Nothing on Glowing Wounds at Shiloh

Past posts on this subject: The Strange Tale of Glowing Soldiers, A Tiny Update on Glowing Soldiers

My inquiries on period sources for the story that some soldiers at Shiloh had glowing wounds, attributed to a possible infection by bio-luminescent bacteria, have hit a dead end. I found nothing in the Official Records. The author of the Mental Floss piece on the story had the science, but had not checked contemporary accounts. (I don’t mean that as a criticism, by the way. There’s nothing wrong with focusing on one aspect of the story instead of another and the science is interesting in itself.) I used the web contact form and emailed the Shiloh National Military Park.

They got back to me today and have not been able to find any contemporary source. If anybody ought to know, they ought to know. A phenomenon so conspicuous and unusual would generate at least some paper trail which should to have survived, but one proves elusive. A key part of the story, at least to me, is that the soldiers with the glowing wounds had a better survival rate than those without. That fits the science, but also implies at least an informal study of outcomes.

Since I started looking into this, I’ve finished Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death in the Civil War. She spends a lot of time on how disorganized and overwhelmed field hospitals were by the sheer numbers of wounded and dead. A formal ambulance corps did not exist until late in the war. The armies issued no forms of personal identification like dog tags. Even something as simple as formally notifying the families of the deceased fell on officers and doctors with more pressing duties. That often meant men reported wounded when dead, dead when wounded, or even either when they emerged unscathed. (At least one soldier reported dead visited his own grave yearly after the war.) Shiloh came early on, when the disorganization and chaos would be greatest. It hardly seems like the place for even a casual study of who lived and died.

Some text could appear tomorrow and show otherwise, but this story looks more like folklore that grew up afterward than memories of actual events.

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A Tiny Update on Glowing Soldiers (and also Twitter)

I reached out to Matt Soniak, author of the Mental Floss piece on Angel’s Glow, via Twitter. He focused more on the science and so couldn’t help me track down periods accounts of the glowing wounds. But he did suggest, as did commenter Stray Cat With a Blog, taking the matter up with Shiloh National Battlefield Park via their contact form. I put it to use and emailed them the question.

As I’ve now mentioned it, I may as well also announce that this blog has a Twitter account (@FreedmensPatrol). I’ve held off on putting the word out for a few reasons. I don’t use it very often, though it does syndicate posts when they go up here. Secondly, when I do use it I’m much more informal than I am here. A fair bit of non-historical minutia and daily life trivia comes through. I try to keep this blog on a PG-13 level with allowances for period racism and other things to help get across a warts and all picture of the past. I don’t filter tweeting quite so much. Maybe I don’t need the disclaimer since Twitter seems to be a more informal, personal medium anyway but it only seems fair to provide one. Feel free to follow me, if so inclined.

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.