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Before the Battle of Shiloh came the first Civil War battle: the First Battle of Fort Sumter. This old photograph shows Edmund Ruffin in the uniform of the 2nd South Carolina Infantry Regiment, a Confederate States Army regiment in the American Civil War. (National Archives at College Park / Public domain)

SCIENCE & TECH: The American Civil War and the Battle of Shiloh’s Glowing Wounds Mystery


The Battle of Shiloh was a one of the battles fought during the American Civil War (April 12, 1861 – May 9, 1865), in 1862 in southwestern Tennessee. The Union’s victory at the Battle of Shiloh allowed its troops to penetrate the Confederate interior. Nevertheless, both sides suffered heavy casualties. In fact, the Battle of Shiloh was the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War up to that point. One of the strange things that happened at the Shiloh battle site was that amongst the injured soldiers, there were those whose wounds began to glow in the dark. Although this story was repeated over the years, the mystery of the glowing wounds was only solved 140 years after the Battle of Shiloh took place.

Before the Battle of Shiloh came the first Civil War battle: the First Battle of Fort Sumter. This old photograph shows Edmund Ruffin in the uniform of the 2nd South Carolina Infantry Regiment, a Confederate States Army regiment in the American Civil War. (National Archives at College Park /  Public domain )

The Civil War Events Leading to the Battle of Shiloh

The American Civil War began in 1861. Although relations between the northern and southern states had already been tense for some time, the election of Abraham Lincoln as president in November 1860 was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Within three months, seven southern states had seceded from the United States.

In March 1861, Lincoln took office, and a month later, on 12 April, the first shots of the American Civil War were fired. Fort Sumter, in Charleston, South Carolina, was besieged by Confederate forces. After 34 hours of bombardment, the defenders surrendered. Both sides did not sustain any casualties. In the next few weeks, another four southern states seceded.

June 1862 is perhaps most notable because this is when Robert E. Lee’s took command of the Confederate Army of the Potomac, which he renamed the Army of Northern Virginia. Under Lee’s command, the Confederates defeated the Army of the Potomac in various battles.

The Army of the Potomac was the main field army of the Union in the eastern theatre of the American Civil War. In other words, the Union was not faring too well in this area of war.

Nevertheless, on 17 September 1862, the Confederates were defeated at the Battle of Antietam (known also as the Battle of Sharpsburg). This was a decisive battle for the Union, as it stopped the Confederate advances into Maryland, and forced Lee to retreat to  Virginia.

The situation in the western theatre of the American Civil War was somewhat different. In 1862, the Union had more success in this theatre of war than in the east. To the east of Missouri, the Confederate army, which numbered at 40,000, was commanded by Albert Sidney Johnston. This army had to man a long line running across  Kentucky that ran from about Cumberland Gap in the east through Bowling Green, and down south to Columbus on the  Mississippi River . In early 1862, however, this line was broken by the numerically superior forces of the Union. This achievement, in particular the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson in February by Ulysses S. Grant, was the first real success of the Union in the Civil War.

Charge of the Federals, representing the southern Confederates states, in the Battle of Corinth. (Internet Archive Book Images / No restrictions)

Charge of the Federals, representing the southern Confederates states, in the Battle of Corinth. (Internet Archive Book Images /  No restrictions )

Kentucky and Much of Tennessee Become Union Territories

Following the loss of Forts Henry and Donelson in February, the Confederates abandoned their position at Columbus, Kentucky, and evacuated Nashville, the capital of Tennessee. Therefore, Kentucky was now in the hands of the Union, as was much of Tennessee.

Grant’s next targets were Memphis and Charleston Railroad, which, if captured, would give the Union total control of the region. In the meantime, Johnston was regrouping the scattered forces of the Confederate at Corinth, Mississippi.           

Grant had with him 42,000 men and was waiting for reinforcements from Don Carlos Buell. The latter was in command of 20,000 men. Johnston decided to take the initiative and launched an attack on Grant’s forces before the reinforcements under Buell arrived. This caught Grant by surprise, who was not expecting an attack form the Confederate forces. Moreover, since he was on the offensive, Grant had not ordered his men to fortify the camps. The ensuing battle became known as the Battle of Shiloh.

The Battle of Shiloh is known also as the Battle of Pittsburgh Landing and was fought between the 6th and 7th of April 1862. On April 3, Johnston advanced his troops against Grant’s but was slowed down by  rain and muddy roads . Incidentally, the same rain and muddy roads also delayed the arrival of Buell’s reinforcements. In early hours of dawn on 6 April, a Union patrol caught sight of the Confederates, who were preparing to attack, and separated from the Union camps (just over a mile). The attack by Johnston caught the Union army completely by surprise, and the latter was pushed back near Shiloh Church.

The Confederates had the upper hand throughout the day, and Grant’s men were driven back further towards Pittsburgh Landing. This threatened to trap the Union troops against the Tennessee River. Most of the troops on both sides were inexperienced, and the battle was fought in the woods. In the middle of the afternoon of 6 April, Johnston rode forward to direct the Confederate attack. Whilst he was doing so, the general was struck in the leg by  a bullet . Unfortunately for Johnston, the bullet severed an artery, and the general quickly bled to death. He was replaced by Pierre G. T. Beauregard as commander of the Confederate forces. Nevertheless, the death of Johnston dealt a heavy blow to the morale of the Confederate troops.

The red Confederate forces versus the blue Union forces at the Battle of Shiloh on April 6, 1862. (Hlj / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The red Confederate forces versus the blue Union forces at the Battle of Shiloh on April 6, 1862. (Hlj /  CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The Battle of Shiloh Caused the Loss of 3,482 Americans

In any case, the Confederates continued pressing the Union troops, and drove them back further. Nevertheless, they were unable to break their enemies. At nightfall, Beauregard, believing that he had achieved victory, halted the Confederate attack. The battle resumed on the following day. By this time, the vanguard of Buell’s army had arrived at the site of battle, thereby providing the Union with a numerical advantage over the Confederates. Therefore, Grant decided to go on the offensive.

Beauregard initially chose to counterattack but was ultimately compelled to retreat. Having regrouped, the Confederates counterattacked again. This time, they succeeded in halting Grant’s advance. By the afternoon of 7 April, Beauregard realized that he was outnumbered by the enemy, and ordered his troops to retreat to Corinth. By the end of the second day of the battle, the Union had recaptured the areas they lost the previous day.

Up to that point, the Battle of Shiloh was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. Both sides lost many men during the battle. It is estimated that a total of 3,482 men lost their lives at the Battle of Shiloh. Of these, 1754 were fighting for the Union, whilst the other 1,728 were on the side of the Confederates. Additionally, an estimated 8,408 Union soldiers were  wounded, and 2,885 were missing or captured. On the Confederate side, 8,012 soldiers were recorded to have been wounded, whereas 959 were missing or captured. In total, the losses suffered by the Union were 13,047, compared to 10,699 on the Confederate’s side. It is also notable that Johnston was the highest ranking general on either side to have been killed in  the Civil War .

Having emerged victorious from the Battle of Shiloh, Grant dispatched William T. Sherman and Thomas J. Wood to ascertain the position of the Confederates. Several miles south of the battlefield, at Fallen Timbers, they encountered the cavalry of a Confederate colonel, Nathan Bedford Forrest. The colonel recklessly charged at the Union troops ahead of his own men, resulting in him being shot at point-blank range. Forrest survived this life-threatening injury, and his daring action caused the Union forces to flee back to Pittsburgh Landing. This gave the Confederates the time needed to retreat to Corinth. In any event, because of the heavy losses suffered on either side, both the Union and Confederate armies were immobilized for the next three weeks.

The strange Angel’s Glow wounds, which literally glowed in the dark, found on some of the Battle of Shiloh soldiers. (Civil War Railroad Tunnel)

The strange Angel’s Glow wounds, which literally glowed in the dark, found on some of the Battle of Shiloh soldiers. ( Civil War Railroad Tunnel )

The Strange Angel’s Glow Wounds Discovered After The Battle

After the Battle of Shiloh, the wounded had to be tended, and a curious phenomenon was observed. As night fell after the end of the battle, many wounded soldiers began to  glow in the dark . This greenish-blue glow subsequently became known as Angel’s Glow. This is because those whose wounds glowed were found to have had a better chance of surviving than those with non-glowing wounds. Additionally, they experienced lower rates of infection, and healed faster. Therefore, it was believed that the glow was a benevolent force that was of divine origin. As doctors at the time were unable to explain this phenomenon, they left it as it was.

In fact, in the decades that followed, it seems that no one made any further investigations into the nature of this mysterious phenomenon. Nevertheless, the story had been retold countless times, and by the 21st century, had become part of  battlefield folklore . One of the people who heard about this story was Bill Martin, who was a high school student when he went on a tour of the battle site in 2001. The story of the Angel’s Glow piqued Martin’s curiosity, and he wanted to find out more about it. Therefore, Martin, along with a friend, Jonathan Curtis, decided to investigate the cause of the Angel’s Glow as part of a high school  science project .

The first port of call for the two boys was none other than Martin’s mother, Phyllis. It so happened that Phyllis was a  microbiologist at the US Department of Agriculture, and that she had been studying luminescent bacteria that lived in the soil. Martin hypothesized that Angel’s Glow might have been caused by a type of luminescent bacteria and asked his mother whether this was possible. Phyllis suggested that Martin and Curtis could carry out experiments to test their hypothesis.

The two boys started by  identifying bacteria  that glowed in the dark, followed by an examination of the historical records. The latter was meant to narrow down their search to those bacteria that may have been present at Shiloh. One potential candidate was  Photorhabdus luminescens  (P. luminescens ), a bacterium that lives inside  nematodes, known also as roundworms.

P. luminescens  has a symbiotic relationship with a particular genus of nematodes called  Heterorhabditis, which are parasites of insects. Once the nematode infects an insect, it regurgitates the bacteria that lives in its guts, into the blood of its host. The bacteria then release  toxins that kill the insect and other microbes, as well as enzymes to digest what it kills. This provides nutrients for both the bacteria and nematode. Under these conditions, the bacteria emit a glow that serves to attract other insects, which become the next meal for the nematode and the bacteria.

The mystery of the glowing wounds on some of the soldiers that survived the Battle of Shiloh was solved and connected with the glow-in-the-dark P. lumenescens bacteria. (Civil War Railroad Tunnel)

The mystery of the glowing wounds on some of the soldiers that survived the Battle of Shiloh was solved and connected with the glow-in-the-dark P. lumenescens bacteria. ( Civil War Railroad Tunnel )

Martin and Curtis Glowing Wounds Mystery Solved in 2001!

Martin and Curtis also studied the conditions of the battlefield when the Battle of Shiloh was fought. They found that the fields would have been cold, muddy, and wet, perfect for  P. luminescens  to thrive. Experiments in the lab, however, showed that the bacteria could not survive at human body temperature. This posed a problem to Martin’s hypothesis, as it meant that the bacteria could not have lived on the wounds of the soldiers. The boys soon realized, however, that in early April, night-time temperatures at the battle site were low enough that the wounded soldiers laying in the rain for two days could get hypothermia. If so, this would have allowed  P. luminsecens  to live on their wounds.

Having taken these pieces of information into consideration, Martin and Curtis arrived at the conclusion that the Angel’s Glow reported at the Battle of Shiloh was caused by  P. luminescens . The bacteria may have gotten into the soldiers’ wounds from the soil that they were lying in. The toxins released by the bacteria could have killed off other microbes in the wounds, thereby preventing infections from occurring. Fortunately, neither  P. luminescens  nor Heterorhabditis are particularly harmful to humans. Moreover, they can be cleared out by the human immune system.

At present, the conclusion that Martin and Curtis arrived at, i.e., that Angel Glow was caused by  P. luminescens , is the most plausible explanation for the phenomenon. Incidentally, the two boys had the opportunity to present their findings at the 2001 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in San Jose, California. They won first place in the team competition. Thanks to Martin and Curtis’ research, the story of the glowing wounds at the Battle of Shiloh may be regarded not merely as part of battlefield folklore, but something that could indeed have happened.

Top image: The Battle of Shiloh by American illustrator Thure de Thulstrup. Source: Adam Cuerden /  Public domain

By Wu Mingren



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