Strange things could happen during wars. Some say they were just made up to cheer the weary soldiers on the battlefield. Others were probably a product of boredom, or maybe as a result of the extreme situation they were in that clouded their minds and visions. There were stories about ghosts of the restless soldiers, a cavalry apparition that saved troops, and other mysterious tales without proof or scientific evidence. However, there was one incident that sounded fake during the Civil War but definitely happened during their time. It was when the wounded soldiers glowed blue in the dark. The phenomenon was called Angel’s Glow.

Battle of Shiloh

It had been a year since the American Civil War started in the spring of 1862 when Major General Ulysses Grant decided that they would push deep into the territory of the Confederates along the Tennessee River. In early April, the Union troops were already camped at Pittsburg Landing, near Shiloh, Tennesse, and waiting for Major General Don Carlos Buell’s troops to meet up with them.

Battle of Shiloh by Thure de Thulstrup. (Adam Cuerden, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

On April 6, the Confederates launched a surprise attack against Grant’s troops in hopes that they would successfully defeat them before the second army arrived. Grant’s men managed to hold some of the ground and establish a battle line. The fighting continued until dawn. The morning after, the full force of Major General Buell’s forces had arrived, and the Union finally outnumbered the Confederates by around 10,000. They began forcing the Confederates back while a counterattack tried to stop them from advancing. When the Confederates realized that they could not win against the now numerically superior Union forces arrayed against them, they fell back to Corinth and waited for another offensive in August.

Angel’s Glow

The Battle of Shiloh left more than 3,000 soldiers dead while some 16,000 more were wounded, and none of the medics on both sides were prepared for the numbers. It was not just the bullet and bayonet wounds that were the mere problem but the infections that followed after. After months of marching and eating nothing but field rations, their immune systems weakened, and their bodies could not fight the infection on their own. The dirty, warm, open wounds of the soldiers were perfect campsites for bacteria, and antibiotics were unknown at that time. Many of the wounded soldiers died from infections that today’s medicine could’ve cured with no sweat.

The other soldiers had to sit in the mud of Shiloh for two rainy days and nights while waiting for the medics. When the night fell, they noticed something weird: some of them had wounds glowing a faint blue light into the darkness of the battlefield. What’s weirder was that they noticed that those with glowing wounds had a better survival rate and that their wounds healed faster than those without the blue light. They called the mysterious light “Angel’s Glow.”

The Glowing Angels

It was not until 2001 that these angels were identified when 17-year-old Bill Martin visited the Shiloh battlefield with his family. His mom was a microbiologist at the USA Agricultural Research Service and was, at that time, studying luminescent bacteria that lived in the soil. When he heard about the Angel’s Glow story, he asked his mom, “Mom, you’re working with a glowing bacteria. Could that have caused the glowing wounds?” Thus began their experiment.

Together with his friend Jon Curtis, they did some research on the bacteria and the conditions when the Battle of Shiloh occured. The bacteria that his mom was studying was called Photorhabdus luminescens which live in the guts of parasitic worms called nematodes, and the two work together to survive.

The nematodes would hunt insect larvae and burrow into their bodies and reside in their blood vessels. They would then puke out something called “P  Luminescens” that would kill all the other bacteria in the insect hosts’ body, leaving them and the nematodes to feed, grow, and multiply. Once the insect was basically hollowed out from the inside, the nematode would then eat the glowing blue bacteria one more time, basically to carry it into another insect victim so that they could repeat the process. Now, the blue glow of the bacteria would attract other insects, making it easy for them to find their next victim.

The thing about the bacteria was that they could not thrive in warm environments, like the human body, so how did they survive in the wounds of the soldiers? The answer was the cool spring weather of Tennessee; add it to the nonstop rain for two days, the soldiers got hypothermia that lowered their body temperatures enough for the P. Luminescens to consider their wounds a good home.

Microscopic image of P. luminescent. (Mysteries Unsolved)

So basically, the nematode-P.luminescens tandem tried to inhabit the soldiers’ wounds and killed the other bacteria so they could successfully multiply. In the process, they killed the harmful bacteria that could have caused an infection until their hosts’ immune systems booted them out. Thus, saving the soldiers’ lives.

These glowing blue lights turned out to be angels, indeed.

As for the brilliant minds Bill and Jon, they earned first place in the team competition at the 2011 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for their study and discovery.