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Antietam lights tell story of soldiers

December 04, 2005|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY - The numbers of the Civil War tell a powerful story worth revisiting often, speakers at a candlelight remembrance ceremony said Saturday.

On the cusp of evening, as thousands of blips of light on the ground became more pronounced, U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, R-Md., hearkened back to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Early projections then were that tens of thousands of people might have been killed.

Bartlett said it seemed that the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862 - considered America's bloodiest day because of the 23,110 dead, missing or wounded soldiers - "might lose its place in history."

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Then, in 2003 came the start of the United States' war in Iraq, which is up to about 2,100 American soldiers killed. Bartlett talked about the grief those soldiers' families and friends have experienced.

Still, the sum of the American dead from 9/11 and from the war in Iraq fall short of the number of Battle of Antietam soldiers who died in combat or later because of their injuries, Bartlett said.

The Rev. John Schildt of Bethel United Methodist Church in Chewsville said members of an Elderhostel group asked him one year to ride through the illumination with them and provide commentary. He refused, saying the candles speak for themselves.

Group members seemed put off, he said, but they understood afterward.

At the same time, speakers also said Saturday that numbers only are important for what they represent: people who died.

One candle might symbolize a soldier from New Hampshire, said Schildt, who delivered the invocation and the benediction. Another might be a substitute for a soldier from Piedmont, W.Va.

Overall, at least 600,000 soldiers died in the Civil War, history sources say.

"We need to come here and we need to come here often," said James I. Robertson Jr., the executive director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.

He said the Battle of Antietam was the turning point of the war, but the battlefield is most significant for its death toll: "23,110 men loved America more than they loved life itself."

"You can almost feel the terror and suffering" from 140 years ago, said Cal Doucette, chosen to speak on behalf of the many volunteers who set up the luminarias.

As darkness grew, making stronger the rows of orangeish glow, dignitaries lighted 30 candles held back for the ceremony.

Standing on the steps of the Maryland monument, a choir from Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

It wouldn't be long before a nightlong driving procession through the park would begin.

"The light of the day is gone," John Howard, the battlefield's superintendent, told the crowd. "What is left is the light of the soul ... You have remembered them. You have brought them back to us this day. Because of you, we are better."

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