The Ghostly Wounds of Shiloh

In April of 1862, Union and Confederate armies met in southwestern Tennessee near the town of Shiloh. It would be the bloodiest and most costly battle of the Civil War up to that date, and it would produce a ghostly legend that came to be known as the “Angel’s Glow of Shiloh”.

Battle of Shiloh credit Thure de Thulstrup

Almost 25,000 soldiers, both Union and Confederate, gave their lives during the two day Battle of Shiloh. The Union emerged victorious but suffered a higher death toll than the Confederates they opposed. When the battle was over, General Grant had a foothold in Tennessee, the western flank of the Confederacy.

A battery marker on the Shiloh Battlefield historical site.

As the wounded and dying men lay on the Shiloh battlefield, a strange thing started to happen. When night fell their wounds began to glow in the dark. No one at the time, including the medics, had any idea why a soldier’s wounds would glow in the dark. Medicine at the time was anything but modern and the medics, unable to come up with any sort of explanation, dubbing the condition the “Angel’s Glow”.

And to make matters even more mysterious, many of the wounded soldiers that had the glowing wounds began to heal and improve at a faster rate than those that didn’t have glowing wounds. This baffled the already bewildered battlefield medics. Since the wounds glowed in the dark, which was strange enough at the time, and many of the soldiers with glowing wounds enjoyed a higher survival rate, the medics had no other explanation than to assume that a higher power was involved, hence the nickname “Angel’s Glow”.

The Shiloh battlefield today.

The legend of the Angel’s Glow survived for almost a hundred and fifty years until two high school students participating in a science fair found out what had caused the soldiers’ wounds to glow in the dark. It turns out that the two students discovered that a bioluminescent bacteria known as Photorhabdus Luminescens had most likely taken up residence in the wounds of the Shiloh soldiers. These bacteria glow a soft blue color when alive.

The trouble with the theory however, is that it is well established that Photorhabdus Luminescens cannot survive at the temperature of the human body. So how could it be possible to attribute the glowing wounds to the bacteria if the normal body temperature of the soldiers would have killed it off?

The Battle of Shiloh

It turns out that since the Battle of Shiloh was so intense and resulted in so many casualties in such a short two-day period, that many of the soldiers on both sides ended up lying on the battlefield for days with little or no help from the medics, who were overwhelmed to say the least. Since the Battle of Shiloh occurred in April, it was still very cool weather in that part of Tennessee. As a result, many of the wounded soldiers went into a state of hypothermia, which lowered their body temperatures enough to allow the Photorhabdus Luminescens bacteria to survive in their wounds.

Once the living bacteria took up residence in the wounds, they began to eat the other more harmful bacteria, such as the type that causes gangrene. That’s a good thing since the cure for a gangrene infected limb in those days involved a saw. Once a soldier’s condition started to improve, their body temperature would return to normal and kill off the Photorhabdus Luminescens bacteria.

Shiloh veterans in 1905

While modern science has explained the Angel’s Glow of Shiloh, it pays to remember that in the minds of the soldiers saved by it on the Shiloh battlefield, it was nothing short of the handiwork of the angels above them.

2 thoughts on “The Ghostly Wounds of Shiloh”

  1. Are you aware of any first hand accounts of ” Angel’s Glow ” at Shiloh ? The NPS at one time told this story about the battle, they now say it is a myth. Thanks,any help would be greatly appreciated.
    Sincerely, R.C. Presson

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