Natural “antibiotic” saves lives during Civil War

Today is Memorial Day. And we should take a moment to commemorate all who have fallen in service of our country. Of course, Memorial Day originally commemorated those who died on both sides of the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865). And this year marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the bloodiest war in American history. So today–I’m doing my part by looking back at some relevant medical history from that era.

A stunning new theory offers an interesting explanation why some lucky soldiers during the Civil War survived deadly infections…without amputation…50 years before the development of the first antibiotics.

We actually have a lot of documented medical history from the Civil War era, thanks to Dr. John Shaw Billings and Dr. John Hill Brinton, two U.S. Army Medical Corps officers from the North. They wrote a notable medical textbook called the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion. (In the North through the end of the 19th century, they called the Civil War “The War of Rebellion.” In the South, they called it the “War of Northern Aggression.”)

Dr. Billings founded the National Library of Medicine, the Index Medicus, and the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Dr. Brinton was a cousin to George Brinton McClellan, the first Commanding General of the Army of the Potomac.

Apparently, medicine ran in the family. McClellan’s father founded the Thomas Jefferson School of Medicine in Philadelphia, where I much later ran the new Center for Integrative Medicine.

Interestingly, when I served at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, I held the same job positions once held by both Billings and Brinton.

Now back to that new theory…

As Billings and Brinton explained in their historic textbook, many more soldiers during the Civil War died from infections than from enemy bullets. Microbes living in the soil caused these terrible and deadly infections.

You see, many of these soil organisms don’t rely on oxygen, since they live buried down in the earth. So they easily burrowed their way into the soldiers’ injured tissue.

Plus, most doctors during the Civil War didn’t know about or accept the germ theory of disease. They didn’t know why wound infections or gastro-intestinal infections–such as camp fevers, typhus, and typhoid fevers–often led to death. And there weren’t yet any vaccines or antibiotics to prevent or treat the infections.

At best, a skilled battlefield surgeon during the Civil War could perform an amputation, if possible, to convert a complex, dirty wound into a simpler, cleaner wound.
But apparently, some soldiers who fought at the early, bloody Battle of Shiloh did survive their gruesome infections without amputation, according to an interesting, new theory.

In the spring of 1862, the head of the Union Army in the western theatre, Major General Ulysses S. Grant, pushed deep into Confederate territory along the Tennessee River. On the morning of April 6th, Confederate troops launched an attack on Grant’s isolated troops.

The fighting essentially ended in a stalemate that left 16,000 soldiers wounded and 3,000 soldiers dead. Army doctors were completely overwhelmed by the infections that followed. Some of the soldiers injured from the battle sat in the mud for two rainy days and nights waiting for help.

At dusk, medics noticed some of the soldiers’ wounds literally glowed in the dark, illuminating the battlefield. Medics also began to notice those injured with glowing wounds had a better chance of survival. And their glowing wounds healed more quickly and completely. The apparent protective effect of the mysterious light earned it the nickname “Angel’s Glow.” And many assumed divine intervention of some kind caused the glow.

We don’t know for sure what caused the soldiers’ wounds to glow and why the glowing wounds healed better. But some modern researchers suggest we have a microbe called Photorhabdus luminescens to thank.

Photorhabdus luminescens has a natural bioluminescence that gives off a blue light or glow. The bacteria also produce natural “antibiotics” that kill other bacteria in order to increase its own chances for survival. Amazingly enough, the blue light also attracts insects to the infection site. Then, these insects carry the glowing microbes to other promising feeding grounds, such as other injured soldiers. (Remember, there were plenty of injured soldiers on the fields during those two nights after the bloody battle.)

Historic research shows the weather and soil conditions at the Battle of Shiloh were just right for these glowing bacteria to grow. The rainy and cool spring weather also lowered the soldiers’ body temperatures to a point that was favorable for these microbes to flourish. In the end, these lucky soldiers overcame their gruesome infections without amputations…which would have come too late in any case…..and long before the introduction of antibiotics.

Of course, beginning in the early 1900s, scientists developed antibiotic drugs to treat infections. And mainstream medicine left any kind of “natural” approach to treat infection by the wayside.

By the late 20th century, mainstream medicine had abuse and overused these “magic bullets.” Doctors wrongly prescribed the drugs for every little cough and sniffle. They even prescribed them for viral infections where they make no sense. So today, we face the disastrous development of new antibiotic-resistant “superbugs.”

As this story about the Battle of Shiloh shows, Nature still has many hidden secrets. Instead of searching for ever-stronger, dangerous antibiotic drugs, scientists should go back and study natural approaches for fighting infection. Something unexpected like the Photorhabdus luminescens would naturally provide routes to develop alternatives to antibiotic treatments.

In the meantime, you should take five simple steps to protect yourself from antibiotic-resistant superbugs. You can learn about these steps in the February 2014 issue of my Insiders’ Cures newsletter.

If you’re a newsletter subscriber, you can access this archived article by logging onto my website with your username and password at If you’re not yet a subscriber, now is the perfect time to get started.

Have a good Memorial Day and give some thought to its dramatic history.


“Why Some Civil War Soldiers Glowed in the Dark,” The Week ( 5/5/2015