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Photo Sleuth

By Kurt Luther 

A Civil War photo sleuth is only as good as his or her tools. Knowledge can help us notice clues in an image and reach some basic conclusions about its subject: Union or Confederate, army or navy, officer or enlisted, wartime or post-war. Experience can help us triage an unorganized mass of images, narrowing down those with the most potential to yield their backstories. Instinct helps to guide us toward the most promising of many possible paths for researching an unidentified portrait. But at the end of the day, we need to draw upon tools of the trade—service records, uniform and equipment guides, regimental histories, photo collections and other reference works—to get from general observations about a photo to a specific name and biography.

For the past century and a half, most of this information was found in books, and print materials remain an essential component of the photo sleuth’s toolkit. For example, Roger Hunt’s Colonels in Blue series offers an unparalleled source of photos and biographies of hundreds of Union colonels. Some views in these books, such as a full-length portrait of Robert Gould Shaw as a private in the 7th New York Militia, simply can’t be found anywhere else, as only Hunt’s reputation and personal connections convinced collectors to permit them to be published. Clifford and Michele Krainik and Carl Walvoord’s Union Cases (1988) remains a definitive photographic reference for identifying, dating, and sourcing the eponymous hard image cases. Greg Mast’s incomparable State Troops and Volunteers (1995) is a trove of Confederate portraits, containing more than 600 rare images of North Carolina soldiers. Some of these texts are out-of-print and becoming pricier and harder to find. For instance, a used copy of State Troops sells for $400. But local libraries and interlibrary loan programs offer temporary access to many of them. 

“With so many digital resources available to anyone with a computer and Internet access, it can be difficult to know where to start.”

The best Civil War photo sleuths augment their bookshelves with a powerful complement of digital tools. They use Internet search engines to discover sources they didn’t know existed. They access databases with millions of military and genealogical records that can be quickly sorted and filtered to reveal new insights. They view and download books, photos and documents from digitized collections posted online by museums and libraries, free to the public. And, they participate in online communities of enthusiasts and collectors from around the world, to exchange information and learn from one another.

With so many digital resources available to anyone with a computer and Internet access, it can be difficult to know where to start. Even experienced researchers may not be familiar with every useful website or database. Below, we review some essential components of a Civil War photo sleuth’s digital toolkit, describing key features of each, and pointing out some comparative strengths and weaknesses. These digital tools, along with print materials, can help uncover more and greater photo mysteries than either alone, but only if we understand how and when to use them.

American Civil War Research Database

The American Civil War Research Database  is among the most comprehensive online databases for photo research. Often called HDS in reference to its operator, Massachusetts-based Historical Data Systems, Inc., the database is privately managed and available by subscription only ($25 per year). The crown jewel of HDS for photo sleuths is its collection of more than 20,000 digitized, identified, primarily wartime portraits of Civil War soldiers. The bulk of these images come from the USMHI and New York State Military Museum collections (see below), but many others are donated by HDS subscribers, and are not readily available elsewhere. The images are searchable and some sources are attributed, but the quality is uneven with few back marks or photographer details provided. Unfortunately, Confederates are poorly represented, comprising fewer than 2,000 images, with most of them post-war.

Another compelling feature of HDS is its database of Civil War military records. HDS boasts information on 4.3 million Union and Confederate soldiers. Sailors however, are not well represented. The lion’s share of the records are digitized rosters published by state governments in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Other sources, such as U.S. census records and regimental histories from Frederick Dyer’s Compendium of the War of the Rebellion (1908), are also included. The real power of HDS lies in its relational database, connecting information from numerous sources to a single soldier or unit name. One can look up a given regiment, read its history, view photos of its members, drill down on one particular soldier and view his entire service record, and, in some cases, his post-war biography and burial site. One could then look up the soldier’s hometown and explore the records of every man who enlisted in that area, organized by discharge reason. For a photo sleuth, this tight integration of images and information is invaluable.

Civil War Soldiers & Sailors System

The U.S. National Park Service (NPS) operates a database, the Civil War Soldiers & Sailors System (CWSS), which can also be quite useful to photo sleuths. Like HDS, it focuses on military service records for men on both sides of the conflict. It includes approximately 4,000 regimental histories of Northern and Southern units (from Dyer’s Compendium and Joseph Crute’s Units of the Confederate States Army (1987), respectively), nearly 400 battle summaries, and several other interesting collections, such as National Cemetery records and monument photos. A convenient search tool allows users to browse records by regiment or battalion name, from Abernathy’s Company of Kansas Home Guards to Zimmerman’s Company of South Carolina Artillery and everything in between. This facilitates some types of searches that are clunky or impossible to accomplish using the unit number-plus-state system employed by HDS and other sites. Unlike HDS, CWSS draws its information from wartime muster rolls catalogued in the 1880s by the U.S. Dept. of the Army, rather than aggregated state reports, yielding service records for 3.5 million warriors. As a result, I occasionally find names in CWSS that are not in HDS, and vice-versa. Also, unlike HDS, CWSS has extensive records on African American sailors, though the NPS admits these are less comprehensive than those of soldiers due to looser record keeping. While one of HDS’s greatest strengths is its large collection of searchable images, the CWSS does not include portraits.

USMHI Digital Collections

The U.S. Military History Institute, part of the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., manages an impressive archive of Civil War images, many of which are identified, digitized and posted online. The centerpiece of this archive is the MOLLUS-MASS Civil War Photographs Collection, which holds dozens of carte de visite albums assembled by the Massachusetts Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, a veterans organization formed by Union officers in the final days of the Civil War. Most of the images are wartime portraits, with some field photography and post-war images. Although officers of the Bay State are well represented, the collection is remarkably comprehensive, and includes hundreds of images of officers from other states in the Union. One advantage the USMHI has over the HDS is that it offers multiple views of the same soldier. The images have been scanned at high resolution and allow for extensive zooming, but the large watermarks often become distracting.

In addition to the MOLLUS collection, USMHI also maintains a smaller, more diverse Civil War Photographs Collection with some 800 digitized images, mainly portraits of Union officers, enlisted soldiers and a few civilians, and claims that 80 percent are identified. USMHI’s extensive holdings of un-digitized Civil War images are searchable through its web sites and copies can be requested via mail or in person.

Library of Congress Civil War Collections

The Library of Congress offers two notable collections of digitized Civil War photos. The first, officially known as the Anthony-Taylor-Rand-Ordway-Eaton Collection, is the famous collection of roughly 7,000 images produced by Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner during the war. Most of these images are scanned glass negatives of field photography (often stereoviews), along with some portraits. Many of the images are captioned with some identifying information, such as the unit designation, location or date, and, in some cases, individual soldiers are named. One benefit of these annotations is that photo sleuths can search for field photography of a certain regiment and find new views of junior officers, NCOs and enlisted men, supplementing the portraits found in other sources.

The Library of Congress also maintains the Liljenquist Family Collection, comprising more than 1,200 digitized portraits from the Civil War era, primarily hard images. More than 300 are of Confederates, representing one of the richest sources of Rebel portraiture available to the public anywhere. Some Liljenquist images provide names, but many others do not. Occasionally, eagle-eyed members of the public identify unknown subjects in the collection; the previous issue of MI’s Mail Call describes one such discovery.

In general, the Library of Congress provides some of the highest quality digitized Civil War images available online. Images are scanned at extremely high resolution, and, unlike almost any other source, include alternate views, such as the backs of carte de visite mounts and hard image cases.

Internet Archive eBooks and Texts

When I attempt to identify a photo of an unnamed officer from a known regiment, one of my first tasks is to search the Internet Archive for a regimental history. All the material on the site is digitized and free to download or browse using a well-designed reading interface. Just as important for a photo sleuth, many texts have been automatically processed using OCR (optical character recognition) technology so their contents are searchable.

The Internet Archive is a non-profit organization with an ambitious mission to provide “universal access to all knowledge.” It archives billions of documents, including web pages, video, audio and nearly 8 million books. Many of these were published prior to 1923, placing them in the public domain, which allows the Internet Archive to share them free of charge. Consequently, the site offers a wealth of wartime and early post-war publications, from well-known classics, such as Samuel Bates’ History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5 (1869), to more obscure works like Reminiscences of California and the Civil War (1894) by 40th NY Infantry sergeant Daniel Cooledge Fletcher. Notably, the archive has many rare or long out-of-print regimental histories, which are often troves of soldier photos, engravings and anecdotes otherwise unpublished. 

Ancestry.com and related sites

Ancestry.com is the largest of several commercial web sites that provide access to various types of historical and genealogical records. For a subscription fee of $19.99/month (more for international records), Ancestry.com provides access to an unparalleled collection of digitized, transcribed and searchable primary source materials: federal and state census records; birth, marriage and death certificates, obituaries, city directories and hundreds of other document types. The site also allows members to construct and share family trees, and attach digitized source materials from their private archives. Since anyone can contribute, regardless of credentials, Ancestry.com is a source of serendipitous discoveries and wild misinformation, often in equal helpings. One might stumble across a member-uploaded photo of a Civil War ancestor, but without clear provenance, the attribution often must be taken with a big grain of salt.

Ancestry.com’s parent company also owns several more specialized sites. Fold3.com bills itself as the largest online collection of historical U.S. military records. The Civil War-related archives include indexes of muster rolls and pension applications, Confederate amnesty papers and U.S. War Department correspondence, and the occasional photo. As with Ancestry.com, Fold3.com members can contribute documents, and most material requires a subscription ($7.95/month) to view.

Newspapers.com, one of the newest Ancestry.com sites, provides access to 3,500 digitized, searchable newspapers from the 18th century onward. And, like Fold3.com, it requires a $7.95/month subscription.

Find A Grave, founded in the 1990s and acquired by Ancestry.com in 2013, originally focused on providing an online database of cemetery records, but now allows users to augment these records with headstone transcriptions, biographical details and images of the deceased. The site, which is free, boasts more than 100 million online memorials and 75 million photos. Find A Grave’s open contribution system is a mixed bag. Many family members and history enthusiasts have posted photos and information about Civil War soldiers and sailors, but the quality and accuracy varies widely.

Other sources

This column touches on just a handful of useful resources for a Civil War photo sleuth. Beyond these “heavy hitters,” many smaller or more focused repositories can be quite valuable. For example, many state libraries and museums offer large, well-organized online galleries of Civil War photos relating to people and events from their areas; the New York State Military Museum and Indiana State Library are two excellent examples. Many other local history societies, libraries and museums also share material online.

Commercial sources can also serve as surprisingly valuable references. Dozens of identified Civil War images are sold in online auction sites each week. Some sites, such as Cowan’s Auctions, maintain old listings indefinitely, including high-resolution photographs, descriptions and sale prices. Other dealer sites also continue to list sold items for reference purposes. The usefulness of these commercial sources for photo sleuths tends to depend heavily on the presence and capabilities of their searching and browsing tools.

Finally, social media is an increasingly powerful way to gain insight into a photo mystery. Facebook is home to a number of online communities where people discuss, analyze and make discoveries related to Civil War images. Two of the most active are Civil War Faces and Unsolved Civil War Photo Mysteries. Inspired by the success of these groups, Military Images is launching a Facebook page for this column, Civil War Photo Sleuth. We invite readers to “like” the page, and join us in sharing techniques and collaboratively solving mysteries involving images of Civil War soldiers and sailors.

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 PhotoSleuthMI@gmail.com 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 an assistant professor of computer science at Virginia Tech. He writes and speaks about ways that technology can support historical research, education and preservation.

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