I just read an article about a phenomena called angel’s glow which purportedly occurred on the battlefield after the Battle of Shiloh (April 6, 1862). According to the legend, some of the injured soldiers’ wounds glowed blue, after which they experienced a better-than-expected recovery.
The article can be found here and I recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the science behind P. luminescens, a microorganism that glows with bioluminescence.
As a bearded middle-aged white male, I’ve read my fair share of Civil War history, so a few points in the article stood out to me. First, despite being familiar with many accounts of Shiloh, I’ve never read anything about glowing wounds. Civil War soldiers were aficionados of weird shit generally, so it seemed odd that I’d never run across any mention of it. And, as a fan of the weird and the wonderful, I was especially surprised that I had never heard of angel’s glow.
Second, the article claimed that “some of the soldiers experienced a better than expected recovery,” and that the angel’s glow may have been responsible. After any given battle, some wounded soldiers will experience an unexpectedly quick recovery, but I’d never encountered a claim that Shiloh had more than its share of recoveries.
On the contrary, I’ve always read that Shiloh was the first battle that produced such massive casualties that it sickened and shocked the civilian population. Shiloh occurred relatively early in the war and resulted in more than five times the casualties than the Battle of Manassas (Bull Run).
The first source I tracked down was Ambrose Bierce. He is quoted in the article as providing an account of the battle that included this line:
God’s great angels stood invisible among the heroes in blue and the heroes in gray, sleeping their last sleep in the woods of Chickamauga.Ambrose Bierce
This line does, in fact, appear in Bierce’s A Little of Chickamauga, first published in 1898, 36 years after the battle. It’s an unexpectedly romantic and religious comment from a man who was famously cynical and agnostic.
More importantly, however, it includes the phrase “sleeping their last sleep.” Whatever else Bierce’s angels may have been up to, it most assuredly did not include facilitating faster-than-expected recoveries. The men Bierce memorializes here died on the battlefield.
So if Bierce didn’t observe the angel’s glow on the Shiloh battlefield, who did? According to the historians at Shiloh National Military Park, no one.
We are not sure exactly how the glowing wounds myth at Shiloh got started, but there is no contemporary evidence from surgeons or soldiers that the park has located that refers to this phenomenon.Shiloh National Military Park
My next stop was Google’s NGram Viewer, which allows users to search for words or phrases that appear in a massive corpus of books published between 1800 and 2000. The author of the article used NGram as the basis for the following claim:
Interest in the Angel’s Glow peaked during the Civil War and spiked again in 1890 for some reason. (Data from ngram analysis of books in the American English corpus maintained by Google.)Angel’s Glow, Medical History Tour
I started by searching for the phrase “angel’s glow” and came up with the following result: “No valid ngrams to plot! Ngrams not found: angel’s glow”
Puzzled, I returned to the original article and found that the author had instead searched for the phrase “angels glow,” without the apostrophe. I replicated this search and got the following result:
It was clear that this phrase appeared in very few books between 1800 and 1900. When I dug into the results, I found that every occurrence was religious or poetic. Here are a few examples to illustrate the point.
They swell the notes of praise with raptures which make the breasts of angels glow, but which the tongue of angels cannot describe.Nathaniel William Taylor, Practical Sermons (1858)
When Dante went with Beatrice of old / To Light’s transcendent and eternal springs / Where clustered angels glow in wondrous stringsEugene Lee-Hamilton, Sonnets of the Wingless Hours (1894)
I have to admit that I did not read every occurrence, but none of those that I did read referred to the phenomena described in the article.
I’m no historian, but my conclusion is this: there is no evidence of angel’s glow occurring at Shiloh. The misinformation, however, apparently prompted some fascinating research on a microbiological organism that’s worth learning more about in its own right.