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Illuminating numbers

December 03, 2006|by ERIN JULIUS

SHARPSBURG - "Imagine hundreds of young men charging up this slope in a hail of cannon and musket fire,"Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne said to a crowd of people who spent Saturday in remembrance of those soldiers who died at Antietam National Battlefield on the bloodiest day in American history.

Kempthorne attended the opening ceremony of the 18th annual National Battlefield Memorial Illumination to honor his great-grandfather, a private in the Wisconsin infantry who was wounded 144 years ago during the Battle of Antietam.

Kempthorne spoke to the 1,400 volunteers who helped put together Saturday's event before the park was opened for the procession.

"What a wonderful gesture, caring about humanity," Kempthorne said. "A remarkable, patriotic gesture."

People from around the country arrived early Saturday morning to help set luminarias in neat, straight lines throughout the battlefield.

Susan Brown is originally from Toronto, Canada. She moved to the United States 15 years ago and traveled to Sharpsburg from Buffalo, N. Y.

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"It behooves me to learn something about the country I've adopted," she said.

Setting out 23,110 luminarias - one for each soldier who was killed, wounded or captured during the Battle of Antietam - brings meaning to the numbers, Georgene Charles said.

Charles founded the memorial illumination nearly two decades ago, and she has seen a core group of volunteers return year after year.

"It's a way to contribute and be proud to be Americans," she said.

Almost 80 Boy Scouts from Springfield, Va., returned this year to set out luminarias.

Saturday was the second memorial illumination for Peter Whitney, 16, a senior Scout from Springfield.

"It honors all the people who fought here," he said.

The memorial illumination draws more volunteers to one place at one time than any other event in Washington County, said Tom Riford, of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Volunteers started lighting the luminarias at 3 p.m. The luminarias were expected to stay lit until the park closed at midnight. More than 20,000 people were expected to view the illumination, park rangers said.

Just before rangers opened the park for thousands of vehicles to process through the largest illumination in the country, volunteers gathered around the Maryland monument to reflect on their work.

"Not one of them is labeled North or South," said U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., as he looked out over fields of luminarias. "Somehow, we've been able to set that aside."

The same sentiment struck Carol Overdahl of Fayetteville, Pa.

"Which side they were on doesn't make any difference," she said.

As the sun set, the Ebenezer AME Church choir sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" as Kempthorne, Bartlett and an active-duty Marine private and Army sergeant lit the last luminarias.

Behind the crowd, a bagpiper played "Amazing Grace" while luminarias flickered around him in all directions.

The crowd turned and fell silent. Some bowed their heads while members of the Boonsboro High School band played taps.

Most volunteers will return next year - and the next - just like Frank D'Aquila, a history buff from Falls Church, Va. Saturday was D'Aquila's ninth memorial illumination.

"When you start lighting those candles, you have a relationship with the people who fought and died in this battle," he said.

He still shivers when he visits the battlefield, and it's not just because of the cold December wind.

"There are ghosts here," D'Aquila said.

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