Illuminating History

December 03, 1997

Illuminating History


Staff Writer

If the weather is good and his plane is ready, John Root will fly from Medina, Ohio, for the ninth memorial illumination at Antietam National Battlefield, Saturday, Dec. 6.

With the exception of the years when bad weather caused it to be postponed, Root has been here for the event.

Root is CEO of A.I. Root Co., manufacturer of the candles used in the 23,110 Antietam luminaires, paper bags anchored with sand inside. Each glowing light commemorates a soldier from the North or the South who fell Sept. 17, 1862, during the bloodiest single-day battle in American history,


Root, whose business was founded by his great-grandfather in 1869, comes to Antietam to maintain the relationship with his unique Washington County customers and to make sure everything is working properly. The candles, designed for the event, are larger and burn longer than standard candles. The wicks - also manufactured by Root's company - are engineered to resist drafts.

A self-described "old Air Force pilot," Root served his country at the end of the Korean War, but didn't fly in combat. Seeing the more than 23,000 luminaires at Antietam helps him appreciate how much we owe those who fought for our freedom and the values of our country, Root says.

He's amazed by the volunteer effort behind the illumination.

"It renews your faith in humanity and the United States when you see people come together like a military operation," Root says.

Georgene Charles is "General Chairman" of the volunteers, an appropriate title.The force of 600 to 1,000 people is made up of a wide variety of individuals - young people who can count the time toward their school community service requirement, senior citizens, scouts and many others.

Why do they come out - 97 percent of them returning year after year?

"We just have to be there" is the answer Charles often hears.

In 1995, illumination volunteers received the Governor's Volunteer Service Award for Special Events for the state of Maryland.

Other people have to be there, too.

"This event draws all kinds of people," says John Howard, Antietam National Battlefield superintendent.

About 3,000 to 5,000 cars usually drive the five-mile, approximately 40-minute route through the park.

People come for different reasons. Some want to experience the beauty of the rows of paper lanterns on the darkened battlefield. Others use the event to mark the beginning of the Christmas season, Howard says.

Many come to honor what the illumination represents. Using the number 23,000 is easy, Howard says.

Seeing the lighted candles - 23,110 individual flames for 23,110 individual lives - brings it home.

Although it puts a little extra pressure on park personnel, Howard says he loves it: "I hope it goes on forever."

Organizers have received grants from Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites and Bowman Trust and hope to produce a book explaining the illumination, a lasting part of Washington County.

Charles says that people often write to share their experiences of the illumination. There are frequent comments on the noncommercial nature of the event.

The illumination gives people a better idea of what remembering the Civil War and our history is all about. They see the need to preserve the serenity of the battlefield.

"We've become an interpreter," Charles says.

Antietam National Battlefield will host an exhibit featuring photographs of scenes of the previous eight memorial illuminations. The display will be on view at the park visitor center. It features the work of Bo Quelland and Judy Quelland.

There is no charge beyond the regular park entrance fee of $2 per person or $4 per family. Children 16 and younger are admitted free.

For information, call 301-432-5124.

Antietam National Battlefield will be open to the public from 6 p.m. to midnight Saturday, Dec. 6, for the ninth annual illumination in memory of those who fell in battle more than 135 years ago.

There is no charge for the program, but donations toward the costs of presenting the Illumination will be accepted.

A "Sponsor-A-Candle" program, at a cost of $1 each, was started five years ago to help defray costs which average about $5,000 each year. Illumination chairman Georgene Charles says in-kind donations from area businesses total about $40,000.

The rain date is Saturday, Dec. 13. Cancellation will occur only if it's raining, windy or snowing badly. A decision will be made at a meeting at the park Saturday morning.

Announcements will be broadcast on local and surrounding radio stations.

Park Superintendent John Howard requests that people don't call the visitors' center at 301-432-5124 until after 10 a.m. to find out if the weather will postpone the event.

The Herald-Mail Articles