Illuminating memorial

Annual event lays out the number of lives lost in Battle of Antietam

Annual event lays out the number of lives lost in Battle of Antietam

November 29, 2007|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

Like strings of amber beads, 23,110 luminarias ? candles representing each person killed, wounded or missing in the Battle of Antietam ? will stretch across Antietam National Battlefield on Saturday.

The 19th annual Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination, with a driving tour of the candlelit grounds, will memorialize those who fought in the Battle of Antietam ? the bloodiest one-day battle in American history, Sept. 17, 1862.

"(The luminarias) bring meaning to the numbers because it's hard to visualize 23,000 of anything," said Georgene Charles, who organized the first illumination.

The 5.8-mile tour is from 6 p.m. to midnight, lasting about 20 minutes, said J.W. Howard, battlefield superintendent.

Howard said the illumination attracts about 20,000 people each year. On average, 8,500 vehicles go through the tour, many waiting as long as two hours to take the 20-minute tour. The line from the entrance has stretched as far as four miles, Howard said.


Sue Doucette and her husband, Cal, plan to make the hourlong drive from their home in Gettysburg, Pa.

"That's nothing," Sue Doucette said about the drive.

She said they once drove seven hours from Buffalo, N.Y., where they used to live, just to see the illumination. The Doucettes are now volunteers and have been coming to the battlefield for the past eight or nine years, Doucette said.

About 1,400 volunteers will place sand-filled, brown paper bags with candles, each spaced 15 feet apart in strict rows, Charles said. The park uses GIS mapping to precisely plot where each luminaria should go, Howard said.

The process takes five to six hours, organizers said. Cleanup takes a few hours Sunday morning.

Doucette, Howard and Charles said that in all the year's they've seen the lighted field, each year feels different.

"I've been doing it for 13 years, and every time I go, there's a lump in my throat," Howard said.

Howard said the lit fields remind him of his 20-year-old son, Brian, who's attending school at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

"These soldiers were as old as he is," Howard said.

For the Doucettes, who perform as historical re-enactors, attending the annual event is how they spent part of their honeymoon when they married 10 years ago.

"I'm not sure if there are words to describe it," Doucette said. "The most spectacular time is the first time you see it."

The idea to do the Memorial Illumination came in 1988, after elementary school students launched 23,110 balloons at the battlefield and after a local cemetery was lit with luminarias in remembrance of the people buried there, Charles said.

The first illumination was held in 1989. The event has since been held the first Saturday in December.

The annual event has been named one of the American Bus Association's Top 100 Events in North America in 2008, according to information from the association's Web site. Each year, association-member motor coach and tour operators select the top events for the upcoming year.

If you go ...

WHAT: 19th annual Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination

WHEN: 6 p.m. to midnight Saturday, Dec. 1

WHERE: Antietam National Battlefield, east of Sharpsburg. The line will form on the westbound shoulder of the park entrance, off Md. 34 (Sharpsburg Pike). Vehicles are asked to only use their parking lights and to continue without stopping. Walking is prohibited.

COST: Free admission. Contributions will be accepted.

MORE: Rain date is Saturday, Dec. 8. As of Wednesday morning, the National Weather Service was forecasting a mostly sunny day Saturday. In the event of bad weather, any decision to cancel the event would be made no later than 10 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 1. For more information, call the park's visitor center at 301-432-5124 or go to the park's Web site,

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