How Artificial Intelligence Is Helping Identify Thousands of Unknown Civil War Soldiers


Samuel Holmes Doten of Plymouth, Mass., was born June 5, 1812, so after the Civil War ended in 1865, he would joke that he “served in the infantry in the war of that date.”

William Kendall Crossfield, a Peterborough, N.H. native, was having a rest during the battle of Fredericksburg when he was shot in the neck while turning over. The blanket he had pulled up to his chin miraculously cushioned the bullet, but he passed out from the shock of the blow.

Vermonter Almeron C. Inman was recommended for the Medal of Honor of Feb. 9, 1887, “for intelligent coolness and bravery” in two 1864 engagements. After going missing for three months in 1895.he was found dead, thought to have killed himself.

The three men had different Civil War stories, but they also had something in common: like many who fought during that conflict, they were photographed in uniform. Multiple copies of the photos were made, and some became untethered from identifying information. Their faces became nameless symbols rather than part of concrete lives. And few of those pictures ended up with David Morin in Exeter, N.H., who boasts a collection of more than 260 Civil War military pictures.Until now, these three men remained a mystery to him — but in the course of the last year, he identified them using Civil War Photo Sleuth, a website that uses facial recognition technology, a form of artificial intelligence (A.I.), to identify the men in such photos. And in 2020 the site is planning to add a new feature, after a successful test: a way for users to get second opinions on potential photo matches.

“Today history is so much better documented and the chances of things living on are so much greater,” says Morin.

While the Civil War started 158 years ago, the market for Civil War photography collections is relatively new, according to Ron Coddington, one of the site’s collaborators and the publisher and editor of Military Images magazine. There are photos of prior American military conflicts, but the Civil War is considered the first systematically photographed war, ushering in a new era of photojournalism in America. But by the time the centennial of the beginning of the Civil War arrived in 1961, bringing a new wave of interest in the conflict among history buffs, albums from that period were increasingly held by collectors rather than private families. In that transition, much information about the images had been lost. Though books about Civil War photographs, with basic biographical information, started coming out in the ’80s, many collectors had no easy way of learning the names of the people in the pictures they owned.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here