Remembering the fallen

November 30, 2006|by JULIE E. GREENE

In many cases, they fought without having been regularly fed for several days.

They watched their friends and colleagues get shot or hit by artillery; some left with gruesome wounds and many left dead.

When the day was done, more than 23,000 soldiers - all Americans - were dead, wounded or missing. Many lay on farmer's fields and dirt roads waiting to be buried by the survivors. It remains the bloodiest day of battle in American history.

Every year it is remembered with a striking and somber sight - that of 23,110 luminarias spread across the battlefield to remember the casualties of the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862.


"'Who says that a battlefield shouldn't be beautiful to honor the men who fought here,'" says battlefield Superintendent John Howard, recounting a quote from former battlefield Superintendent George Hess in the late 19th century.

When Hess said it, he was commenting on an order from a superior to remove newly planted trees on the battlefield, which is about 10 miles south of Hagerstown, Howard says. The trees at the Philadelphia Brigade Park remained.

The 18th annual Memorial Illumination is expected to attract about 2,500 carloads of visitors this Saturday. An opening ceremony will be held at 4:15 p.m. at the Maryland Monument near the visitors center, and the illumination will open to the public at 6 p.m.

More than 1,400 volunteers are expected to place the luminarias - candles in paper bags weighed down by sand - over a six-mile northern portion of the battlefield.

Park Historian Ted Alexander says people can read the history books, watch documentaries and tour the battlefield with its plaques and monuments, but until they see the candles representing the casualties, he doesn't think the immensity of the carnage hits home.

The official number of battle casualties listed at the battlefield's Web site is 22,720, but Alexander says he and other historians believe that number to be more than 23,000 because the Confederates tended to underreport their casualties.

Nearly 100,000 soldiers fought in the battle, which was historically considered a tactical draw. However, the battle was a strategic victory for the North as it ended Confederate General Robert E. Lee's first invasion into the North and gave President Lincoln the impetus to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, Alexander says. This changed Lincoln's war goal from just preserving the Union to also ending slavery, he says.

James W. Shinn, a Confederate with the 4th North Carolina Infantry Regiment, remembered the day in his personal diary, a copy of which is kept at the battlefield's library.

"This was a terrible day for both armies & Wednesday the 17th day of Sept 1862 will never be forgotten. ... The battle raged all day with a fury unequaled in this war," Shinn wrote.

"It appeared as though mutual extermination would put a stop to the awful carnage," he added.

On the other side of the battle, Union soldier Wolcott Paschal Marsh with the 8th Regiment Connecticut Volunteer Infantry wrote numerous letters to his wife Anna, including one dated Sept. 24, 1862, in which he recounts the battle.

He wrote, without grotesque detail, of men in his unit being wounded and killed by artillery, of seeing Ohio and Pennsylvania troops engaging rebels on what would become known as Burnside Bridge, and of watching history unfold before him.

"While our skirmishers were advancing and we lay quiet on this high hill I had the privilege of witnessing the Grandest sight of my life," Wolcott wrote.

"A great battle all around me almost with out for moment being personally engaged. All long the right for miles the cannon and musketry kept up a deafening roar while the air was thick with great clouds of smoke," he wrote.

The soldiers' jobs did not end with the battle and many stayed on to bury the dead.

In a letter to the Huntingdon (Pa.) Globe, an unnamed soldier in the 125th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, responded to a complaint about the manner in which fallen soldiers were interred at Antietam:

"Imagine yourself surrounded by hundreds of dead, not as much as a dozen picks and shovels amongst the whole party to work with, and you may judge the disadvantages labored under. Our men secured two picks and took a couple of boards and sharpened them at the end to use as shovels, and with those kinds of tools buried forty two men."

He wrote, "No one regrets more than us that no better burial could be given, but after doing all that could be done, is it justice to those who did their best, to be talked about for doing it? Not a man who helped lay our companions in their graves expect any better fate if it should be their lot to fall on the battlefield."

If you go...

WHAT: 18th annual Memorial Illumination at Antietam National Battlefield

WHEN: 4:15 p.m. opening ceremony at Maryland Monument by the visitors center. The driving tour is open to the public from 6 p.m. to midnight Saturday, Dec. 2. The rain date is Saturday, Dec. 9.

WHERE: Antietam National Battlefield near Sharpsburg. Vehicles begin the tour at the battlefield entrance on Md. 34 east of Sharpsburg. The tour exits onto Md. 65 north of Sharpsburg.

COST: Free; donations accepted at the entrance.

MORE: The line at the entrance is often two miles long, and the wait can exceed an hour. Drivers are asked to use their parking lights only on the tour and drive through slowly without stopping. The tour is about five miles long.

If there is inclement weather, call 301-432-5124 to find out if the illumination has been postponed.

Alexander Gardner took 70 photographs of the battlefield beginning two days after the Sept. 17, 1862, battle.

According to the Antietam National Battlefield's Web site, this was the first time an American battlefield had been photographed before the dead had been buried.

To see Gardner's photos, visit

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