Field Trip

Shining Some Light on Antietam's History

Antietam's Maryland monument is surrounded by luminarias during last year's memorial event. The 2006 illumination is scheduled for Saturday.
Antietam's Maryland monument is surrounded by luminarias during last year's memorial event. The 2006 illumination is scheduled for Saturday. (By Judi Quelland)
By Patricia Weil Coates
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 1, 2006

Just after dusk on Saturday at Antietam National Battlefield, the rolling fields of the park below will appear to reflect the sky above as 23,110 candles, spread across hundreds of acres of the battlefield, twinkle like so many stars.

Once a year, a 21st-century army of about 1,400 volunteers descends upon the tiny town of Sharpsburg, Md., to help with the memorial illumination, which commemorates the 19th-century soldiers killed, wounded or missing during the single bloodiest day in American history. One candle for each casualty -- Union and Confederate -- is placed upon the fields where the Battle of Antietam was fought on Sept. 17, 1862.

Despite the huge numbers of dead and wounded, the battle was a tactical draw, and the Civil War continued for 2 1/2 more years. Many historians consider Antietam a pivotal conflict, however, as it ended the South's first invasion into the North and gave President Abraham Lincoln the opportunity he wanted to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22.

The unforgettable sight of more than 23,000 luminarias -- the candles are placed in cups, which are then placed in sand at the bottom of brown paper bags -- is worth the trip to the rural Maryland hamlet, just a few miles from the Potomac River in Washington County.

Georgene Charles, founder and chairman of the event, notes that some volunteers have traveled to Sharpsburg every year since the illumination started 18 years ago. "We have volunteer groups from as far away as North Carolina and Beaver Creek, Pennsylvania, who come each year to help set and light the luminaries," Charles says.

The illumination opens to the public at 6 p.m., and, according to Antietam chief ranger Ed Wenschhof, "whoever's still in line at midnight will get in." Wenschhof says that the luminarias are spread across 400 to 500 acres, set 15 feet apart in straight lines. The illumination driving tour through the park is about five miles; visitors on foot are strongly discouraged.

I brought my two children to the memorial illumination several years ago, hoping that by actually seeing more than 23,000 luminarias glowing in the night, they might get a better feel for the enormity of what transpired there nearly 145 years ago. My daughter, Eliane, 11 at the time, was wowed by the beauty of the sight and seemed to understand the significance of so many candles, visible as far as you could see across the dark vastness of the battlefield. My son, Liam, then 6, looked around quietly for a while and then fell asleep.

A good strategy for viewing the Antietam illumination is to arrive late. Wenschhof, who has more than 25 park staff members working on the event, says traffic to enter the battlefield usually eases up after 8:30 or 9 p.m. He says he is also getting help now from local farmers who cultivate some of the 3,250 acres of the battlefield -- "they're picking their corn and clearing the fields."

Visitors who want to explore the area earlier in the day are free to drive, walk or bicycle through portions of the battlefield -- especially the southern area of the park near Antietam Creek, which does not get set with the luminarias. Fishing and boating are permitted on the creek, and the battlefield has a number of hikes that also help visitors get a feel for the three phases of the day-long conflict, which was fought over 12 square miles of farmland. (Pick up a brochure at the visitors center, which will be closing at 3 p.m. Saturday to allow park staff to get ready for the illumination.) Although the park grounds have not been developed, efforts are being made to restore the battlefield to its 1862 appearance: Woodlots and orchards are being replanted, and original fence lines, lanes and trails are being reestablished.

The battlefield is home to a wide variety of wildlife, including woodchucks, white-tailed deer, rabbits, bats, raccoons, red foxes and skunks, as well as 77 species of birds. It's not unusual to see eastern bluebirds, pileated woodpeckers or even red-tailed hawks soaring over the fields, and at night the cries of great horned owls can be heard.

The 1.3-mile Sherrick Farm trail and the 1.8-mile Snavely's Ford trail -- both south of Route 34 as you drive west into Sharpsburg -- are scenic hikes that pass through dense stands of trees along and above Antietam Creek. The trails also access the Lower Bridge, now known as Burnside Bridge and perhaps the battlefield's best-known landmark. It was at this bridge -- which looks much as it did in 1862 -- that several hundred Confederate troops from Georgia held off vastly greater numbers of Union soldiers under the command of Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside for most of the day, helping to foil a Northern victory.

On Saturday evening, the 23,110 luminarias twinkling across Antietam National Battlefield will afford a poignant yet visually stunning reminder of the men who fell on that single day -- all of them Americans.

18TH ANNUAL ANTIETAM NATIONAL BATTLEFIELD MEMORIAL ILLUMINATION Saturday from 6 to midnight. In case of bad weather, the event will be held at the same time Dec. 9. Antietam National Battlefield, Sharpsburg, Md. 301-432-5124. Free; donations accepted. Vehicles must use parking lights only and drive through the battlefield without stopping.

Take Interstate 270 north to Frederick, then Interstate 70 west to Exit 49, Alternate Route 40 west to Middletown. Continue through Middletown over South Mountain to Boonsboro. In Boonsboro, turn left at light onto Route 34 toward Sharpsburg. Traveling west on Route 34, a line will form on the westbound shoulder for the entrance to the battlefield illumination.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company