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The Mysterious “Angel’s Glow” at Shiloh

It was one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Shiloh. The name is synonymous with terrible carnage. More than 100,000 men battling to the death. The Union General Ulysses S. Grant had gathered his Army in the forested vails of Tennessee on April 6th, preparing for a gargantuan battle. But Confederate General Albert Johnston decided to strike first and launched a surprise attack. Grant managed to hold his position until reinforcements came. The battle raged, men fighting in the forests, swamps, meadows, mud. So close and so covered in mud, it was hard to distinguish friend from foe.

The battle lasted for two days. A bloodbath. Finally, the Confederate Army—what was left of it—retreated. On the evening of April 7, 1862, the Shiloh battlefield had suddenly become quiet, but for the moaning wounded.

Imagine it. Confederate and Union dead and dying—more than 20,000— littered across a vast area of muddy, swampy forests and fields. Darkness soon shrouded the slaughter. In the night, the wounded cried out for help, for water, for God, for their mothers.


But late in the night, the wounded start to notice small orbs of blue light glimmering throughout the forest, thousands of them. Were they the souls of men dying? Angels inhabiting men to save them? Or visiting them during their last moments on earth?Even in their despair, the men find hope. A man yells out that they’re angels from heaven. That they are not alone. Some men begin to cry in relief. The glowing orbs come to be called the “Angel’s Glow.” Many of the men would lay in the mud, the cold and the rain for two days on the battlefield before help came. But the Angel's Glow gave them comfort.

Not all the wounded had blue orbs. But those that did noticed the glow—luminescent, brilliant, unearthly blue—was illuminating their wounds! And, indeed, those soldiers who had the “Angel's Glow” survived far more often than those soldiers who didn’t. They did not seem to get the dreaded infections that killed many. For years after the battle, generations after the survivors of Shiloh were dead, the story was repeated again and again in hushed tones: those men were visited by angels, blessed and healed by divine intervention.


The Angel’s Glow of Shiloh remained a divine mystery for 140 years. It was not until 2001, when a 17-year-old Civil War buff, Bill Martin, visited the Shiloh Battlefield with his family and heard the legend of Angel’s Glow. Bill’s mother, Phyllis, was a microbiologist who happened to study a soil bacterium called Photorhabdus luminescens or P. luminescens. It just so happened that the bacteria was bioluminescent, meaning it gives off its own light. In fact, it gave off a light that was blue in color!

Young Bill wondered if the bacteria could possibly be the Angel’s Glow. His scientist mother encouraged him to do an experiment to discover if, indeed, the organism might be the Angel’s Glow.

Bill learned that P. luminescens lived inside nematodes, tiny parasitic worms that burrow into insect larvae in the soil. Once rooted in the larvae, the nematodes vomit up a bacteria—a blue luminescent bacteria—which releases chemicals that kill the host larvae and any other microorganisms living inside them.


There was one problem, however. P. luminescens can’t survive at normal human body temperature. But, Bill figured out that when the wounded soldiers were left lying on the cold, wet ground for two days, their body temperatures was lowered. In fact, their cooled bodies were the perfect temperature for the nematodes. The small worms went from the muddy swamp soil into the mens’ wounds and thrived! They thrived so much they glowed, puking out the luminescent bacteria and other dangerous germs, thereby cleaning the wounds of the men.


In a sense, angels had visited the men at Shilohtiny angels, not from heaven but from the earth...

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