Health

The Strange Reason Some Civil War Soldiers Glowed In The Dark

The mystery was finally solved almost 150 years later by two teenage scientists!

The 1862 Civil War Battle of Shiloh left 16,000 soldiers dead and 3,000 soldiers wounded. Some of those wounded became part of a strange mystery that wasn’t solved until over a century later.

As night began to fall on Shiloh, some soldiers noticed something quite interesting about their wounds—they were glowing. Many wounded soldiers waited days on the battlefield for help to arrive. When they were finally taken to hospitals, a pattern began to emerge. Those with glowing wounds were more likely to survive their injuries and healed more quickly. For that reason, the phenomenon was later dubbed “Angel’s Glow”.

So what exactly was this mysterious Angel’s Glow?

Civil War buff Bill Martin was wondering, too. In 2001, Martin (who was 17 at the time) took a trip to Shiloh with his family, including his mother, who happens to be a microbiologist. They had heard tales about Angel’s Glow and thought the phenomenon might be caused by bacteria. Martin and his friend Jonathan Curtis (who was 18 at the time) performed some experiments for a science fair project to see if they could solve the mystery of the blue glow.

Bacteria macro photographed media in petri dishes in the laboratory
Adobe
Bacteria macro photographed media in petri dishes in the laboratory

The friends discovered the bacterium they thought to be responsible for the glow doesn’t live at body temperature. However, soldiers that had been wounded and in the battlefield for days would have suffered from hypothermia, therefore having a lower body temperature and paving the way for the bacteria to take hold.

Here’s where it gets pretty interesting (and also might make you a bit squeamish). Thanks to a combination of bacteria and parasitic worms, the glowing actually saved their lives.

The teen scientists learned that a bacterium called P. luminescent was present in the wounds of soldiers displaying the Angel’s Glow. P. luminescent lives inside worms that burrow into insect larvae in the soil or on plants. Once the worms are in the larvae, the worms vomit up the bacteria, which releases chemicals that kill other larvae and microorganisms—thus, destroying bad bacteria that could have killed the soldiers.

 

Bacteria under microscope effect 3D illustration.
Bacteria under microscope effect 3D illustration.
Bacteria under microscope effect 3D illustration.

P. luminescens and the worms aren’t very infectious to humans, so they were likely cleared from solider’s immune systems, leaving no harm—just healing. We’re not saying you should stock up on bacteria and worms in case of an infection, but we have to admit, it’s pretty neat!

For solving the mystery, Martin and Curtis won first place at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Well done, boys!