Three Techniques for Solving a Military Mystery

By Maureen A. Taylor

You know the expression, “There’s something about a man in uniform.” Well I can finish that phrase with “that’s so mysterious.” One of the most difficult photo mysteries to solve is a person in a uniform.

There are a few reasons why that’s true. First there were no standardized military uniforms in the nineteenth century. Plus there were uniforms worn at military schools as well. Variables in head to toe attire and gear can make identifying the uniform in a military image a real challenge. You can learn more about solving these types of mysteries in the Family Photo Detective.

Rebecca Cook owns this photo of her great-grandfather Montgomery Grant Hunter. Not only does she know who’s in this picture, she knows how old he is here.

On the back appears a caption: “age 18.” Since he was born in 1864 in Virginia, that information dates the picture to circa 1882. He lived in the Virginia-Maryland-District of Columbia area. Family thinks he was named after two Union generals.

Research the Photographer
The photographer was Rice. That name is barely visible on the dark card stock. There were two photographers named Rice in Washington, D.C. who were uncle and nephew. Moses Parker Rice and his nephew George W. Rice operated studios in the nation’s capital. George left the area in 1881 to join an ill-fated Arctic expedition. The Rice family originally hailed from Nova Scotia and several generations became photographers. The photographer’s imprint places Montgomery in Washington, D.C. for this portrait.

Study Family Information
I wonder if there are any stories passed amongst his descendants that address his military service. A quick search of revealed a gravestone for him without any military symbols on it on Find a Grave and information on his medical school training in the Directory of Deceased American Physicians directory. He attended the George Washington Medical School. Creating a timeline of his life before and just after this photograph could offer clues to the uniform.

Identify the Uniform
This is the really hard part. There were military schools in Virginia and Maryland. It’s a two phase identification problem. First identify which of those schools were founded before 1882 (and had graduating classes) then try to locate pictures of graduates in uniforms. Given his age, this could be a graduation photo OR an image of him as a freshman in college. OR he may have enlisted. The fact that he was in uniform and the photo was taken in DC suggests he was in that area at that time.

Using Google Images didn’t work. That can be a quick shortcut. You upload an image and let the web do the work, but results showed other cabinet cards of men and no matches for the uniform.

It’s going to take time to search each school and then contact their archives/special collections department for examples of the uniforms worn by students in the 1880s.

It only takes one match to make this a photo success story.

Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album
  • Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Photo-Organizing Practices
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Searching for Family History Photos: How to Get Them Now