The Strange Tale of Glowing Soldiers

Gentle Reader, please forgive the stream of consciousness nature of this post. I’m writing as I research.

I did not know this until just now, but apparently some observers at Shiloh reported that their wounds glowed in the dark. Why did nobody tell me this? I love weird stories like that, if they end up being true.

It appears this one could have been true. Bio-luminescent bacteria contamination combined with the cold, rainy Tennessee night could have let colonies thrive where normally our bodies would cook them off. The chemicals the bacteria release could even have prevented some other infections.

Now I want to go search the Official Records for reports mentioning the glow and have no idea where to start. Those and contemporary newspaper accounts would likely be the best places to trace the story back to the actual battlefield and not to some weird rumors someone started years after, which does happen. The article focuses on the science and so doesn’t spend any time telling us where the story originates, save for an unnamed tour guide.

But as problems go, getting lost in OR ranks among the more tolerable. A search returns 32 hits for the word “glow”. Most of these clearly have nothing to do with Shiloh, referring to events in other states. However, twenty-eight results in we hit on a result labeled Shiloh. Progress?

Particularly do I present to your notice Major R. R. Livingston, and First Lieutenant F. L. Cramer, acting adjutant of the regiment, whose efficiency in carrying orders and otherwise aiding me is worthy of all praise; also Dr. William McClellan, assistant surgeon, who most promptly and kindly attended to the wounded, rendering them the most signal service, and receiving all the most glowing encomiums for his celerity and skill, rendering aid alike to friend and foe

Not quite.

But I have a second angle of attack. The article says

Some of the Shiloh soldiers sat in the mud for two rainy days and nights waiting for the medics to get around to them. As dusk fell the first night, some of them noticed something very strange: their wounds were glowing, casting a faint light into the darkness of the battlefield. Even stranger, when the troops were eventually moved to field hospitals, those whose wounds glowed had a better survival rate and had their wounds heal more quickly and cleanly than their unilluminated brothers-in-arms. The seemingly protective effect of the mysterious light earned it the nickname “Angel’s Glow.”

In 2001, almost one hundred and forty years after the battle, seventeen-year-old Bill Martin was visiting the Shiloh battlefield with his family. When he heard about the glowing wounds, he asked his mom – a microbiologist at the USDA Agricultural Research Service who had studied luminescent bacteria that lived in soil – about it.

So if Martin heard it at the park, maybe the story hides somewhere on the National Park Service website? My search turns up nothing. Google mostly sends me back to Mental Floss or to other sites quoting its account. Great for science, but I want to read the history too.

Does anybody else know where the story comes from? It seems plausible enough, but I’d like to read it in the primary source if possible.

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2 comments on “The Strange Tale of Glowing Soldiers

  1. Your best chance will probably be to actually contact the park service by email or phone. There’s contact info on your link.

  2. SubOptimist says:

    I am looking for some primary sources on this too. I teach a Microbiology class and want to make a sort of “case study” out of this, but I want to start with some primary information. Let you know if I find anything.

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