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A New Look at Old Abe’s Color Guard: Researchers combine classic and cutting-edge techniques to reexamine the identities of soldiers in an iconic image

By Tyler Phillips, Kenneth E. Byrd and Xukai Zou 

One of the best-known images of the Civil War is that of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry Color Guard with its live eagle mascot, Old Abe, taken shortly after the fall of Vicksburg, Miss., in July 1863. Although this image is widely familiar, the identities of the soldiers within the image are uncertain. The original glass plate negative made by an unknown photographer resides at The Old Court House Museum in Vicksburg.

A copy print of the photograph, part of the A.G. Weissert Collection in the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, features inscribed notes of some of the soldier’s identities. These inscriptions have become the de facto identifications of the men in the image, though by an unknown author in what appears to be a modern hand printing. We recently performed classic and cutting-edge photo sleuthing techniques on this image to gain insights about the true identities of the members of the color guard and the reliability of previous identifications.

View of the front and back of the print, and the mount to which it is attached. A.G. Weissert Collection, Wisconsin Veterans Museum, Madison, Wis.
View of the front and back of the print, and the mount to which it is attached. A.G. Weissert Collection, Wisconsin Veterans Museum, Madison, Wis.

Old Abe has a rich and unusual history. Chief Sky of the Ojibwa Native American tribe captured Old Abe within present-day Chequamegon National Forest. In the spring of 1861, Chief Sky sold Old Abe to Daniel McCann, a French-Canadian employee of Hudson’s Bay Company during a trading expedition. Chief Sky received a bushel of corn in exchange for the eagle.

Later that year, McCann sold Old Abe to Capt. John E. Perkins for $2.50. Perkins had recruited volunteers from Wisconsin’s Eau Claire and Chippewa Counties to fight for the Union. They called themselves the “Eau Claire Badgers.” These men adopted Old Abe, named by Perkins after President Abraham Lincoln, as their mascot. The company’s quartermaster constructed an ornate wooden perch for him.

In early September 1861, the Eau Claire Badgers traveled to the state capital in Madison, and mustered into federal service as Company C of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry. After a few weeks of basic training at Camp Randall in Madison, the 8th left for the war’s Western Theater. By this time, the 8th had become known as “The Eagle Regiment.” According to a wartime account, the enemy referred to Old Abe as “Yankee Buzzard.”

Old Abe: a visual record. From left: Wisconsin Historical Society, Wisconsin Historical Society, The Liljenquist Family Collection at the Library of Congress, The Liljenquist Family Collection at the Library of Congress, Ronald S. Coddington Collection.
Old Abe: a visual record. From left: Wisconsin Historical Society, Wisconsin Historical Society, The Liljenquist Family Collection at the Library of Congress, The Liljenquist Family Collection at the Library of Congress, Ronald S. Coddington Collection.

The Eagle Company had a volunteer “eagle bearer,” who carried the perch to which Old Abe was tethered. This eagle bearer was charged with protecting and caring for Old Abe and would bring the eagle into battle alongside the color guard.

Old Abe survived these forays and the war. The man who introduced him to the regiment, however, did not. Capt. Perkins suffered a mortal wound in the side at the Battle of Farmington, Miss., part of the Siege of Corinth, in May 1862.

After the dawn of peace, Old Abe became an honorary Wisconsinite and American icon. He lived in a special room inside the Wisconsin Capitol. Popular at veterans’ reunion and other events, his photographs raised funds for various charitable causes. His death in 1881 was widely mourned, and taxidermists stuffed his body for display as a war relic. A 1904 fire in the Capitol consumed his remains. His likeness adorns many historical structures throughout Wisconsin and serves as the logo for the equipment manufacturer Case Corporation, as well as the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division.

The image of Old Abe with the Color Guard pictures eight soldiers standing at parade rest in two rows of four. In the front row on the far left, a private holds the shield-shaped perch with Old Abe resting on top. Also in the front row, a sergeant holds the national colors, flanked on either side by a corporal. All the men wear broad-brimmed hats.

The Wisconsin Veterans Museum print contains inscriptions on the back identifying six of the eight soldiers. They are, from left to right: Edward Homiston, an unknown soldier, Ambrose Armitage, Martin Dikershield (or Dickerschied), David McLain, George Reily [sic], Adolph Pitsch, and another unknown soldier.

We set out to verify the widely accepted identifications. As noted in previous issues of MI, even museum holdings can sometimes be misidentified, and inscriptions cannot be taken at face value. We used traditional techniques, as well as biometric and computational analyses.

We began our photo sleuthing by gathering reference images, military service records and contemporary accounts for each of the soldiers named on the back of the image.


Soldier No. 1: Eagle Bearer

First, we considered the leftmost soldier, the eagle bearer, identified in the inscription as Edward Homiston (1837-1915) of Eau Claire. The 1865 book, History of ‘Old Abe’ the War Eagle of the Eighth Wisconsin Volunteers by Joseph O. Barrett, identifies Homiston (or Homaston) as the eagle bearer in the Color Guard photo. Having established this, we moved on to the visual evidence of the man’s uniform and facial features. The soldier wears a sack coat without chevrons, consistent with Homiston’s rank of private. We then compared the soldier’s face with two identified reference photos—a wartime view from the Wisconsin Veterans Museum and a postwar view from—and found strong similarities. Thus, all the evidence supports the inscription’s claim of Homiston as the soldier.

Soldier No. 3

Next, we considered the soldier third from the left, identified as Ambrose Armitage (1839-1880) of Rubicon, Wis. Armitage taught school before he enlisted and kept a detailed diary of his daily activities during the war. An annotated edition of this diary appeared in 2006 by Alden Carter as Brother to the Eagle: The Civil War Journal of Sgt. Ambrose Armitage, 8th Wisconsin Infantry. Armitage noted that he was a part of the color guard, and spent most of his time with Company C. On March 8, 1863, he wrote: “I have heretofore been in the third rank of the color guard on the right of the state colors. To day I was placed in the front rank on the right of the US flag. Sergt Briggs Co ‘C’ is color bearer.”

Later, during the Siege of Vicksburg, Armitage stated that he was still part of the color guard. He also mentioned “Briggs” several times as the flag bearer, and “Homaston” (Homiston) as the eagle bearer. Unfortunately, he did not identify other color guard members.

Thus, by his own account, Armitage stood to the right of the national colors, a position supported by the photo’s inscription. The man’s chevrons match Armitage’s rank of corporal (later sergeant) in 1863. Finally, identified wartime portraits of Armitage from the aforementioned annotated edition of his diary and show a similarly clean-shaven, square-jawed man, leading us to identify him as Armitage.

Soldier No. 5: National Flag Bearer

Armitage’s diary supported two identifications from the inscription—of Homiston, and Armitage himself. But it called into question a third identification. While Armitage named “Sgt. Briggs” as the flag bearer, the photo inscription indicates that the fifth soldier, the flag bearer, is David McLain (1837-1921) of Gilmanton, Wis. While period accounts name McLain as a former eagle bearer, there is no evidence he carried a flag. Furthermore, unlike the flag bearer in the photo, McLain never held the rank of sergeant.

The evidence favoring “Sgt. Briggs” is stronger. Myron A. Briggs (1838-1923) of Eau Claire served as a sergeant in Company C. In the 1929 book History, Tradition and Adventure in the Chippewa Valley by William W. Bartlett, the photo of Old Abe and the Color Guard is reproduced. Bartlett credits the image to the daughter of Briggs, who identified her father as the fifth, flag-bearing soldier. Unfortunately, we were unable to locate any photographs of Briggs to compare facial features.

Soldier No. 6: Regimental Flag Bearer

The mount inscription identifies the soldier holding the regimental flag as “George Reily,” likely a reference to Cpl. George William Riley (1838-1905) of Eau Claire. The soldier’s rank insignia, if any, is obfuscated by the men standing in front of him, but one wartime reference photo of Riley is available through the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. A comparison of these photos casts doubt on the Riley identification.

One of our team, Dr. Kenneth Byrd, raised a doubt during his initial research that the sixth man may not be Riley after surfacing a circa 1905 image of another member of the Color Guard, Corp. Walter Quick (1836-1913). Byrd uncovered this fact in a 1918 edition of the Wisconsin Birnamwood News, as well as family history and obituary information, all provided by Jason Quick, a direct descendant of Corp. Quick.

Byrd approached a colleague, Dr. Xukai Zou, and asked if there might be a technical way to validate the identity of the regimental flag bearer. Zou, an associate professor in the Department of Computer & Information Science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), offered ideas about how to apply modern technology to tackle the problem. A preliminary study and extensive experiments (conducted by Tyler Phillips, a PhD student at IUPUI) followed to determine if Quick, and not Riley, might be the man holding the regimental flag.

To test this theory, we compared the facial features of the flag bearer with those of several other candidate soldiers who served in the Color Guard. We performed a range of tests using traditional biometric and state-of-the-art deep learning techniques.

The traditional biometric techniques involve two main steps. First, as a preparatory step, we increased the contrast of the images using a process known as “contrast equalization.” Then, we applied hundreds of Gabor filters, which are commonly used by researchers to reveal minute features in images.

These traditional techniques yielded interesting results that motivated us to apply a deep learning method called FaceNet, developed by Google for large-scale face recognition and verification. FaceNet analyzes visual imagery using a “convolutional neural network,” which extracts facial features from images for easy comparison. The method has been proven extremely accurate.

A detailed, scientific description of our methods can be viewed at

Our analysis using these techniques found that Riley’s wartime portrait had a 20 percent lower facial similarity than Quick’s 1905 portrait. We concluded that the inscription naming the sixth man as George Riley is likely incorrect. Civil War researcher Scott Fink later reinforced this result. He observed that Quick and the sixth man share a similar expression produced by a facial muscle located between the eyes at the brow line known as the corrugator supercilii. Reference photos of George Riley lacked this distinctive expression, suggesting he was not the flag bearer.

Soldier No. 7

The inscription identifies this man as Adolph Pitsch (about 1830-1878) of Chippewa Falls, Wis. In the 1890 book, The Eagle Regiment, 8th Wisconsin Infantry, author John M. Williams noted that Pitsch was given orders to carry Old Abe in the event Edward Homiston was killed. It is reasonable to infer that Pitsch belonged to the Color Guard. Two pieces of evidence support this identity. The soldier wears the chevrons on his sleeves, which rank Pitsch held. Moreover, a wartime portrait of Pitsch from the Wisconsin Veterans Museum resembles him. We concluded that the identification is correct.

Remaining Soldiers (No. 2, No. 4 and No. 8)


These men remain unidentified. The second soldier, whose rank is obscured, may be Cpl. Lucas B. Lathrop (1836-1929), mentioned in Armitage’s diary as a member of the Color Guard. His distinctive, clean-shaven face bears some similarities to two postwar reference photos of Lathrop from the Wisconsin Historical Society. The fourth soldier’s face is barely visible due to Armitage and shadows. Without hints provided by historical evidence, identifying this man may not be possible. The facial features of the eighth soldier, a corporal, are hidden behind shadows and an impressive full beard, making a visual comparison difficult.


Our research supports the identifications of five of the eight soldiers pictured in the Old Abe and Color Guard at Vicksburg photo and challenges two previous identifications. Our analysis of the national flag bearer’s identity provides a proof-of-concept that these methods can be used to challenge assumptions and illuminate new possibilities. Our future work plans involve gathering a more complete collection of images of likely candidates within the group portrait. With this collection, we hope to perform a comprehensive, comparative experiment to further validate our identifications and also identify as many of the other soldiers pictured in the photograph as possible.

References: Zeitlin, Old Abe The War Eagle: A True Story of the Civil War and Reconstruction; McLain, “The Story of Old Abe.” The Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol. 8, No. 4 (1925); Barrett, History of “Old Abe,” the Live War Eagle of the Eighth Regiment Wisconsin Volunteers, Eau Claire Leader, March 27, 1914; McLain, David (1976). “That ‘war eagle’ had quite a record.” Eau Claire Leader Telegram, American Local History Network-Wisconsin Local History Network-Eau Claire County; Bartlett, History, Tradition and Adventure in the Chippewa Valley; Carter, Brother to the Eagle: The Civil War Journal of Sgt. Ambrose Armitage, 8th Wisconsin Infantry; Williams, The Eagle Regiment, 8th Wis. Infty. Vols.: A Sketch of Its Marches, Battles and Campaigns, from 1861 to 1865; Kazemi and Sullivan, “One millisecond face alignment with an ensemble of regression trees,” 2014 IEEE Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition; Guo and Huang, “Human age estimation using bio-inspired features,” 2009 IEEE Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition; Spizhevoi and Bovyrin, “Estimating human age using bio-inspired features and the ranking method,” Pattern Recognition and Image Analysis 25.3 (2015); Pizer, Amburn, Austin, Cromartie, Geselowitz, Greer and Zimmerman, Adaptive histogram equalization and its variations, Computer Vision, Graphics, and Image Processing, v.39 n.3; Schroff, Kalenichenko and Philbin, “FaceNet: A unified embedding for face recognition and clustering,” 2015 IEEE Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition; Huang, Ramesh, Berg, Learned and Miller, “Labeled faces in the wild: A database for studying face recognition in unconstrained environments,” Technical Report 07-49; Wolf, Hassner and Maoz, “Face recognition in unconstrained videos with matched background similarity,” CVPR 2011; Birnamwood News, Jan. 16, 1918; Quick Family History book; Shawano County Journal, Oct. 2, 1913; Scott Fink email to Kenneth E. Byrd, July 18, 2018; Neumann, Chan, Boyle, Wang, and Westbury, “Measures of empathy: self-report, behavioral, and neuroscientific approaches;” Boyle, et al., Elsevier Science & Technology 2014.

Soldier photo credits: Wisconsin Veterans Museum: Edward Homiston, David McLain, George W. Reily and Adolph Pitsch; Armitage Family: Ambrose Armitage; Jason Quick: Walter Quick

Acknowledgements: The authors wish to thank the following individuals for their time, assistance, suggestions, and input: Dr. Kurt Luther, Assistant Professor of Computer Science, Virginia Tech Research Center-Arlington; Samantha Wolf, Reference Archivist at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum; Lisa Marine, Image Reproduction & Licensing Manager at the Wisconsin Historical Society; Theodore P. Savas of Savas Beatie LLC Publishing; Scott T. Fink, Olney, Md.; Alden Carter, Wisconsinite Author of 2006 publication of Ambrose Armitage’s Diary; Jason Quick, Denver, Colo., and great-great-grandson of Cpl. Walter Quick.   

Note: This work was partially supported by an IUPUI School of Science Near the Miss grant and an NSF Cybersecurity Innovation for Cyberinfrastructure grant (NSF #1839746).

Tyler Phillips is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Computer & Information Science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI).

Kenneth E. Byrd is Associate Professor in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at Indiana University School of Medicine, Indianapolis.

Xukai Zou is Associate Professor in the Department of Computer & Information Science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI).

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