Lights at Antietam National Battlefield honor a dark time

November 30, 2011|By CRYSTAL SCHELLE |
  • Antietam National Battlefields Memorial Illumination will take place Saturday, Dec. 3. The park entrance off Md. 34 east of Sharpsburg will open at 6 p.m. to allow motorists to drive along a five-mile route through acres and acres of luminarias, one for each of the battles 23,110 casualties.
File photo

SHARPSBURG — During the wee morning hours of Sept. 17, 1862, there were stars still in the sky when the first shots were fired near the creek that would bear the Civil War battle’s name.

Nearly 12 hours later, 23,110 soldiers would be killed, wounded or missing, making the Battle of Antietam the bloodiest single-day battle in American history. The park will commemorate its 150th anniversary in 2012.

On Saturday, Dec. 3, those stars will seem a little closer to the ground as Antietam National Battlefield hosts its annual Memorial Illumination. The battlefield will be decorated in luminarias, each representing a casualty. The tour begins at 6 p.m.

Ed Wenschhof, Antietam’s chief ranger, said volunteers will begin Saturday morning at 8 a.m. setting up the luminarias, and will begin lighting the candles at 1 p.m.

This year’s honorary chief of the Memorial Illumination is U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett.

Wenschhof said the first time he saw the illumination was in the winter of 1992.

“I was very impressed with it,” he said.

 Wenschhof said it is during this event that visitors can visualize the real destruction of the Battle of Antietam.

The illumination “stretches over five miles of tour road and several hundred acres of land,” Wenschhof said.

In his new book, “The Battle of Antietam: The Bloodiest Day,” Ted Alexander, park historian, chronicles the battle. His book is available during business hours at the Antietam National Battlefield bookstore.

He will also discuss and sign copies of his book from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3, at Oller House, 138 W. Main St., Waynesboro, Pa.

Alexander said the first shots were actually fired the night before during skirmishes. By 6 a.m. on the 17th, attacks began and troops suffered their first casualties. The battle would go on almost in shifts during the humid September day, with the last gunfire around 6 p.m.

Two months later, there was no Christmas joy for Sharpsburg-area residents. Alexander said the dead had been buried and the wounded removed, but thousands of mountless horses and mules roamed the area, Alexander said. Hospitals were still at the battle site and the town smelled of death, both human and animals. And in the battle’s bloody wake, Alexander said the battle had also left the town of Sharpsburg coping with what today would be considered millions of dollars of damage.

Plus, soldiers who had lingered after the battle had “eaten them out of house and home,” Alexander said.

Christmas was just then emerging as a holiday then. In fact, it wouldn’t be until 1870 that Ulysses S. Grant, former U.S. general and then-sitting U.S. president, made Christmas a federal holiday.

“Christmas was coming into its own,” Alexander said. “Santa Claus, as we know him, came out of the Civil War, (as did) greeting cards and some of the carols.”

One such carol is “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” which was based on the poem Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in 1864. His son had joined the Union Army a year before and was wounded in battle.

“Longfellow wrote it out of despair,” Alexander said.

Antietam National Battlefield wouldn’t officially become sacred ground until 1890 when it was established as a park, along with several other Civil War battlefields. It was under the care of the War Department, Alexander said.

“But they weren’t good stewards of the land,” he said.

In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt, under an executive order, established the National Park Service, and the care of many parks, including Antietam, were transferred to the NPS.

Today, the NPS still maintains care of the park.

Alexander said he hopes that when people look at the thousands of lit luminarias, they will understand the sacrifices the soldiers made.

“I think it’s one of the most moving experiences on the whole Eastern Seaboard,” he said.

If you go ...        

What: Memorial Illumination

When: Grounds open at 6 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3

Where: Antietam National Battlefield; driving tour starts at entrance off Md. 34, east of Sharpsburg

Cost: Free

Contact: Call 301-432-5124 or go to

More: Stopping or exiting vehicles along the route is not permitted. The line of cars to enter can be up to two hours long. There are no bathrooms along the route; the visitor center closes at 3 p.m. In case of high winds or heavy rain, the event will be held Saturday, Dec. 10.

File photo
Antietam National Battlefield’s Memorial Illumination will take place Saturday, Dec. 3. The park entrance off Md. 34 east of Sharpsburg will open at 6 p.m. to allow motorists to drive along a five-mile route through acres and acres of luminarias, one for each of the battle’s 23,110 casualties.

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