It’s 2000 and high school seniors Bill Martin and Jonathan Curtis are touring the Battle of Shiloh site in Tennessee. That 1862 clash was one of the bloodiest of the Civil War, leaving 3,482 dead and 16,420 wounded. Meanwhile, the teenagers hear a strange story about wounds that glowed in the dark. And even weirder, it’s said that those with glowing wounds had better survival rates – but is this mere myth? Indeed, with these questions in mind, the boys decide to investigate.
We’ll get back to Martin and Curtis and their discoveries, but first let’s find out a little bit about the Civil War and in particular the Battle of Shiloh. Many historians will tell you that the Civil War was about slavery. Basically, the Southern states wanted to retain it while the Northerners wanted to abolish it.
And at one level that is undoubtedly true. But the slavery issue was coupled with another bone of contention: states’ rights. Indeed, many in the South were highly resistant to the authority of the federal government, which they saw as an instrument of the North, especially when it came to the issue of slavery.
So this tension between the South and the North lay as the basis for the horrifying conflict that engulfed the U.S. In 1860 the Republican and abolitionist Abraham Lincoln became president, and for many in the South this was completely unacceptable. Indeed, secession from the Federal U.S. seemed the only way to preserve their autonomy.
The first state to secede was South Carolina in December 1860, and by June the following year ten more states had followed to form the Confederacy. But the remaining states in the Union however would not countenance this secession movement, regarding it as an act of rebellion against the legitimate government led by Lincoln. Indeed, conflict was now inevitable.
Meanwhile, the first act of the Civil War came in April 1861 with a Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, a U.S. Army post in South Carolina. The base was located on a manmade island in the city of Charleston’s harbor. The Confederates bombarded it for 34 hours, with the Union army returning artillery fire until they surrendered 34 hours after the engagement had started.
Amazingly, only one man died during that battle, a Union soldier killed by an exploding shell during a 100-gun salute by the U.S. Army to mark their surrender. He was Private Daniel Hough, and he was to be the first of many hundreds of thousands of casualties in the brutal war to come. Indeed, the future held much larger set-piece battles with horrifying numbers of casualties.
The Battle of Shiloh, also called the Battle of Pittsburg Landing, was the one that the two school students that we met earlier, Martin and Curtis, were interested in. It came in April 1862, a year after hostilities began, and was fought in what was known as the Western Theater of the Civil War in the south-western region of Tennessee.
The prior context of the battle was one of Unionist advance and Confederate withdrawal southwards through Tennessee. Major General Ulysses S. Grant led the Unionist force, the Army of Tennessee. And the Unionists had succeeded in taking two key Confederate forts, Henry and Donelson in February 1862, forcing the latter to retreat.
The fall of these forts, Henry on the Tennessee River and Donelson on the Tennessee-Kentucky border, forced the Confederate leader General Albert Sidney Johnston to march his forces south into Tennessee. This allowed Grant to move his army along the Tennessee River, to the Pittsburg Landing.
Meanwhile, Johnston’s retreat continued further south into Mississippi and Alabama, where he paused to reconfigure his forces. His new base of operations was in Corinth, Mississippi, a strategically important site with transport connections running to the Atlantic. But it gave Grant free hand to advance down the Tennessee River deep into the state.
Grant’s base at Pittsburg Landing was just 20 miles to the north-east of Johnston’s headquarters at Corinth. At Pittsburg Landing or nearby, Grant had around 45,000 men on the west bank of the Tennessee River. The soldiers were mostly housed in tents and there was a singular lack of earthworks or other defensive systems, something Grant would later be criticized for.
General Johnston’s force was known as the Army of the Mississippi and he had around 55,000 men at his disposal at Corinth. However only about 40,000 of those would be deployed in the upcoming attack on the Union army. But this near equality of numbers did not tell the whole story.
That’s because Johnston’s men had outdated rifles and pistols and few had combat experience. Meanwhile, many of Grant’s men had already seen action and they carried better weapons. But Johnston’s plan was to take advantage of the situation by using the element of surprise. Indeed, he would spring a sudden attack on the Unionists in the hope of a quick victory.
In detail, Johnston planned to make an attack on Grant’s left flank which would result in the Unionists being cut-off from their gunboats on the Tennessee River. The Confederates would drive the Unionists westwards to the Snake Creek and Owl Creek swamps. Johnston hoped that his men could finish off the Union troops in the muddy morass of the swamplands.
But Johnston’s plans began badly, and torrential rain delayed the start of his advance on Pittsburg Landing by two days. And, hampered by the rain-soaked terrain, it took his men three days to travel the 23 miles to the Unionist positions. Furthermore, this delay turned out to be a double blow.
Firstly, the slipping of the schedule meant that Unionist reinforcements, the Army of Ohio commanded by Major General Don Carlos Buell, would now be nearby to help Grant. Secondly, the longer-than-planned march meant that the Confederate troops faced food shortages. And, as the famous saying goes, an army marches on its stomach.
Indeed, the element of surprise, central to Johnston’s battle strategy, might well have been lost. What’s more, the Confederates failed to maintain a disciplined silence, and the men blew their bugles and beat their drums on their way to battle. One of Johnston’s senior commanders, P. G. T. Beauregard, even recommended withdrawal, but the General refused.
Yet, amazingly, despite the hullabaloo it seems that most of the Grant’s soldiers were oblivious to the fact that Johnston’s men were within three miles of the Unionist position. And now, early in the morning of April 6, 1862, the Confederates were ready to attack. And against all the odds, their assault came as a complete surprise to the Union troops.
Unfortunately for the Confederates, the twin advantages of surprise and the unpreparedness of the Union force were greatly diminished by the disarray of the attack. This stemmed largely from a lack of co-ordination within the Southern units. As we saw earlier, Johnston wanted to separate the Unionist troops from their gunboats and support on the Tennessee River. But his second-in-command Beauregard seemed to have little if any grasp of this strategy.
Johnston was determined to lead the attack from the front and he left Beauregard to direct troops from the rear. But in reality, this gave Beauregard control of the battle. And instead of trying to force the Unionists away from the river, he simply ordered a frontal attack that forced them closer to it.
Chaos in the Confederate ranks was compounded by units attacking without reserves in single line formation and commanders losing contact with their regiments. Yet despite this, the Southerners enjoyed early success, with some Unionist units without battle experience fleeing. But by 11:00 a.m. on this first morning of the battle, the Unionists had halted the Confederate advance.
The Unionists dealt the Confederates a grievous blow as the day went on by wounding their commander, General Johnston. He was hit in the leg at about 2:30 p.m., in what at first he thought it was a minor wound. However, later in the afternoon he died after fatal blood loss. And the Unionists, although under severe pressure, began to hold fast and dig in as the day went on.
The Union troops now formed a defensive line of strength about three miles in length around Pittsburg Landing. The Northerner’s defensive line had support from some 50 cannons, as well as naval guns from the ships moored on the river. And Buell arrived on the scene with fresh troops to strengthen the Unionist side.
The Confederates launched one last attack late in the afternoon, but Union forces pushed them back. Plans for yet another attack were abandoned, and Johnston’s strategy of separating the enemy from the Tennessee River and the supporting gunboats plus Buell’s reinforcements was in tatters. And as the sun set, both armies faced an extremely unpleasant night.
As darkness fell, the cries of the wounded from both sides scattered around the battlefield rang out. Meanwhile, shells from the Union gunboats’ cannon tore through the night, and a thunderstorm accompanied by heavy rainfall passed overhead. Indeed, the two sides would have to wait until the next day for the final outcome of the bloody battle.
The Confederate’s General Beauregard became convinced that he had the Unionists cornered and he would be able to finish them off on the morning. But to his surprise, the reinforced Unionists mounted an attack at first light. Confederate numbers took a huge hit due to their 8,500 casualties on the first day of battle. But Buell’s men strengthened the Unionists’ numbers and they now enjoyed considerable numerical superiority.
In fact the Unionists launched two counter attacks, one led by Grant, the other by Buell. Although dogged by the same lack of co-ordination that had characterized the first day of the battle, the Confederates fought on. But they were on the back foot now, and the battle’s outcome became increasingly clear as the day went on.
By 5:00 p.m. Beauregard recognized that his losses were so severe and his men so exhausted that retreat was the only option. The Confederate generals now ordered their men to withdraw and make their way back to Corinth. Equally fatigued by the ferocity of the battle, the Union army did not make a determined effort at pursuit.
Meanwhile, the casualties from the battle were horrific. Nearly 3,500 lay dead and more than 16,000 had been wounded. And as the army medics gathered in the wounded men, they noticed a strange phenomenon. In some cases, the men’s wounds glowed faintly in the dark with a ghostly blue color. And those with glowing wounds were reported to have better survival rates.
This strange anomaly became known as “angel’s glow,” and the story of the glowing wounds continued through the years. That brings us back to the two high school seniors Bill Martin and Jonathan Curtis, both students at Bowie High School in Maryland. They heard this story when they toured the Shiloh battle site in 2000, and it made them curious.
It was a lucky piece of serendipity that Martin’s mother Phyllis happened to be a microbiologist at the U.S. Agricultural Research Service. And one of her areas of research focused on a bacteria called Photorhabdus luminescens. Indeed, it turns out that this particular bacteria has an unusual quality – it glows in the dark.
This Photorhabdus luminescens is a bacteria that lives in the gut of various nematodes, which are a type of worm. The particular nematodes with this bacteria in their gut are parasitic on insects. They get inside the body of a host insect and the bacteria kills the host. The nematode then lays eggs which hatch to feed on the unfortunate insect, which also provides sustenance for the nematode and the bacteria.
And this bacteria is bioluminescent, although scientists are not sure as to why this should be. The two teenagers researched the likelihood that this bacteria might have been present with its nematodes on the Shiloh battlefield. And it turns out that this was perfectly possible – so the nematodes could have infested the wounds of stricken soldiers.
However, there was one drawback to the theory that Photorhabdus luminescens might have been present in the men’s wounds. Phyllis Martin explained the problem on the HealthDay website in 2001. She said, “These bacteria [that glow] don’t grow at human body temperature. This had to happen at a particular time when it was cold enough that the body temperature would be lowered by hypothermia, but not so cold that the soldiers would freeze to death.”
Indeed, many of the wounded would have lain for hours on the battlefield before being found. So they may well have been at just the right cool temperature for the bacteria to survive. But what about the part of the angel’s glow story that said many with the glowing wounds were more likely to survive than those without it?
Martin and Curtis, with the help of Phyllis, were able to come up with a plausible answer to this puzzling question. First we have to remember that in 1862 medical science had not yet developed antibiotics. So wounds which soldiers would expect to recover from now were often fatal in the 19th century because of infection.
But as we’ve seen, this bacteria had toxic qualities. So it could have been responsible for killing the bacteria that cause gangrene and often death. Like any good scientist, speaking to HealthDay, Curtis hedged the teenager’s theory with caveats. He said, “Since it was an historical event, we can’t really prove… 100 percent that [this bacteria] caused the better survival rate in these soldiers, but we proved it could have caused it.”
To prove the possibility that the bacteria could have inhibited the development of other deadly bacteria, the teenagers experimented on various pathogens and found it did restrict their growth. They couldn’t experiment with the deadly gangrene pathogen itself however. Indeed, as Phyllis said, “We didn’t want to kill any high school students!”
What’s more, Martin and Curtis received a rich award for this outstanding piece of scientific detective work. They took first place in the team competition at the 2001 Intel International Science and Engineering Science Fair, a prestigious award that came with a $3,000 prize. And so two high school students had solved a mystery that had baffled scientists for almost 150 years.