A is For Angel’s Glow

Gen. Johnston                                                  Gen. Wallace

It was a year into the Civil War. Sumter had been fired on April 12, 1861, the first major battle at Manassas had culminated in an astonishing and undignified rout of Union forces. If anyone was under the still under the assumption it was going to be a ninety-day unpleasantly, those notions were long gone. Union General Ulysses Grant was pushing deep into Confederate territory in Tennessee at the beginning of April 1862. As with many artbattles, his objective was to take or disrupt a railhead. The Confederate army under General Albert Sidney Johnston controlled Corinth, Mississippi, which was a major railway and supply transport link between the Mississippi River and the Atlantic.

Grant headquartered in Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee with the Army of the Tennessee at 44,894 troops. He was holing for Buell’s reinforcements of The Army of the Ohio with another 18,000 men. Johnston had 40,000 men and knew he had to strike before Buell arrived.

The Confederates struck on April 6 two days after they originally planned to. A severe storm had turned the roads into soup and it took him three days to move his men twenty-three miles. Beauregard wanted to hold in Corinth and let the enemy come to them as the element of surprise had been lost anyway and they were not equipped nor rationed well enough for a pitched battle and by the time they reached them they would be fighting they would be “facing an enemy entrenched up to the eyes.”

“I would fight them if they were a million,” Johnston replied and insisted they go after Grant. His poorly equipped (many were carrying antique weapons and some carried pikes and no firearms at all) and exhausted army arrived with the idea of driving Grant away from the river and back to Owl Creek. Initially, the Confederates seemed to be driving the Union lines back, but Buell arrived with fresher well-armed and experienced troops the night of the 6th.

At 2:30 in the afternoon Johnston was wounded while trying to rally his troops. He continued leading the charge, but an aide noticed him slumping in the saddle and asked if he was wounded.

“Yes, and I fear seriously.” The aide went to find a surgeon without applying a tourniquet to the leg and Johnston bled to death before he returned.

A torrential rain fell that night. The Confederates had driven the Union forces out of their camps and were enjoying their shelter and food, while Grant was trying to get some sleep under a tree. He had a severely sprained ankle from a horse falling with him days before and the pain was nearly unbearable, but the cries of the wounded on the battlefield erased any chance of sleep had he been safe in a featherbed with no discomfort. He decided to go to Shiloh Church, which was being used as a temporary hospital, but the misery there was so great he fled back to his tree where Sherman found him leaned up against the tree smoking a cigar.

“Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” remarked Sherman.

“Yes,” Grant replied and blew out a puff of cigar smoke, “but we’ll lick them tomorrow.”

The Confederates withdrew after a bloody second day of fighting. Grant did not pursue them. Both armies were exhausted, hungry, cold, and miserable in one of the war’s bloodiest battles known as Shiloh.

No one was prepared for the carnage. Union casualties were 13,047 (1,754 killed, 8,408 wounded, and 2,885 missing) with Grant’s army taking the brunt of it. General W. H. L. Wallace and Colonel Everett Peabody, numbered among the lost. Confederate casualties were 10,699 (1,728 killed, 8,012 wounded, and 959 missing or captured). General Albert Sidney Johnston and Brigadier General Adley H. Gladden were lost to the Confederates.

Many of the wounded lay in the cold and mud for days before they were all gathered. And that’s when something strange happened. Some of their wounds started glowing in the dark with an ethereal blue-green light. The soldiers named it Angels’ Glow. They wrote home about it. They wrote about it in their journals. It wasn’t something imagined by a few men having hallucinations, it was real. The ones who had been glowing recovered faster with fewer problems. There was less infection and scarring, but no one could explain why. It was a miracle.

140 years later, 17-year-old William Martin and 18-year-old Jonathan Curtis needed a project for a science fair. They had read about the phenomenon and decided to find out what might have caused it. Granted, Martin’s mother is a microbiologist, so she probably inspired some curiosity in that direction, but she insists the idea and experiment were all theirs.

The boys discovered nematodes are attracted to insects that would have been clustering in the gruesome wounds. Photorhabdus luminescens lives in the nematode’s guts. Nematodes track insect larvae on plants and in the soil, burrow into their bodies, and take up residence in their blood vessels. They puke up the Photorhabdus luminescens bacteria inside the insect and it spilled into the wound. This would not only have caused the wounds to glow, but it also killed bacteria that causes gangrene and other infections.

The boys ran experiments and proved their theory. (In Petri dishes this time, not on a battlefield.)

The problem is, the nematodes and Photorhabdus luminescens can’t live at warmer temperatures, such as those in the human body. If the good bacteria can’t survive the human body, how was it killing the bad bacteria and how was it causing the wounds to glow?

Remember the weather? It was just cold enough during those first miserable days in April to drop the body temperatures enough to allow the bacteria to live. Once the men were rescued and brought in to warm up, their wounds stopped glowing. The good bacteria, the Angel’s Glow, was dead.

Hat’s off gentlemen, the 140-year-old mystery of Angel’s Glow solved.

Bobby Bare wrote a song a century and a half later that tells another tale of Shiloh and one we often forget.


  1. That is totally fascinating, Julie. Love the science (and I understood all that). Am going to have to bone up on my Civil War 101 knowledge though (we don’t study that at school so my understanding is very basic and what I know I’ve probably learnt from you!).

  2. Hey, AJ,

    I thought it was really interesting that these kids figured out what the Angel Glow was. The Civil War was a fascinating time. Thanks so much for stopping by.


  3. Well, what a story!
    I’m always in awe of how surprisingly beautiful nature is. We will never be able to do any better.
    Thanks for sharing this. I have never heard of it before, it was a fantastic peace of history.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *