Road Trip - Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination

Sunday, November 30, 2008

WHERE: Near Sharpsburg, Md.

WHY: Night lights, a war-torn route and a bloody memory lane.

HOW FAR: About 8 1/2 miles from start to finish, and about 70 miles from Washington.

The casualties of great Civil War battles are so enormous that they're impossible to grasp. Saturday evening at Antietam National Battlefield, volunteers will shed light on the tragic losses of both sides by covering the hallowed ground with 23,000 candles. Each small flame will honor a soldier killed, wounded or missing at the 1862 Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single day of warfare in American history.

Known as the Memorial Illumination, the annual display is viewed from vehicles traveling at a slow crawl along a five-mile stretch of the park's normal driving-tour route. In its 20th year, the event is expected to draw more than 2,000 carloads of observers.

"It's an incredible experience; you can't explain it," says Bob Murphy, one of the hundreds of volunteers who place the candlelit luminaria bags in ordered rows. "It puts all those casualties in perspective," he adds.

During the day, take a self-guided tour of the well-preserved battlefield by car and foot. Informative markers help visitors imagine the fierce and desperate combat at such famous sites as Miller Cornfield, Bloody Lane and the Burnside Bridge. Although the Blue and the Gray fought to a tactical draw at Antietam, repelling Gen. Robert E. Lee's first invasion of the North enabled President Abraham Lincoln to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation five days later.

"You can read about it in books," says Mark Williams, a visitor from Washington state. "But you can't really understand unless you actually get here."

-- Scott Elder

Antietam National Battlefield: 5831 Dunker Church Rd., Sharpsburg, Md. 301-432-5124. Memorial Illumination will be Saturday, 6 p.m.-midnight (cars begin lining up in the afternoon). Rain date is Dec. 13. Use entrance off Route 34. Free; donations accepted.

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