After the bloody Battle of Shiloh during the early American Civil War, over 16,000 soldiers were left wounded on the muddy fields of Southwestern Tennessee. Memoirs of soldiers that survived recall the cries of injured men as they struggled to survive during torrential downpours and the swampland’s many horrors. Subjected to antique weaponry and pikes, their wounds would be open to the elements, leaving the men vulnerable to an array of deadly infections that would seize the opportunity and deliver the final blow.
Yet, as if by some divine intervention, many of these men would not die in this gruesome fashion. Instead, according to witness accounts, their wounds began to glow.
James Dinwiddie, also known as Doctor Dinwiddie, was a Confederate military surgeon who witnessed the Battle of Shiloh and this paranormal phenomenon. Dinwiddie watched first hand as men died in countless numbers, but also others whose wounds began to fluoresce in the stormy conditions. Despite many carrying life-threatening injuries, the men with these glowing wounds appeared to survive in greater numbers than their more unfortunate counterparts.
This phenomenon would soon be etched in legend as "Angels Glow".
With such a heavy emphasis on Christianity at the time, it is understandable why the scenes described were attributed to a higher being. However, a duo of high school students may have since found a scientific explanation, suggesting it was not a God from above that saved the soldiers, but a helpful microbe from the ground.
Supervised by microbiologist Phyllis Martin, Bill Martin (her son) and Jonathan Curtis embarked on an expedition to understand the origins of Angels Glow as part of a science research project. Bill was fascinated by the Civil War and had heard about the stories of glowing wounds and their increased survival rates.
They discovered that the likely explanation was the presence of a bioluminescent bacteria that lives in nematodes, called Photorhabdus luminescens. This friendly little bacterium glows a bright blue color, which would explain the angelic glow of the wounded soldiers, and is harmless to humans. That isn’t to say it is loved by all creatures – P. luminescens is a deadly pathogen to insects, riding in the nematodes’ gut into insect hosts before rapidly killing them. But its presence in soil-dwelling nematodes could explain their appearance in the Battle of Shiloh, as the men laid in the churned-up earth.
Have a look for yourself in the Tweet below, depicting a grub infected with a nematode and the bioluminescent P. luminescens.
However, what is truly remarkable about this bacterium is how it may have actually helped save those soldiers’ lives. P. luminescens is a fierce competitor when it comes to colonizing hosts, fighting off other bacteria species by secreting a compound that has antibiotic properties. This allows it to take full advantage of the host without having to fight for the spoils with other species. Alongside this, the compound also helps prevent putrefaction of the insect corpses that P. luminescens kills, and it may have done the same to the soldiers’ wounds.
Therefore, it’s possible that the Angels Glow reported by Civil War doctors and soldiers may have been a bacterial species simultaneously fighting off infection and preventing the rotting of wounds until doctors could arrive, all whilst glowing to demonstrate their otherworldly healing. By this point in time, the germ theory of disease had not caught a strong foothold in science, so they were never to know – but looking back, it is truly fascinating to see a classic example of mutualistic symbiosis in such a spectacular way.