Mysterious Angel Glow in the Midst of Battle
May 18, 2015
THE STUDENTS in Mr. Prescott’s eighth grade history class had a collective aura about them—that of being totally overwhelmed. They tried to take in the complex drawings of battle maneuvers that he had put on the board in colored chalk, but it was very confusing.
“So there you have the Battle of Shiloh, also known as the Battle of Pittsburg Landing. It was a major battle in the Western Theater of the American Civil War and it was fought on April sixth and seventh in 1862.” Mr. Prescott gestured toward the drawings on the board. “You have heard such colorful terms today as ‘Stoney Lonesome,’ ‘Owl Creek,’ and ‘The Hornet’s Nest.’” The teacher paused when one of the students raised a hand. “You have a question, Robert?”
“That episode on Twilight Zone, ‘Incident at Owl Creek Bridge,’ does that come from this battle?”
“Yes, I believe it does. Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is a fictional story, however, written by Ambrose Bierce,” Prescott answered, “and only of entertainment value for our purposes here. They did the Twilight Zone screenplay from this story.” Prescott knew his stuff, all right. “Any more questions?”
No one raised a hand.
“Okay, I will give a very basic re-cap for you. Union General, Ulysses S. Grant had a large fortification at Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River in Tennessee.
“Confederate generals, Johnston and Beauregard launched a surprise attack on Grant’s men. In the middle of the night, Grant got secret reinforcements from Major General Buell and this allowed him to make a surprise counter-attack in the morning regaining all ground lost to Confederates the day before.
“Brigadier Generals Prentiss and Wallace defended the depressed area known as The Hornets’ Nest for the Union and while this was not exactly successful—Wallace was killed and Prentiss had to surrender—it did give the Union Army time to stabilize and re-organize. Confederate General Johnston was wounded and bled to death and the other Confederate General, Beauregard decided against attacking because his troops were too fatigued.
“The arrival of Buell’s men for the Union had turned the tide of the Battle and with the bold counter attack by the Federals, the Confederate forces were forced to retreat. Their intention to block the Union from moving on into Mississippi was thwarted, so Grant was able to move his men there without hindrance. The Battle of Shiloh was one of the bloodiest battles of the war to that date. Both sides each lost almost two thousand men to death, both sides each had over eight thousand wounded and there were hundreds captured or missing.”
“Eww!” A female voice at the back of the room pierced the tension in the air.
“Now, I think James has something to share with us,” Mr. Prescott announced. James Morton got up and took his artifact around the room. “This is an actual bullet from The Battle of Shiloh that James’ father picked up off the ground while visiting there. Notice how much larger the bullets of the time were, and how differently shaped.”
After James sat down, Mr. Prescott continued. “As you can imagine, the test on this battle, Friday, is going to be quite a booger. To make this more interesting, I am willing to let some of you skip the test. If you get this one question right, I will let it count as one hundred percent and it will be your test score. If you are able to spell the answer right—I truthfully am not expecting anyone to be able to—it will go as extra credit for the semester.
“So, get out a piece of paper and write your answer on it. Here is the question with some background. There was a strange mystery during many battles of the Civil War. In the hours of darkness, those on the battlefields observed strange moving, glowing objects near the ground.
“There were more of these greenish-blue glowing objects reported at Shiloh than any other place. They were not the embers of campfires, nor were they lightning bugs. There is no mention of this in our text and we have not covered it in class. I will be very interested to see what you have to say. I will give you five minutes to write something. When you are through you can bring your paper to me and go.”
Mr. Prescott held the stack of papers in his hand. He smiled. He knew he would get some humorous answers to his question. He was right. Most students had written that the glowing objects were either Saint Elmo’s Fire or swamp gas. One student wrote that they were glowing orbs from outer space.
Prescott put the papers with these answers in a stack on his desk. When he read the next answer, he laughed so hard he thought he would fall out of his chair. Rascally Chance McKinsie had written: “As everyone knows there are many toadstools and mushrooms that glow in the dark. The mysterious moving glowing objects on battlefields are when soldiers have accidently rolled around in these toadstools during battle and stuff from the toadstools gets on the uniforms and stays there for days. In some instances, solders are actually carrying mushrooms back to camp to cook for breakfast, though. That is my answer and I am sticking to it.”
Halfway down in the pile of unread answers, Mr. Prescott found the answer he was looking for—and it came from the exact student he thought it would, Peyton LeMont Grimbsy.
He wrote “A thing known as Angel’s Glow appeared on many battlefields of the Civil War. Men were laying about in the muck, wounded. Some had to lay there for days. At night their wounds would emit an odd, bluish green glow. The often delirious soldiers got further spooked when they witnessed this. Their attitude changed when they were finally able to get treatment.
“The soldiers whose wounds had glowed had a high survival rate compared to the others. As the men fell in battle into the swampy, cold ground, their wounds were invaded by parasitic nematodes. The way the nematodes feed is by giving off bacteria that kills its prey so the nematodes can then eat the prey. This bacteria glows in the dark.
“Although the nematode hopes the beneficial bacteria is killing insects to eat, in the instance of the soldiers, the bacteria ate the competing bad bacteria in the soldiers wounds, giving them a better chance to live. I would like to get the extra credit but I cannot exactly spell the name of the glow-in-the dark bacteria.” Peyton did try his best to spell it and Mr. Prescott gave him some extra credit, anyway, for his effort.
Photorhabdus luminescens baffled war historians for years. It can only exist at low temperatures. The soldiers whose wounds were invaded by the bacteria already had full-blown cases of hypothermia, or they would not have received its benefits at all.
Sara Marie Hogg is the author of Dark Continent Continental.