Illuminating war's tragedy

December 01, 2005|by KRISTIN WILSON

BATTLEFIELD - The gently rolling hills and undulating farm fields of Antietam National Battlefield will be transformed into a sea of glowing luminarias Saturday, Dec. 3.

In the annual Memorial Illumination, park employees hope to impress upon visitors just how important and bloody was the 1862 Battle of Antietam.

"For us, it's an interpretative event where you can get a scale of the number of wounded and the casualties," says Ed Wenschhof, chief ranger.


Each luminaria - a candle placed inside a paper bag, weighted down with sand - represents the life of a soldier who was killed, wounded, or missing in the Battle of Antietam. In total, more than 23,000 candles will dot the battlefield.

But the annual event has come to represent much more than the sacrifices made on Sept. 17, 1862, says John Howard, Antietam National Battlefield superintendent.

"In my 30 years in the parks service, (the illumination) is probably the most emotional event I've ever been involved with, because it means something different to everybody," he explains.

Some come to take in the beauty of the event as a mark of the beginning of the holiday season. Others see the Antietam memorial as a memorial to all soldiers who have given their lives on the battlefield, including those in recent wars.

"I guess the idea of being able to stand there and look over this huge area with all the flickering lights, I guess it just fills (visitors) with emotion for whoever they've lost," Howard says.

Volunteers will start to set up luminarias Saturday morning. As the 1,100 volunteers participate in placing the luminarias over a 6-mile stretch of the battlefield, they will know "that these candles are not only for the soldiers that died here, but for all the soldiers that have died around the world," Howard says.

A 5-mile-long driving tour through the park will be set up to take in the thousands of luminarias. During peak times, it might take two or more hours to wait in line and then drive through the tour.

About 20,000 people every year come to experience Antietam battlefield by candle glow, Wenschhof adds. "It is a regional draw."

If you go ...

WHAT: 17th annual Memorial Illumination

WHEN: 6 p.m. to midnight Saturday, Dec. 3

WHERE: Antietam National Battlefield

COST: Free. Donations are requested.

DIRECTIONS: From Hagers-town, take Md. 65 south to Sharpsburg, turn left onto Md. 34 and make a turnaround when possible to join the line-up of cars outside of the main entrance. Visitors are discouraged from walking the tour route because of safety concerns.

MORE: For more information go to In case of inclement weather including snow, rain or excessive winds, the Memorial Illumination will be held Saturday, Dec. 10. A decision whether to hold the illumination Dec. 3 will be made by 10:30 a.m. that day. Call 301-432-5124 to check scheduling updates.

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