How to Identify Civil War Photos

Do you own a family photograph taken during the American Civil War (1861-1865)? Whether it’s a man in uniform or a woman with her children, each picture has a story to tell of your ancestor’s involvement in a critical period of history. You can uncover that tale by studying the photo and by learning more about general history and your family during that period.

  1. What kind of photo is it? Only certain photo styles were available during the Civil War, like daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, iron tintypes, cartes de visite (or card photographs) and stereographs. The photo mat, sleeve and cardstock could also give clues: look for patriotic details that hint at wartime fervor.
  2. Who is the photographer? In the 1860s, photographers operated studios in cities and towns all over the U.S. Once the war began, soldiers began sitting for pictures to leave with relatives before they headed off for war. Photographers also set up shop near encampments. On the back of Civil War-era images you’re likely to find a photographer’s name and address. Identifying the photographer can help confirm when and where this image was taken.
  3. What is the subject wearing? Uniform clues supply you with evidence of military service, leading you to further explorations in military records. Civilian fashions can help date an image, too. The style of a wedding dress, mourning wear, child’s outfit or even a hat or bonnet can give important clues.
  4. What props and background are used? Certain furniture styles, backdrops (including painted ones) and military-themed props were popular. (Hint: if there’s a flag in the background, count the stars! After July 4, 1861 there were 34 states in the union; two years later there were 35.

Learn to answer these questions in depth—and more tips for how to identify Civil War photos —in my book, Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album. For a more general resource on this topic, check out Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries. Does an old picture have you truly stumped? Send it to me for an online photo consultation, a cost-effective way to get an expert opinion on your photo mystery. Finally, contact me if you’re looking for a speaker for your group on historical photography or fashion, family history and related topics.

Example: The Patriotic Eagle

How to research 19th century American photographers, Civil War photographer

The eagle was a common patriotic symbol present in photographer imprints during the Civil War. A photographer’s name and address on the back of an image provides a starting place to research their work dates using census records, city directories and newspapers.