“Angel’s Glow”

Conflict: Civil War

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From the battlefield of Shiloh comes an interesting piece of history. After two days of intense, costly fighting, thousands of soldiers lay wounded among the numerous dead on both sides. Army medics did what they could, but no one was prepared for the unprecedented amount of carnage. Some men remained slumped in the mud and rain for days, waiting to be helped. Gunshot and bayonet wounds were muddied and contaminated. But as day turned to night, so the story goes, the soldiers began noticing something peculiar—some of the men’s wounds began to glow. Not only that, but when medical help finally arrived, those with glowing wounds had a much higher chance of survival and their injuries healed more quickly. This seemingly protective, healing quality led the mystery light to be nicknamed “Angel’s Glow.”

Over 100 years after the Battle of Shiloh, 17-year-old Bill Martin heard about the glowing wounds while on a trip to see the historic battlefield. His mom just happened to be Phyllis Martin, a microbiologist who was studying a glowing bacteria called Photohabdus luminescens. When he asked if that could be what made the “Angel’s Glow,” she encouraged him to do an experiment. So Bill and a friend, Jon Curtis, studied the bacteria and conditions at the battlefield. They learned that weather and soil conditions would have allowed for the presence of the bacteria but it would not have been able to survive in the temperatures of a human body. They realized, though, that wounded men sitting in the rain and exposed to the cold Tennessee nights would have suffered hypothermia, lowering their body temperatures enough for P. luminescens to thrive. The P. luminescens then took out the competing bacteria and thus helped the glowing soldiers to survive.

Is the “Angel’s Glow” fact or folklore? It would seem that no records have currently been found from contemporary sources, but the story persists nonetheless. These two boys and their science fair project have shown that this magical tale could indeed be reality.

Find out more about this story in these articles here and here. You can also read more about the Battle of Shiloh on the Wikipedia page or use this Fold3 search for more records and maps from and about the battle.