It’s 2000, and high school seniors Bill Martin and Jonathan Curtis are touring the site of the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee. That 1862 clash was one of the bloodiest of the Civil War, leaving 3,482 dead and 16,420 wounded. But, in addition to being aware of the hefty death toll, the teenagers have heard a strange story about wounds that glowed in the dark. And even weirder still, it’s said that those with glowing wounds had better survival rates; but is this mere myth? 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 the practice, while the Northerners wanted to abolish it.
And at one level this 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 was the basis for the horrifying conflict that split the United States. And it was in 1860 that things started to bubble over. That year, the Republican and abolitionist Abraham Lincoln became president. For many in the South, this was completely unacceptable, and 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 mid-June the following year, ten more states had followed to form the Confederacy. 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. Conflict was now inevitable, then.
The first act of the Civil War, meanwhile, would come 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 harbor of the city of Charleston. The Confederates bombarded it for 34 hours, and although the Union army returned artillery fire, they eventually surrendered.
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. The man in question was Private Daniel Hough, and he was to be the first of many hundreds of thousands of casualties in the brutal war that was to come. Indeed, the future had much larger battles in store, which would come with horrifying numbers of casualties.
The Battle of Shiloh – also called the Battle of Pittsburg Landing – was one such battle. And as we established earlier, this was the conflict that had piqued the interests of school students Martin and Curtis. The battle came in April 1862 and was fought in the south-western region of Tennessee – part of what was known as the Western Theater of the Civil War.
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. The Unionists had succeeded in taking two key Confederate forts in February 1862, which forced the Confederates to retreat.
The fall of these forts – Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Tennessee-Kentucky border – compelled the Confederate leader General Albert Sidney Johnston to march his forces south into Tennessee. And this allowed Grant to move his army along the Tennessee River to 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 in Corinth. What’s more, 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 for which Grant would later be criticized.
General Johnston’s force, meanwhile, 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. And yet 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. Many of Grant’s men, on the other hand, 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. That’s right: 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 then drive the Unionists westwards to the Snake Creek and Owl Creek swamps. And 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. What’s more, hampered by the rain-soaked terrain, it took his men three days to travel the 23 miles to the Unionist positions. And this delay turned out to be a double blow, too.
First, 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.
Moreover, the element of surprise, central to Johnston’s battle strategy, might well have been lost by this point. And to compound matters, 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, in fact, but the general refused.
Yet despite the hullabaloo, amazingly, it seems that most of Grant’s soldiers were oblivious to the fact that Johnston’s men were within three miles of the Unionist position. So 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 forces were greatly diminished by the disarray of the attack. And this stemmed largely from a lack of coordination 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, you see, 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. But despite this, the Southerners enjoyed early success, with some Unionist units without battle experience fleeing. And yet by 11:00 a.m. on this first morning of the battle, the Unionists had halted the Confederate advance.
The Unionists then dealt the Confederates a grievous blow by wounding their commander, General Johnston. He was hit in the leg at about 2:30 p.m., and the general initially thought that it was a minor wound. Later in the afternoon, however, Johnston died of 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 had arrived on the scene, too, 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 was in tatters. And as the Sun set, both armies faced an extremely unpleasant night.
With darkness falling, cries rang out from the wounded of both sides, scattered around the battlefield. Meanwhile, shells from the Union gunboats’ cannon tore through the night, and a thunderstorm – accompanied by heavy rainfall – passed overhead. The two sides would have to wait until the next day for the final outcome of the bloody battle, then.
The Southerners thought that they had the upper hand, though. You see, the Confederate’s General Beauregard became convinced that he had the Unionists cornered, and he would be able to finish them off in the morning. But to his surprise, the reinforced Unionists mounted an attack at first light. And to make matters worse for them, the Confederate force had taken a huge hit, with 8,500 casualties on the first day of battle. Meanwhile, Buell’s men strengthened the Unionists’ numbers, so they now enjoyed considerable numerical superiority.
In fact, the Unionists launched two counter-attacks – one led by Grant, the other by Buell. But although dogged by the same lack of coordination that had characterized the first day of the battle, the Confederates fought on. They were very much on the back foot now, though, and the battle’s outcome became increasingly clear as the day went on.
At 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. And 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 rounded up 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. Not only that, though, but those with glowing wounds were actually reported to have better survival rates.
This strange anomaly became known as “angel’s glow,” and the story of the glowing wounds continued to be told 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. You see, the duo heard this story when they toured the Shiloh battle site in 2000, and it made them curious.
With the boys’ interests engaged, 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.
Photorhabdus luminescens is a bacteria that lives in the gut of various nematodes, which are a type of worm. And the particular nematodes with this bacteria in their gut are parasites to insects. That’s right: the nematodes get inside the body of a host insect, and the bacteria kills the host. The nematode can then lay eggs and feed on the unfortunate insect – which also provides sustenance for the bacteria.
As mentioned earlier, this bacteria is bioluminescent, although scientists are not sure as to exactly why this is. But this unusual quality intrigued Martin and Curtis. So, the two teenagers did research into 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 – meaning the nematodes could have infested the wounds of stricken soldiers.
However, there was one potential 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.”
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 that those with the glowing wounds were more likely to survive than those without it?
Well, Martin and Curtis – with the help of Phyllis – were able to come up with a plausible answer to this puzzling question. First, though, we have to remember that in 1862 medical science had not yet developed antibiotics. And this, of course, meant that wounds which soldiers would expect to recover from today were often fatal in the 19th century as a result of infections.
But as we’ve seen, this bacteria had toxic qualities, so it could have been responsible for killing the bacteria that causes gangrene and often death. Like any good scientist, though, Curtis hedged the teenagers’ theory with caveats. Speaking to HealthDay, the student 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.”
Martin and Curtis had gone to great lengths to explore their theory, too. Indeed, to prove the possibility that the bacteria could have inhibited the development of other deadly bacteria, the teenagers experimented on various pathogens. And the students found that Photorhabdus luminescens did indeed restrict the growth of some pathogens. The duo couldn’t experiment with the deadly gangrene pathogen itself, however. You see, as Phyllis said, “We didn’t want to kill any high school students!”
But Martin and Curtis had lifted the lid on this corner of history, and the boys received an appropriate reward for their outstanding piece of scientific detective work. Yes, the duo 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 most likely solved a mystery that had baffled scientists for almost 150 years.