I’ve been doing a lot of research for a new book I’m working on (oh, the rabbit hole which is research on the Internet…what day is it, BTW?). Because I write predominantly in the period of westward expansion immediately after the Civil War, I do a lot of research on that fiery crucible that forged us into a modern nation. The hero in this new book is a galvanized Yankee (AKA a “Reconstructed” Confederate) and he was wounded at the Battle of Shiloh. One of the things I’ve been looking at is why so many men survived their wounds at the Battle of Shiloh as compared to other battles. Those who survived claimed during the long, cold night as they waited for help and the dawn noticed their wounds glowing with a strange, blue-green light.
Today, we can thank the curiosity of a high school student, his intent to win a science fair, and the assistance of his mom—who is also a microbiologist with the USDA and was working at the time with a bacterium that glows in the dark—for answering the question of why those soldiers’ wounds glowed and why their survival rate was much higher.
The Battle of Shiloh, named ironically enough for a small Methodist Church in the center of that bloody battle with a Hebrew word meaning “peace”, was fought in early April of 1862. More than 3500 hundred were killed and over 16000 were wounded. The battlefield itself is located along the Tennessee River and surrounded by extremely marshy, swampy ground. A lot of the battlefield is often swampy in the spring. Swampy, marshy, cold ground—the perfect breeding ground for a particular type of bacterium: P. luminescens. This bacterium lives in the gut of nematodes and is in the ground in fairly large concentrations at Shiloh.
The problem is, P. luminescens can’t survive at temperatures found in the human body. However, because it was so cold, and so wet at Shiloh during the battle, the men who were wounded and remained on the battlefield overnight most likely also suffered from mild hypothermia—a lowering of the body’s core temperature. At the very least, their limbs became chilled with lowered temperatures. Their wounds got muddy (imagine several thousand men, horses, and cannon moving back and forth for a full day over a football field after a four day long, soaking rain and you get the idea of what the ground was like at Shiloh), the bacterium entered the wounds, and began to glow because it is rife with bioluminescent properties. The kicker to all of this: P. luminescens produces as a byproduct of its natural reproduction a potent antibiotic, which minimizes competition from other microorganisms and prevents putrefaction.
So, those men who did survive being wounded at Shiloh called that glow in their wounds “angel glow.” Little did they, or even modern science know until a curious high school student figured it out, that their guardian angel was a humble bacterium vomited up by nematodes. That’s a pleasant thought. I’ll stick with the guardian angel theory.