In April of 1862, the Battle of Shiloh was fought in Hardin County, Tennessee. The Confederate General Albert Johnson attempted to ambush the Federal forces led by General Ulysses S. Grant. The initial assault and the Federal counter attack was one of the bloodiest battles in America to date. There were 23,000 casualties littered over the Tennessee countryside.
Medical techniques at the time were rudimentary at best. Many soldiers died of infection and gangrene instead of their original wounds. If they survived the infection, the men faced possible battlefield amputations without anesthesia and no guaranteed success rate. The conditions of the battle made it nearly impossible to get the wounded off the field. The ground was soggy and swampy, and men had to wait for help in the cold, wet standing water and copious mud. They were left to fight infection and grievous injury on their own for days. It was only through a miracle that the casualties were not worse.
The men noticed as night fell, some of their wounds glowed with a faint blue light. No one knew what it was or what it meant. To the weakened men, they could have thought it was a hallucination, but it was there. It remained as they men were eventually evacuated to field hospitals. Amazingly, the medics noticed that the men who had glowing wounds did not have the typical infection that accompanied these kinds of battlefield injuries. They had a higher rate of healing and recovery than their fellow soldiers whose wounds did not glow. There was only a rudimentary understanding of germ theory at this time, so the men described it in the only way they could. They called the glowing blue light ‘the angel’s glow’, and thought that the wounds had been healed by the touch of angels.
This passed into folklore until a pair of young civil war buffs got curious. In 2001, 17 year old Bill Martin visited the Shiloh battlefield and got curious about the glowing wounds. With the help of his mom, who was Agricultural Research Scientist, he and his friend Jonathan Curtis began a high school science project called “Civil War Wounds that Glowed.” (This beats the hell out of my project about volcanos.) Anyway, what the boys found was the soil conditions at Shiloh after the battle were perfect for a tiny parasitic worm called nematodes. Nematodes feed on maggots and other insect larvae that are attracted to open wounds. Nematodes throw up a bacteria called P. luminescens, which kill the other microorganisms and allow the nematodes to feed uninterrupted. P. luminescens glow soft blue in the dark. The boys’ theory said that the P. luminescens in the wounds killed off the bacteria that caused infection and gangrene, allowing the wounds to heal. They also hypothesized that the cool April weather sent the men into hypothermia, which allowed the P. luminescens to survive in the wounds where it would usually be too warm.
So a combination of hypothermia and parasitic worms kept the men alive, and made up the miracle of the Angel’s Glow of Shiloh.