Antietam lights up

December 05, 2004|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

SHARPSBURG - As the Boy Scouts worked vigorously Saturday afternoon to set their luminarias straight on Antietam National Battlefield, Gerry Smither, 51, of Springfield, Va., took pride in their work.

"It's pretty awesome when you drive through at night," Smither said. "You appreciate it more when you worked on it."

It was the 16th year that the event, officially called the Memorial Illumination at Antietam National Battlefield, was held.

At 8:20 p.m. on Saturday, the line of vehicles stretched 31/2 miles and traffic had been steady since 6 p.m., Battlefield Superintendent John Howard said.

The scouts in Smither's son's troop were among the 1,100 or so volunteers who came to Sharpsburg to help set up for the expected thousands of visitors who would come to view the luminaria display.


Luminarias - simple paper bags filled with sand and a single candle - still were being placed along the ridges and fields at the battlefield Saturday afternoon. Within hours, thousands of visitors would stream through the park viewing the nighttime spectacle.

The 23,110 luminarias represent the number of killed, wounded or missing soldiers in the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862.

Each crew had its own method of trying to set the lighting elements straight. Some used surveying equipment, while others used laser-guided measuring devices.

The scouts from Springfield used a rope-and-marker method that appeared to be working as well as more technical ones.

"As soon as they lay 'em out on one line, they pick 'em up and line it up on the other end ... just leap-frogging down the field," Smither said.

Setting down four luminarias at a time along a rope - spaced precisely 15 feet apart at right angles - the scouts moved quickly, and within five minutes set down about 30. Smither said he expected the field they were working on would take about three hours to cover completely, straighten out any nonconforming luminarias and make sure they all faced the same direction.

At about the same time, the Doyle family from Millersville, Md., near Annapolis, was taking a lunch break. Gregory Doyle, 11, is a member of the local scout troop, and his parents shuttled him, his brother and sister to help out.

"Our troop did maybe 500" luminarias, Doyle said.

"I didn't realize it'd be this big with all the candles," said John Doyle, 13. "It's like a lot of candles, so I guess it's like pretty cool."

Later in the afternoon, the volunteers would return to light the candles, and many were expected to return today to clean up the candles, bags and sand.

For those who would tour the grounds later in the day, Park Ranger Paul Chiles said the luminarias will help them to better understand the consequences of the battle, too.

"It's an incomprehensible number," Chiles said. "You drive 51/2 miles of tour road, which takes you about 45 minutes ... then it starts to sink in."

Georgene Charles, the lead organizer of the event, said many of the volunteer groups returned this year, and some have been volunteering since the first illumination.

Bud Aiello, 55, of Herndon, Va., was working on his laptop Saturday afternoon while listening to radio chatter from a group of scouts he helped ferry to the battlefield. He encouraged others to come.

"For someone who has never see this, they don't know what they're missing," Aiello said.

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