'Each candle represents a soul' at Antietam National Battlefield

December 03, 2011|By MARIE GILBERT |

SHARPSBURG, Md. — It takes little imagination to hear the thunder of cannon and the rattle of musketry, to listen to the cries of young men and to recall the carnage of that day.

Spared the fate of some historic sites that are marred with fast-food restaurants and trinket shops, Antietam National Battlefield looks much like it did, when on Sept. 17, 1862, a great and terrible battle was fought across its woods and open fields.

It's a serene setting, filled with a sense of personal history — not just of the generals who led their armies, but the 23,110 soldiers who were killed, wounded or missing in action.

The significance of the battle is not lost on John Gibson, a member of the Frederick County Civil War Roundtable.

That's why, for 23 years, he and his family have volunteered to set up and light luminarias for the Memorial Illumination at Antietam.

"I believe that it's important to honor the sacrifices those soldiers made on that day," he said.

Gibson was among more than 1,400 volunteers who prepared the battlefield for Saturday's illumination.

"We have a tremendous amount of volunteerism for this event," said Georgene Charles, general chairwoman. "Combined, we have a total of 664 years worth of dedicated service."

Charles said there is a waiting list of people who want to volunteer.

Gibson said the Frederick Civil War Roundtable is one of the original illumination volunteer groups.

"My children were babies that first year. Now, they're adults. But they're still here, lending a hand," he said.

Gibson said the Memorial Illumination is "a special way to honor those who died at Antietam. Visually, it's very powerful, very moving — especially when you realize that each candle represents a soul."

About 44 members of Boy Scout Troop 20 and Cub Scout Pack 20 of Boonsboro, as well as Boy Scout Troop 252 based in Beaver Creek, spent most of Saturday morning setting out the luminarias. By 2:30 p.m., they were ready to start lighting them.

Andy Hoffman, a committee member with Boy Scout Troop 20 of Boonsboro, said that while the scouts enjoy being with their friends, they also understand the meaning behind each candle they placed in the fields.

"We stress the significance of what happened here," he said.

Greg Inge, a history teacher at Beaver Area High School in Beaver, Pa., has been making the 5 1/2-hour drive from Western Pennsylvania for the past 17 years.

"I started teaching 33 years ago," he said, "and couldn't stand just being in a classroom. So I started organizing field trips as a better way to learn history. When I heard about the opportunity to volunteer for this event, I jumped on it."

Inge was accompanied Saturday by 23 of his students.

"We've done this when it was 5 below zero and when 20 inches of snow was predicted," he said. "We don't miss this event."

Joe Layos has been volunteering at the Memorial Illumination with other members of Trinity Lutheran Church in Boonsboro for 23 years. Saturday, he was one of the speakers during the opening ceremonies.

"I volunteer so others, too, can look out over these fields at all those flickering lights with the voices saying 'Remember,'" he said. "It's a shared experience."

Ed Wenschhof, Antietam's chief ranger, said about 9,000 visitors were expected to attend the Illumination, which stretched over five miles of tour road and several hundred acres of land.

"The weather is great," he said, "so it should be an incredible turnout. I'm ecstatic."

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