Luminaria display 'brings home level of sacrifice' at Battle of Antietam

November 25, 2012|By MARIE GILBERT |
  • More than 23,000 luminaries will light Antietam National Battlefield at 6 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 1. The 24th annual Antietam Memorial Illumination recognizes those who were killed, wounded or missing during the Sept. 17, 1862, Civil War battle.
Herald-Mail file photo

SHARPSBURG — On a quiet December evening, the flickering glow of candles will dot the darkened landscape at Antietam National Battlefield like thousands of stars that have fallen to the ground.

Driving slowly through the park gates, visitors will be greeted by a single luminaria followed by another and another until suddenly, as far as the eye can see, rows and rows of candles will take their breath away.

There will be 23,110 candles, to be exact — each one representing a soldier who was killed, wounded or missing at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1864.

It's a statistic easily found in history books.

But when you see that number spread out along winding roads and open fields in the form of white lights, you gain a unique perspective on the carnage that took place on the single bloodiest day of the Civil War.

"Setting out a candle for each casualty brings home in a stunningly visual and moving fashion the level of individual sacrifice entailed in the fight to create a more perfect union," said Susan Trail, superintendent of Antietam Battlefield. "We receive many comments on how powerful this event is for those who take part in it."

This year's 24th annual Antietam Memorial Illumination will be held on Saturday, Dec. 1. In the event of poor weather, the event will be held on Saturday, Dec. 8.

The five-mile driving tour, which begins at 6 p.m., is expected to draw thousands of people, many traveling from outside of the Tri-State area.

Even after all these years, "the momentum of the Illumination has not diminished," said Georgene Charles, who is the founder and general chairwoman of the event. "In fact, it continues to expand each year with attendance reaching 20,000 spectators."

Organizers believe this year's Illumination could see even more visitors as it coincides with the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam.

Trail said the event is a particularly fitting capstone to the commemoration.

"We have spent this past year reflecting upon and engaging the public in the significance of loss that resulted from it," she said. "Seeing the thousands of candles across the battlefield landscape brings it home in a very moving way."

Charles came up with the idea 24 years ago after witnessing an illumination at Rest Haven Cemetery on Pennsylvania Avenue.

"Charles Brown of Rest Haven was the first person to bring luminarias to Hagerstown," Charles said. "When Rest Haven presented their illumination, the thought sparked an idea to do this at Antietam."

Georgene Charles still vividly remembers that first illumination ceremony, which she said drew about 3,000 visitors and was held during below-freezing temperatures.

"It was bitter, but the volunteers had a can-do-no-matter-what attitude," she added.

Many of the individuals who volunteered 24 years ago continue to lend a hand today, Charles noted.

"This event has been privileged to have such great support," she said.

Organizers said volunteers range from youth groups to senior citizens.

On Nov. 10, Charles noted, "we had a joint bag filling at the Washington County Agricultural Education Center with the following results: Rest Haven Cemetery, 10,000; Cedar Lawn Cemetery, 4,800; and 24,000 for Antietam."

Charles said the 220 volunteers filled, packed and loaded about 38,000 luminarias in three hours, "which works out to one luminaria per person per minute."

The Antietam Memorial Illumination is being held in cooperation with the American Business Women's Association and the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Thomas B. Riford, president and CEO of the CVB, calls the Illumination "a premiere marquee event for our county."

"As the largest memorial illumination in North America and with the significant honors it has been given, the event brings a lot of positive attention for its goal of memorializing those who sacrificed at the Battle of Antietam 150 years ago," he noted. "The luminarias do not have Union or Confederate written on them.  They honor all the casualties on both sides equally."

Riford said the anniversary of the Maryland Campaign of 1862 was named a Top 100 Event in North America by the American Bus Association and the listing of events included the Illumination. In the past few years, the Illumination itself has earned the Top 100 designation.

With attention focused on the anniversary, Riford anticipates an increase in the number of visitors. The CVB, for instance, is chartering three motor coaches this year and offering special guided tours of the event. Advance tickets are required and are available from the Visitor Welcome Center near the Public Square in downtown Hagerstown. For more information call 301-791-3246, ext. 10.

Riford said the Memorial Illumination is publicized and advertised outside of the immediate area, including internationally, which results in visitors attending from across the country, as well as Canada.

"Economically, the event is positive for our county," he added.  "We see an increase in hotel, B&Bs and campground occupancy; and more business at local restaurants and stores. Anytime 20,000 people or more attend an event there is significant economic impact."

If you go ...

WHAT: 24th annual Antietam Memorial Illumination

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

WHERE: Antietam National Battlefield,

COST: The event is free but donations are accepted.

MORE: In the event of poor weather, the event will be rescheduled for Saturday, Dec. 8.

Antietam National Battlefield personnel note that drivers should use their vehicles' parking lights only during the tour and continue through the event without stopping. Visitors are prohibited from walking the tour route.  Event brochures will be distributed at the entrance, which is Richardson Avenue off Md. 34. A line will form on the westbound shoulder for entrance to the Illumination.  Visitors should note that the wait to enter can be up to two hours long.

Charter buses, tour guides available for illumination

The Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) is chartering three 28-passenger coaches on Saturday, Dec 1, for the 24th annual Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination. Special tour guides for the evening will tell the story of America's bloodiest single-day battle, which happened 150 years ago.

Antietam National Battlefield, in cooperation with the American Business Women's Association and the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, is hosting the annual Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination in honor of those soldiers who fell during the Battle of Antietam.

Tickets for the CVB charter buses are available from the Visitor Welcome Center at 6 N. Potomac St., downtown Hagerstown ("City Center" area near Public Square). The cost is $25 for adults and $20 for children younger than 10. The tickets are not refundable, and the chartered buses are not the type classified as handicapped-accessible. Light refreshments will be served at the Welcome Center starting at 5:15 p.m. and the bus will depart promptly at 6 p.m. For more information call 301-791-3246 ext. 10. Organizers stress that the tickets for this year's buses will sell out.

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