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Candle count casualties at annual battlefield display

December 02, 2007|By DON AINES

SHARPSBURG - The impact of the Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination began subtlely Saturday as the sun set behind the Dunker Church and tens of thousands of candles began glowing almost imperceptibly inside brown paper bags spaced across vast acres.

"The field behind us is done primarily by Boy Scouts who use transits and lasers," said Georgene Charles, who has been organizing the event for all of its 19 years. As daylight faded to darkness, the luminaria appeared as precisely arrayed as soldiers in rank and file.

The 23,110 luminaria - candles inside paper sacks weighted down with sand - represent those killed, wounded and missing when Union forces under George B. McClellan repelled the Army of Northern Virginia commanded by Robert E. Lee on Sept. 17, 1862.

"That's one number," said Ted Alexander, the park historian. In fact, the carnage might even have been worse, he said.

"A lot of times, the Confederates are not counting if you're walking wounded. You may not be counted as a casualty," Alexander said.

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"The number 23,000 became more, far more" than a statistic upon viewing the illumination for the first time, said Frank DiQuila, a 12-year volunteer. Addressing a few hundred of the approximately 1,400 volunteers from dozens of scout troops, clubs, companies and organizations who made the event possible, he said the glowing fields created "a profound silence."

This is the largest illumination in North America, said Tom Riford, president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau. The bureau and battlefield are sponsors of the event, along with the American Business Women's Association, Charles said.

Driving through the luminaria-filled fields, Judy Frank of Catonsville, Md., also noted that the lights made the human toll of Antietam all the more incredible to imagine. As vehicles snaked through the battlefield with headlights off, the thousands of points of light seemed like millions.

'Like fireworks'

"I just think it's one of the most beautiful things in Maryland," said her husband, Gordon Frank. He first came here 13 years ago working with a Boy Scout troop and has come back ever since, this year leading a group of 24 calling itself "Gordo's Baggers."

"I always kind of thought of it like fireworks," Gordon Frank said, with each hill topped revealing a new display. A small grass fire livened up the display in one field and Union and Confederate re-enactors huddled around campfires against the fast-falling temperature.

Charles said the work of assembling the luminaria began a couple of weeks earlier with 100 or so volunteers putting the sand, cups and candles in 34,000 bags. The extra bags are used for an illumination at Rest Haven Cemetery in Hagerstown, she said.

The candles are specially made for this event by Root Candles of Medina, Ohio, Park Superintendent John Howard said. The recipe is for a wind-resistant, long-burning candle lasting up to 16 hours. The candles were actually lit Saturday afternoon and some will still be flickering at sunrise, he said.

By 3 p.m., Howard said cars were lined up half a mile along Md. 34. Gordon Frank said that line would be three or four miles long by nightfall.

"We have about 9,000 cars, which translates into about 25,000 people," Howard said of the average crowd each year.

Charles said finding volunteers has not been a problem as almost all of them return each year.

Linda Sutton Jones of Albertson, N.C., asked about volunteering and was told by Charles that several hundred people are on a waiting list.

"My great-great-great-grandfather was killed here," said Jones, who first saw the illumination in 2005.

A candle lighted the night in memory of Henry Sutton, one of the 23,110.

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