Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Songbirds Stopped Singing at Shiloh
by Robert A. Waters

On a gloomy spring morning in southern Tennessee, the songbirds stopped singing. It was April 6, 1862. Scattered gunfire erupted, quickly becoming a continual roar as two armies slammed into each other. The weather was cool and the rain unrelenting as the thunder of war drowned out thunder from the skies.

Soldiers fell by the hundreds, then thousands, on muddy battlefields, their screams, their dying gasps overwhelmed by the din of fighting. A blog entitled Oddly Historical described the scene: “The bloodiest battle up to that point in the war, two days of fighting produced 23,000 casualties on both sides. The battlefield itself was a boggy, mud soaked hellhole. Medical services on both Confederate and Union sides were woefully unprepared for the scale of the slaughter, and many wounded were left to fend for themselves among the watery morass.”

Primitive medical methods consisted mainly of amputation. There were no antibiotics and no anesthesia. Before their limbs were sawed off, soldiers would take a swig of whiskey, then “bite the bullet.” Shock killed thousands, and infection even more.

But as the Battle of Shiloh ebbed, a medical mystery began to play itself out. Overnight, hundreds of soldiers from both sides, lying in those marshy pools, miraculously began to heal. These soldiers noticed that their wounds would glow green, and then the healing would begin. The grateful men called the strange-colored healing agent “Angel's Glow,” attributing their miraculous cures to divine intervention.

Historians and medical researchers of later years discounted these claims as legend. But a grain of doubt always clouded any assertions that the healings were false. Why did hundreds, if not thousands, of soldiers suddenly recover from their wounds at Shiloh when less severely wounded men died in other battles?

Enter microbiologist Phyllis Martin. When her teenage son visited Shiloh Battlefield, his curiosity was piqued. At the time, Martin was researching the healing properties of a bacteria called P. luminescens. With the help of her son, Bill, and his friend, John Curtis, Martin made a remarkable discovery that might explain the historical mystery. P. luminescens lives inside nematodes of the soil. These nematodes eat insect larva and P. luminescens releases toxins that kill the larva. The toxins of P. luminscens also inhibit the growth of deadly bacteria. And P. luminescens glows green as it does its work. Martin theorized that this “glowing bacteria entered soldiers' wounds when nematodes attacked the insect larva [that] are naturally attracted to such injuries. The resulting infestation would wipe out any of the normal, disease causing bacteria found in wounds.”

On the battlefield, wounded soldiers likely cursed the mud-soaked misery of impending death. What they didn't know was that the very conditions they found abominable may have been the conditions that healed them.

Some of these soldiers survived the war and told their families about “Angel's Glow,” and how it saved their lives. While scientists scoffed, the stories became part of the folklore of war. Now there seems to have been a basis of truth to the bizarre assertions.

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