor and, apparently, began wearing the corresponding uniform. In 1872, he moved to Massachusetts to run a manufacturing business. But the difficult work and cold winters took a toll on him, and he contracted tuberculosis. Relocation to St. Helena, Calif., failed to restore his health, and he died there in 1876.

How well do these biographical details fit the soldier depicted in my CDV? Is it really George Rutherford, or just wishful thinking?

Returning to my CDV, I noted that the reverse features a back mark from Alexander Gardner’s galleries in Washington. Below the mark sits a three-cent tax stamp that dates the image between July 1864 and August 1866. Rutherford was living and working in Washington throughout this time period, but so were thousands of other Union soldiers, including other brigadier generals. The time and place support my hypothesis, but it’s still not definitive.

As I examined the man’s portrait, I noticed a final clue that quelled my lingering doubts. He sits casually in a fringed chair, with a Hardee hat balanced on one knee, unadorned save for a light-colored cord. Everything about his uniform is by the book, save for one exception: his rank insignia. The man wears a single brigadier general’s star on each shoulder—but in a highly unusual variation, lacks the accompanying shoulder straps. Consulting Brevet Brigadier Generals in Blue, I found that Hunt and Brown’s view of Rutherford depicts identical subdued rank insignia. It was sheer luck: if Rutherford had worn the rank insignia of the vast majority of general officers, or Hunt and Brown’s image had been made before Rutherford was brevetted, we wouldn’t be able to make this connection. To paraphrase a founding father, Thomas Jefferson, I find that the harder I work, the luckier I get.

If the man in the center of my CDV is George Rutherford, the junior officers on either side, wearing the gold-striped dark trousers of staff, may be his assistants in the Inspections division. I haven’t been able to discover their names yet, but Rutherford’s identification provides a clear starting point—perhaps for you, gentle reader!

As always, we encourage you to send us brief summaries of your most compelling success stories, as well as scans of images that continue to elude your best efforts, to or our mailing address. We’ll do our best to help you give names to these faces, and with your permission, may publish a sampling in the magazine. Happy hunting!

Kurt Luther is the author of Photo Sleuth, a regular column in Military Images magazine. An assistant professor of computer science at Virginia Tech, he writes and speaks about ways that technology can support historical research, education and preservation.

This installment of Photo Sleuth appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Military Images.

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