Using Facial Recognition to Identify Civil War Photos

During the American Civil War, tens of thousands of photographs were taken. Many of those were portraits of both soldiers and civilians.  Unfortunately, a large amount of the subjects in those photos have gone unidentified. One website is looking to use facial recognition, crowdsourcing, and artificial intelligence to put names with some of the faces.

Civil War Photo Sleuth Facial Recognition - YellRobot
credit: Civil War Photo Sleuth

Civil War Photo Sleuth Uses Facial Recognition, AI and Crowd Sourcing

Civil War Photo Sleuth’s mission is to “rediscover the lost names and stories of every photo of American Civil War whether they be of soldier or civilian”. That’s a mountain of a task but they seem to have a pretty good strategy.

Users can upload photos from anywhere whether it be their own personal collections or those they come across in books, museums, and antique stores. The database already has 15,000 identified images to cross-reference; many from national and state archives accessible to the public.


CWPS Uses 27 Facial Landmarks

When a new photo is uploaded, the CWPS advanced facial recognition software identifies up to 27 “facial landmarks”. To help narrow down the search, users can tag images with details such as unit rank, insignia, photographer, inscriptions, and locations.

Once the system analyzes the photo and gathers all accompanying information it will cross-reference the image with all the identified photos that are in the database.  The AI can even match photos if the soldier’s facial hair changes or the picture is shot at a different angle.


Civil War Photo Sleuth Facial Recognition - YellRobot

Users Can Share Information in Online Community

It only takes a few seconds for the software to cross reference the photos. Users have the option to upload their photos publicly or privately. The website also hosts an online community in which users can share information and help one another attempt to try to figure out identities. Since its launch on Aug 1 2018, Civil War Photo Sleuth has already identified more than 75 photographs.

Civil War Photo Sleuth is led by Prof. Kurt Luther, director of the Crowd Intelligence Lab at Virginia Tech. His partners include Mr. Ron Coddington, editor, and publisher of Military Images Magazine, and Prof. Paul Quigley, director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies. The group is also helped out by students and an advisory board.

AI Shedding Light on History

It’s great to see artificial intelligence being used to help shed light on a historical event that took place in the 1800s. While giving recognition to those who participated and were affected by the bloody conflict, Civil War Photo Sleuth can also help descendants of those involved get more insight into their own family history.

If you’d like to contribute photos or just check out their progress visit The website is free to use.


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