Slate has the story.
When Kurt Luther walked into Pittsburghâ€™s Heinz History Center in 2013 to attend an exhibition about Pennsylvania during the Civil War, he didnâ€™t expect to be greeted by his great-great-great-uncle. A computer scientist and Civil War enthusiast, Luther had been drawn to researching his own familyâ€™s connection to the conflict, gradually piecing together information over years and years. But his searches had always failed to turn up a photograph, and Luther was ready to give up on the possibility of ever seeing his ancestorsâ€™ faces. It was only through sheer happenstance that, walking through the History Center that day, Luther had spotted an album of portraits of the men of Company E, 134th Pennsylvaniaâ€“â€“his great-great-great-uncleâ€™s unit. Laying eyes on his relativeâ€™s face for the first time, he later wrote, felt like â€œclosing a gap of 150 years.â€
Five years later, Luther launched Civil War Photo Sleuth, a web platform dedicated to closing the gap a little further. Together with Ron Coddington (editor of the magazine Military Images), Paul Quigley (director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies), and a group of student researchers at Virginia Tech, Luther crafted a free and easy-to-use website that applies facial recognition to the multitude of anonymous portraits that survive from the conflict, in the hopes of identifying the sitter. When a user uploads a photograph, the software maps up to 27 distinct â€œfacial landmarks.â€ Users are further able to refine their searches by adding filters for uniform details that could offer clues about rank. (Three chevrons and a star, for instance, indicates a rank of ordnance sergeant for both the Union and Confederate armies, while shoulder straps with an eagle were worn by Union colonels.) From there, the program cross-references the photo with the other images in CWPSâ€™s growing database. The final search results present an array of possible matches (and possible names) for consideration.
It’s all the facial fungus that makes it hard.