When Kurt Luther, a Virginia Tech assistant professor of computer science, found a photo of a distance relative who had fought in the Civil War, he found a mystery, but also an opportunity. Using A.I, Luther hopes to connect modern people with Civil War relatives they might not have even known about using the
“Seeing my distant relative staring back at me was like traveling through time,” Luther says in a , speaking about a Civil War-era portrait he found of Oliver Croxton, his great-great-great uncle who served in Company E of the . “Historical photos can tell us a lot about not only our own familial history but also inform the historical record of the time more broadly than just reading about the event in a history book.”
The Photo Sleuth works like this. First, a user signs up for free. Then they upload Civil War-era photos, front and back to discourage the use of mere printouts. Then they tag the photo with visual cues: What is their collar insignia? How many chevrons does their uniform have? And, perhaps the most important, North or South?
“Typically, crowdsourced research such as this is challenging for novices if users don’t have specific knowledge of the subject area,” Luther says. “The step-by-step process of tagging visual clues and applying search filters linked to military service records makes this detective work more accessible, even for those that may not have a deeper knowledge of Civil War military history.”
Then, the Photo Sleuth cross-references the photos with its own database: 15,000 identified Civil War soldier portraits from the public domain, relying on entities such as the . Information about the photos comes from other public domain sources like the .
Once users are looking at photos, the Photo Sleuth allows them to analyze photos in close detail with pan and zoom controls, allowing them get as good as look as is possible over a computer to see if there's any resemblance, family or otherwise.
Launched on August 1st, 2018, the site is off to a strong start. According to a press release, 600 users have contributed more than 2,000 Civil War photos to the Photo Sleuth within the site's first month, with around 1,000 of them unidentified. From the unknown, the Photo Sleuth's algorithms have been able to identify 100 of them. Luther estimates over 85 percent of these proposed identifications were probably or definitely correct.
Currently the site has approximately 4,000 registered users and over 8,000 photos. That's impressive, but it also speaks to the challenge ahead: there are almost 4 million photographs of Civil War-era soldiers.
Identifying veterans of historic conflicts is a priority for both history enthusiasts and the U.S military alike. The Department of Defense operates an agency known as the DPAA which at times goes to extreme lengths to rescue and recover fallen soldiers from older conflicts.