Civil War Facial Recognition

Photography was a new technology at the time of the U.S. Civil War. An estimated 40 million photos were taken during the Civil war – although only four million are believed to remain today. Many have been treated as heirloom photos by families ever since. Still others are valuable for their historical value. One problem is that many of the people shown in the old photographs have never been identified, until now.

In a marriage of the latest technology and 150-year-old technology, computerized facial recognition techniques are now identifying many of the people in the old photographs.

Computer scientist and history buff Kurt Luther created a free-to-use website, called Civil War Photo Sleuth, that uses facial recognition technology to cross-reference vintage photographs with a database and hopefully assign a name to unknown subjects.

Anyone may upload their own photographs or select from the many photographs that are already available online, such as photos from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration’s web site. The software in the Civil War Photo Sleuth web site then maps as many as 27 “facial landmarks” on each photograph. Once it finishes cross-referencing, the site will serve up a slate of closely similar photographs that already have names attached.

For any one photo, the web site often identifies a number of potential candidates, rather than just one. In that case, humans have to compare the photographs of potential candidates to identify the correct person, if possible.

A lot more information about the Civil War Photo Sleuth may be found in an article by Annie Palmer in the Daily Mail web site at while the Civil War Photo Sleuth web site may be found at:

My thanks to the several newsletter readers who wrote to me to let me know of this valuable online resource.


Thanks. Great resource. Been trying to i.d. Civil War era photo for years.


What a great merger of technology concepts !


Does anyone know if this technology is available for identification of other photos please, ie non-US Civil War ones.
We have a photo, originally ambrotype, marked 1860, of a gentlemen. Clearly well-to-do, almost certainly taken in NSW, Australia. Does a collection of old photos exist, with a database where one can specify such selection criteria and it will than bring up other photos that maybe of the same individual.
In this case, the only image we know of the person this photo might be, is a portrait. They don’t match, but that could be because the painter didn’t correctly capture his features.


On the uses and misuses of facial recognition technology with historic photos, see, “Adventures in Wonderland: Identifying Old west Photos”


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