Kurt Luther, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech, developed a platform called Photo Sleuth after he discovered a picture of a distant relative who had fought in the Civil War.
"Seeing my distant relative staring back at me was like traveling through time,” said Luther in a statement. "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 professor, who considers himself a history buff, was inspired to create the software when he visited the Heinz History Center's exhibit called "Pennsylvania's Civil War" in Pittsburgh in 2013.
That's where he found a portrait of Oliver Croxton, his great-great-great uncle who served in Company E of the 134th Regiment, Pennsylvania, wearing a corporal's uniform.
Users can upload photos, tag them with visual clues – such as the color of a coat, shoulder straps, collar insignia, or inscriptions – and connect them to profiles of Civil War soldiers with more detailed records of military service.
The site’s post-launch success can be attributed in part to the input of its strong user community.
According to a Virginia Tech's press release, more than 600 users contributed more than 2,000 Civil War photos to the website in the first month after the launch, and roughly half of those photos were unidentified. More than 100 of the unknown photos were linked to specific soldiers, and an expert analysis found more than 85 percent of the proposed identifications were probably or definitely correct.
Photo Sleuth cross-references the uploaded images with its database, which contains 15,000 identified Civil War portraits from the public domain, including the U.S. Military History Institute.
The database has grown dramatically since then.
“Typically, crowdsourced research such as this is challenging for novices if users don’t have specific knowledge of the subject area,” Luther said in a statement. “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.”
Luther will be demonstrating Photo Sleuth on May 4 at the grand opening of the expanded American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Va.