Photo Detective: Military Training
12/1/2004
Can you identify this unknown soldier? Look closely at his headgear, decoration, weapons and equipment. Learn to identify ancestors in uniform by following these basic orders.

Count yourself lucky if you've found photos of forebears in military attire. When you know what to look for, those portraits can lead you right to your ancestors' military service records. Susan Ferrell uncovered this portrait in her family photo collection, and she hopes the uniform will provide the necessary clues to produce a positive identification. Because such a wide variety of uniform designs appeared over the years, interpreting military images can be difficult. But Ferrell can find answers by following a few steps — and you can use the same procedure to identify your own military portraits.

Ferrell should start by establishing a time frame for the image, based on the photographic method. This picture's a paper print, which means it dates from the mid-1850s or later. A photographer's imprint could narrow the time frame by revealing the artist's name and place of business. Using old city and photographer directories, Ferrell could then determine when he operated his studio. Unfortunately, this image lacks an imprint, so she'll have to rely on costume clues instead.