Short Takes

by Fred Ray on April 6, 2012 · 0 comments

Did “Angels’ Glow” protect some wounded soldiers at Shiloh? How true were stories of wounds that actually glowed in the dark? More true than you might think.

Some of the Shiloh soldiers sat in the mud for two rainy days and nights waiting for the medics to get around to them. As dusk fell the first night, some of them noticed something very strange: their wounds were glowing, casting a faint light into the darkness of the battlefield. Even stranger, when the troops were eventually moved to field hospitals, those whose wounds glowed had a better survival rate and had their wounds heal more quickly and cleanly than their unilluminated brothers-in-arms. The seemingly protective effect of the mysterious light earned it the nickname “Angel’s Glow.”

There’s some real science involved.

History, or at least our interpretation of it, keeps changing. Not quite like the old joke in the Soviet Union—that the future was known, mapped out in detail by Comrade Marx. The problem was the past, which kept changing as various figures were added or literally air brushed from the historical record.

I’ve mentioned Dr. J. David Hacker’s work before. A demographer, he’s done a long overdue relook at Civil War casualties, upping them by about 20%. As a professional population counter, he has a few tricks up his sleeve.

Another hurdle was what Dr. Hacker called the “dreadful” 1870 census, a badly handled undercount taken when the ashes of the war were still warm. But he reasoned a way around that problem.

Because the census takers would quite likely have missed as many women as men, he decided to look at the ratio of male to female deaths in 1870. Next, he examined mortality figures from the decades on either side of the war – the 1850s and 1870s – so that he could get an idea of the “normal” ratio of male to female deaths for a given decade. When he compared those ratios to that of 1860-70, he reasoned, he would see a dramatic spike in male mortality. And he did. Subtracting normal attrition from the male side of the equation left him with a rough estimate of war dead.

As Hacker acknowledges, there are still many questions and the figure will always be an estimate. I do disagree with some of his methodology and assumptions, and he avoids the question of civilian deaths, especially in the South. Still, it’s the best estimate so far.

Some photo albums:

What did Los Angeles look like during the 1860s?

And a look at London’s underclass in the 1870s, which was probably not much different than many major US cities.


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