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Wanted: IDs for Mysterious Civil War Photos

An old photo of an unidentified child.
An Ambrotype image of an unidentified child found by Pvt. Heartwell Kincaid Adams of the 3rd Virginia Cavalry, in a haversack he took from the body of a dead Federal soldier at High Bridge a few days before Appomattox. (Image credit: Museum of the Confederacy)

Mysterious unclaimed photos from the Civil War have just been released by the Museum of the Confederacy, with hopes that someone will recognize a name or face in the images.

"We don't know who they are, and the people who picked them up did not know who they were," museum curator Ann Drury Wellford told the AP. "They evoke an utter and complete sentimentality."

Most of them have little backstory: These are the kind of photos you find hidden under dense layers of dust in a box of stuff that used to be your grandmother's. They were often found by another soldier and saved in hopes of finding the loved ones pictured, or passed off to a stranger before entering battle.

"Much of it is the unknown factor that the image carries," Jeffrey Ruggles, a historian of photography, told the AP. "It's something that everyone cherishes, a photograph of their loved ones, but there it is out on this battlefield with these seemingly nameless, faceless corpses."

Each photograph is in a hinged case with a leather or composite exterior. The cases protected the fragile images, which were some of the earliest to be widely available. Traveling photographers would visit encamped troops and photograph them.

"It had more versatility than it had ever had," Ruggles said to the AP. "It was the early blossoming of photography. The war just happened to hit at a time when people were very interested in seeing these pictures."

See the full set of mysterious Civil War pictures released by the Museum of the Confederacy, with information on what the museum knows about the image's origins. They include images of children, families, and even the soldiers themselves. Some of the photos have the names of the person who found them or the body the photos were found on.

"I think they're utterly compelling, especially the little girls," Wellford said in an interview with the AP. "You can see that they're dressed well and they're posed in elaborate studios. There was a lot of thought and effort that went into taking those pictures."

"You have these guys out their killing each other and all sorts of bloodshed and he's carrying a picture of a little girl," Welllford told the AP. "It shows the humanity."

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Jennifer Welsh
Jennifer Welsh graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz's Science Communication graduate program after working at a start up biotech company for three years after getting her Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences from the University of Notre Dame. She has worked at WiredScience, The Scientist and Discover Magazine before joining the Live Science team.