Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Put yourself in his boots: See if you have what it takes to lead a Civil War army

Generals had to excel in organizing and leading armies (LOC)

Your men are dog tired from an overnight 12-mile march. A subordinate is ill, and his replacement is not battle-tested. Horses and mules are hungry and the patter of rain is turning into a downpour. You can’t remember your last night of decent sleep.

The pressure is on for a significant victory to stem the recent fortunes of your enemy. Attack now? Move to another position? Await further orders?

What would YOU do?

Armchair historians and casual observers of the Civil War on Feb. 9 will have the opportunity to sit in the saddle of an army commander and ponder the myriad decisions that must be made.

Chuck Teague
Public historian Charles Teague, a seasonal ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park, will give a talk entitled “So You Think You Could Command a Civil War Army?,” one of 20 such presentations during the park’s winter lecture series.

The free series begins this Saturday, Jan. 4, and continues through March 9. Topics include the Battle of the Crater, Sherman’s March to the Sea and the Atlanta Campaign.

Teague’s talk will examine the challenges facing commanders -- at one time or another in 1864, there were 18 armies in the field varying in size from 7,000 to 70,000 soldiers – and the attributes needed for success.

“This is really a difficult, trying responsibility these army commanders (face), with hundreds of decisions to be made, with any one that can go awry and end with calamity,” Teague, 66, recently told the Picket.

The retired Air Force chaplain, a past president of the Civil War Roundtable of Gettysburg, makes it clear he will not assign letter grades to famous generals or give a definitive assessment -- though he will discuss some of their strengths and weaknesses.

“It is natural in such discussions that the focus moves to rating and ranking the various army commanders,” said Teague. “My program is actually intended to prompt folks not to be so quick to criticize them, to forestall knee-jerk judgments in sorting out geniuses from jerks.”

Teague will explore why certain decisions or actions occurred on the battlefield.

Robert E. Lee
American military commanders learned from their experiences in the Mexican-American War, the Crimean War and from Napoleon’s campaigns.

For many, the Civil War was their first time in the military. They were learning on the job and reading manuals, “seeking to know each other’s thoughts.”

“None of them realized how vast the conflict would be and how bloody it would be and the development of technology along the way,” said Teague. “Early in the war, you win by posturing. That kind of mentality did not last through the war.”

Logistics, he said, was a key part of command. Lee, Grant and Sherman were attuned to these issues. That included providing proper equipment, uniforms and weapons, sufficient food for man and beast, and establishing a reliable payroll system.

Sherman, Teague said, made fantastic use of railroads while deep in Confederate territory. His army lived off the land, consuming huge amounts of meat and water. A large force could chew through 40,000 potatoes, alone, a day.

Proper organization and drill of the army – including the selection of staff and the method of issuing orders – is crucial. But that quality alone is not enough.

“(Joseph) Hooker and (George) McClellan were exceptional in equipping, training and arming their armies. Neither one proved capable on the battlefield of real victory.”

Naturally, the talk will focus on leadership and delegation, the ability to devise new tactics to face difficult challenges.

Proper logistics a crucial requirement (Library of Congress)

“Lee had the idea that as many men as possible should be at the front line,” said Teague.

The commander believed in a small staff. Later on that became a problem. “His staff could not analyze the intelligence that was coming.”

The Union’s dependable George Thomas organized a modern staff.

“Some Civil War commanders were more impulsive… Thomas sometimes was slow, but he was very thorough. Part of that was developing his staff,” Teague said.

Inadequate information on the battlefield made decisions difficult, he added.

“The friction of battle and the fog of war are both very applicable. When things don’t go your way, how quickly can you respond and overcome them?”

George Thomas
For example, Grant, after momentary setbacks at Shiloh and Spotsylvania, “could still very clearly and very effectively change things. Many generals couldn’t.” He cited a befuddled Hooker at Chancellorsville.

The final portion of Teague’s lecture will highlight 12 attributes for effective command. Among them are moral character and mental fortitude (George Meade), decisiveness in a crisis and discernment. “You are not just guessing.”

The Civil War had many good generals. But only a few had the skills, acumen and intelligence to excel at nearly all levels.

“I hope (lecture participants) come away with a deeper appreciation of the burden and responsibility that the commanders had -- and be not so quick to judge,” Teague said.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Upcoming film marks valor of VMI cadets

Field of Lost Shoes (Mark Wilson, Wikipedia)

A movie about the May 1864 Battle of New Market may make its debut in Richmond, Va., next year. Focused on the stories of seven Virginia Military Institute cadets, “Field of Lost Shoes” revolves around the cadets’ heroic charge. Ten cadets died of wounds suffered on the Shenandoah Valley battlefield, where many of them lost their shoes in the deep mud. The Confederate victory pushed Union forces out of the valley. • Article

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Cushing Medal of Honor effort wins battle

The push to have a Wisconsin soldier who made a valiant last stand at Gettysburg receive the nation’s highest military decoration got impetus Friday when the Senate passed a bill that includes an exemption on the timing of a recommendation. Even if the president signs the bill, a few steps remain before Lt. Alonzo Cushing would get the Medal of Honor. The Defense Department would have to make an official recommendation, and President Barack Obama would have to approve it. • Article

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Rare crate of Civil War Enfield rifles yields picture of daring Civil War blockade runners

Enfield rifles prepared for display (Georgia DNR)

• See July 2022 update on rifles

The carefully constructed box of British-made rifles was intended for the hands of Confederate soldiers.

A century and a half later, after a failed blockade run, a fire and years resting in the sandy bottom of Charleston Harbor, the weathered container and its contents are instead a time capsule in the hands of conservators and archaeologists.

“The last time somebody looked at those, and put them on crates, was about 150 years ago,” said J. Doug Bailey, a gun collector who has studied the Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle-musket for more than three decades.

Twenty Enfields -- the second most widely used infantry weapon in the Civil War after the Springfield -- are being conserved by the Historic Preservation Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, which acquired the guns from South Carolina. 

Rifles are enclosed in metal liner (Georgia DNR)

The crate carried by the doomed CSS Stono is currently on display at Sweetwater Creek State Park in Douglas County, west of Atlanta, while the preservation lab at Panola Mountain State Park is being overhauled.

The rifles are in large aquarium of filtered freshwater that is drawing out salt and other contaminants.

“It (is) a once in a lifetime thing,” Josh Headlee, senior preservation technician with the division, told the Picket of the rare opportunity to conserve and study a case of Enfields.

Only three intact cases of the single-shot weapon are known, according to a 2007 Atlanta Journal-Constitution article.

Typical Pattern 1853 Enfield (NPS)

Although the iron rifle barrels, locks and bayonets are heavily deteriorated from saltwater corrosion, the walnut stocks of the rifles are in “tremendous shape.”

Brass components, including butt plates, trigger guards and the nose cap at the end of the barrels better withstood the ravages of longtime submersion.

Researchers also found a bullet mold, tools and tampions, or cork and brass plugs inserted into the muzzle to ward off moisture.

At least one of the weapons bears the mark, “T. Turner,” a reference to well-known English gunmaker Thomas Turner, who turned out quality weapons in the mid-19th century.

The rifles came from the wreckage of the CSS Stono, a blockade runner -- laden with precious arms, munitions and goods from Europe  – that in 1863 ran aground on a submerged sandbar off Fort Moultrie while trying to evade Federal ships.

The CSS Stono was previously known as the USS Isaac Smith, a steamer that saw Federal service before its capture by Confederate land forces.

Some of the CSS Stono’s contents were retrieved by the South, but others, including the crate of Enfields, could not be salvaged, apparently because they were below the water line. In 1865, the “stuck” ship was burned to prevent it from falling into the hands of Federal troops.

An archaeological diver pulled up the crate from the South Carolina shipwreck in the late 1980s. 

“The water was murky,” said Headlee. “He could not feel where the stack of rifles ended.”

USS Isaac Smith, later converted to CSS Stono

Officials did not initially know how many of the highly-prized Pattern 53 rifles were inside, their position or condition. Each weapon weighed about 9 pounds and was approximately 53 inches long. The bore is .577 caliber.

“The Confederacy imported more Enfields during the course of the war than any other small arm,” according to the National Park Service. “It has been estimated that over 900,000 P53 Enfields were imported to America and saw service in every major battle from Shiloh in April 1862 through Vicksburg in 1863, to the final battles of 1865.”

The crate was originally curated by the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology (at the University of South Carolina), said David Crass, head of Georgia’s Historic Preservation Division.

The South Carolina institute did conserve smaller items, but donated the rifle crate to Georgia for extensive conservation treatment and display. 

In early 2007, Headlee turned to Atlanta’s Delta Air Lines to X-ray the crate so that researchers would best know how to tackle the chore of conserving the metal lining and rifles.

A powerful industrial X-ray machine was unable to provide more than faint images through the packed sediment, which Headlee likened to concrete.

"I guess if we want to find out what we've got, we'll have to start digging down a layer at a time,” he told The Journal-Constitution.

The rifles were placed in a solid wooden case and metal lining

His words have proven true in the years since, with a “painstakingly slow” process of using hand tools to separate the rifles and other contents. “It took years to chip away,” Headlee told the Picket this week.

Most of the wooden crate is gone, but a lining made of tin and lead remains. One end of the crate was damaged, apparently when the CSS Stono sank.

After the level of sodium chloride is stabilized, officials will consider longer-term conservation techniques. The state hopes to eventually place the crate on permanent display after the long conservation process.

Bailey, who lives in Roswell, Ga., told the Picket that the North also imported thousands of Enfields from Europe before it increased production of the venerable Springfield rifle. The South, with limited manufacturing capacity, was heavily dependent on imported weapons and goods.

.557 Enfield Minie Ball (NPS)

On today’s market, a P53 Enfield in rough condition can go for as little as a few hundred dollars, while rarer specimens may fetch as much as $10,000.

The 1851 and 1853 Enfields, made for the British army, were an important technological advance from smoothbore to rifled muskets, increasing the accuracy and distance, said Bailey. “They were very well made.”

Headlee asked Bailey to take a look at the rifles, and they found the Thomas Turner mark clearly visible on one weapon.

“Some of the stocks were in amazing condition and we washed them off,” he said. “I was taken they went to so much trouble and time to pack them.”

The metal lining sealed the cargo from salt air and ensured the rifles were not tampered with. Inside, the rifles were placed in an alternating butt to muzzle pattern. Wooden blocks were used to prevent the weapons from shifting.

Lockplates on CSS Stono rifles likely resembled this (J. Doug Bailey)

In an online journal for his agency, Headlee wrote: “The rifles will obviously never look like they did when they were brand new. In fact, with much of the iron gone, they will at best look like shells of their former selves.  However, there are enough fragments and recognizable parts left that they are an instrument of education for Civil War and Enfield Rifle scholars who are being given a rare glimpse into how the rifles were crated and transported."

Bailey likened the discovery to that of Enfields found in the wreckage of the blockade runner Modern Greece near Fort Fisher, N.C.

“Once they get it stabilized and in a preserved state, anyone who is interested in the blockade runners and what (the rifles) looked like when brought over it will bring great insight,” Bailey said of the CSS Stono rifle crate.

“You are kind of stepping back in time. I found it extremely interesting.”

• Click here for November 2015 update on rifles

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Your chance to adopt a cannon in Charleston

A nonprofit group is urging people to lend a hand to help conserve pieces of history: the guns at the South Carolina forts where the Civil War began. Jim Thompson of the Fort Sumter-Fort Moultrie Trust said that the group has started an Adopt-A-Cannon drive to help the National Park Service conserve the guns at Sumter, which is in Charleston Harbor, and at Moultrie, on nearby Sullivans Island. • Article

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Hip Atlanta neighborhood gets its history back with arrival of Civil War marker replica

Replica marker is installed on Dec. 11 (Georgia DOT)

It was a grand affair.

Georgia Gov. E.D. Rivers was on hand, as were Atlanta Mayor William B. Hartsfield, historian Wilbur G. Kurtz and J.S. McWilliams, son of John W. McWilliams, a soldier in 1864’s Battle of Atlanta.

In between the playing of “America,” “Dixie,” “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Taps,” a crowd bundled for the chill on Dec. 15, 1937, witnessed the unveiling of a marker that described Civil War combat in the East Atlanta community.

On July 22, 1864, hordes of Confederates under Gen. William J. Hardee managed to push a force of Federals northward toward Leggett’s Hill, which became the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in a battle that ended in a crushing defeat for the South.

1937 dedication (Courtesy of Tommy Barber)
The view in East Atlanta today (GDOT)

A cannon held the Union left flank at the present-day intersection of Glenwood and Flat Shoals roads, the epicenter of today’s East Atlanta Village, a hip commercial and residential area calling itself “an urban oasis of community and culture.”

E.A. Minor, associated with the neighborhood’s Marbut & Minor Mercantile Store, on behalf of his F&AM Masonic Lodge formally presented the marker to Atlanta and DeKalb County on that day in 1937. 

No one present at the dedication could have foreseen what would happen down the road.

By the late 1980s, the marker and a larger boulder to which it was affixed had disappeared.

No one knows what became of the boulder, but a historian with the Georgia Department of Transportation several years ago was able to locate the plaque at the Masonic lodge, which had moved about 20 miles east of the neighborhood.

Wednesday morning, to no fanfare, the intersection of Flat Shoals and Glenwood got its history back, with the installation of a replica marker affixed to new chunk of granite.

The original marker is at a Masonic lodge
And here is the replica (GDOT)

“It would have been nice to have some kind of commemoration,” said Chad Carlson, historian with the Office of Environmental Services at the Georgia DOT.

A piece of heavy equipment placed the granite on a semicircular brick structure at the corner. Where a Texas service station once served customers are other businesses, including an ice cream parlor.

The project is part of a streetscape improvement done in conjunction with the city of Atlanta. Carlson said the new marker makes it clear it is a replica.

“It felt great,” Carlson told the Picket. “I was pleased at the quality of it. It felt good to know we are reinstating what was placed there and honoring the soldiers that had died there.”

Carlson tracked the original marker to the E.A. Minor Lodge #603 in Lithonia.

Click to read program for 1937 unveiling (Courtesy of Mary Banks)

In 2007, he met with some of its aging members, who said they had no idea how the marker came to be in their building. “It was right there at their entrance.”

They told him the lodge had 1,700 members during its peak in the late 1940s. Members used to walk to meetings in East Atlanta, which grew into a suburb of Atlanta after the Civil War.

Despite the enormous loss of men and infrastructure, Atlanta began rebuilding within months of its September 1864 surrender to Union troops.

East Atlanta was an unincorporated suburb of Atlanta, and it drew a post office, carriage dealership, a movie theater and the familiar Flat Iron Building, where the Masonic lodge chapter met. The building now houses a bar and a tattoo business.

Marbut & Minor wagon in 1911 (Georgia Archives)

But the once-prosperous community had challenges during the civil rights struggle of the 1960s.

“Because the Grand Dragon of the KKK lived in an adjacent neighborhood, East Atlanta was targeted by civil rights groups to be an example of racial integration of housing,” according to the East Atlanta Community Association, founded in 1981. “Under the protection of the Fair Housing Act, middle class black families were assisted in efforts to purchase houses in the area. Some real estate agents seized the opportunity to fan the flames of fear and racial prejudice. At their urging, many white families fled the area selling their homes at a loss.”

“During this time many hardworking black families achieved the dream of home ownership in a nice neighborhood with yards for the children and good schools nearby. Many white families remained refusing to give in to social pressures and determined to live in harmony with their new neighbors.”

Property values became depressed and many houses became dilapidated. "Even so, the neighborhood remained stable," the community group says.

The neighborhood in recent years has witnessed the arrival of new businesses and the rehabilitation of  homes. It touts itself as fun, family-friendly, convenient and a place with many activities.

For years, local historians, Civil War buffs and the Battle of Atlanta Commemoration Organization (B*ATL) have worked to educate residents and visitors to the rich Civil War history of East Atlanta, Kirkwood and other Atlanta neighborhoods. B*ATL sponsors an annual Civil War event that includes tours, talks, a living history encampment and memorial services.


Henry Bryant of B*ATL said the neighborhood would like to have some kind of city ceremony in early 2014 -- the year of the sesquicentennial -- for the marker. "I am very happy to have it returned. It is as permanent a reminder as we can have in Atlanta of what happened here," Bryant told the Picket.

Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson, a favorite of Union Gen. William T. Sherman, was killed less than a mile from the marker when he rode into Confederate lines.

Gen. William H.T. Walker, a grizzled Confederate veteran nicknamed “Shot Pouch” for the numerous wounds he received during the Mexican-American War, also died in the area. He was knocked out of his saddle by a sniper as his men advanced on a Yankee position.

Carlson said he appreciates the simplicity of the marker’s words, which describe military units and troops movements.

“Today, we are so in to fanfare, embellishment and making things and fast and exciting. Back then, they were very sober about these things.”

Historical interpretation has changed in the decades since the 1937 unveiling. Newer signs tell a wider story of the Civil War, including its impact on the home front and various types of people.

A new interpretive panel (above, near vehicle) also has gone up at the intersection. And while it sticks to military themes, it provides a wider context of the battle and include photos and a map. 

Confederate troops made their attack up Flat Shoals Road after a daring night march to what is now East Atlanta Village.

Carlson said he hopes visitors or those who live in or near the village appreciate its Civil War history.

“I think it was important to show that a number of people died there,” said the historian, citing the importance of the fall of Atlanta to President Abraham Lincoln’s re-election later that year. “It really was a pivotal moment in the war.”

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Deep in the Smokies, a divided Cades Cove keenly felt ravages of the Civil War

Photo: Brian Stansberry / Creative Commons
Millions of people each year drive the 11-mile loop around Cades Cove, Tennessee, enjoying panoramic valley views, log cabins and the occasional bear sighting.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park maintains the cove to look like the early settler days. Rustic log cabins dot the landscape, which has been devoid of residents for about 70 years.

But there was a good deal more hustle and bustle in 1860: 700 residents farmed and conducted business with the nearby communities of Maryville and Knoxville. They built clapboard homes and largely prospered.

“It was not considered to be so isolated by the standard of the 1860s,” said Aaron Astor, associate professor of history at Maryville College, a small liberal arts institution.

But four years of brother against brother changed that.

Aaron Astor
“The Civil War really soured the residents and they turned inward,” said Astor, who is helping to lead a Great Smoky Mountains Civil War tour this Friday and Saturday (Dec. 13-14), with several stops in Cades Cove.

“Cades Cove was mostly a mix of ambivalence of just wanting to stay out of the war and support for the Union,” said Astor. Throw in a smattering of abolitionists and pro-Southerners, and you have a recipe for nasty conflict.

Most residents were pro-Union, while some prominent citizens, businessman Daniel Foute among them, backed the Confederacy.

In Eastern Tennessee, communities connected by railroad to Georgia or Virginia were more connected to the Southern cause, Astor told the Picket.

Knoxville, which eventually fell to Federal forces, had split allegiances.

“When we talk about loyalties in the Civil War, we have to realize they are not always a steadfast thing,” said the historian, who has written several articles for The New York Times Civil War blog, Disunion.

“A lot of people’s loyalties can shift around…. People had to do what they had to do to survive,” said Astor.

Among his areas of interest are the war’s border regions, where sentiments for both sides simmered and bloody guerrilla warfare and raids are widespread. Astor’s 2012 book on the subject is entitled, “Rebels on the Border: Civil War, Emancipation, and the Reconstruction of Kentucky and Missouri.”

(NPS photo)

“Cades Cove did not have large battles,” according to Astor. “But it was considered a perfect raiding ground, particularly by Confederates, to take all kinds of livestock and grain.”

The people of Cades Code formed home guards to protect their property and livelihoods from raiders.

“There would be children who would blow horns or make certain sounds to indicate that raiders were coming,” said Astor.

The first stop in Saturday’s tour – sponsored by the Tennessee Civil War Preservation Association -- will be just outside the park, in the community now called Walland.

The so-called “flagpole incident” occurred when Confederate troops and recruiters were warned to leave a U.S. flag alone – or else.

“They were not exactly welcomed into this heavily unionist section of the mountains,” said Astor. “They were able to get in there and out alive.”

The flag remained flying.

Primitive Baptist Church (Brian Stansberry / Creative Commons)

For many, questions of allegiance evolved as the war ground on.

With little fertile land, Cades Code had virtually no slaves when war broke out. Those belonging to Foute, whose homestead will be visited Saturday, toiled elsewhere in Blount County.

“There is a huge segment of the upper South that are conservative unionists who believed the Union was the best protector of slavery,” said Astor. They feared a war would break down the social structure.

By late 1862 and early 1863, with the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, the war is perceived to be largely about ending slavery.

Federal forces secured control of Knoxville in 1863.

Pro-Union newspaper editor William Gannaway Brownlow, who was to become Tennessee governor after the war, called fence sitters traitors.

Before and after Knoxville fell, Confederates harassed and attacked those with Union sympathies. Many fled to Kentucky, with hopes of one day returning.

“Confederates are seeing them as disloyal to the South,” said Astor. “It is open season to move in.”

View of Fort Sanders (Library of Congress)

During the Fort Sanders campaign, “Both armies are just trying to take food and they do not carry who is loyal to who.”

The tour will include the homestead and gravesite of Russell Gregory, who was killed in a Confederate reprisal attack in 1864. His son, Charles, was in the unit that returned to the valley and killed Gregory.

By then, war-weary Cades Cove inhabitants had less protection and support after federal commanders had taken the war to Georgia.

“There is a feel of abandonment and distrust of all outsiders,” said Astor.

Other anticipated stops Saturday are the Cades Cove ranger station, Cable Cemetery and the Primitive Baptist, Methodist and Missionary Baptist churches.

Astor hopes participants will come away with a deeper knowledge about what happens in a no man’s land, caught between North and South.

“This is a mountain version of a community caught in between a war nobody in there wanted. It is a story of survival, a community having to rely on its own internal resources.”

-- Click here for more information on the tour. Registration is required because of limited spots. Another tour will be done in April, according to Astor. You can reach the professor at (801) 349-8889 or aaron.astor@maryvillecollege.edu.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Virginia clash gave taste of horror to come

On June 10, 1861, some of the first blood was spilled by Northern and Southern armies. At the Battle of Big Bethel in coastal Virginia, it was perhaps the first time the two sides realized how brutal war can really be. According to a new book, "Battle of Big Bethel: Crucial Clash in Early Civil War Virginia," the soldiers, many of them raw recruits, "soon realized the terrible force with which a lead ball can strike, flying from a rifled musket at 950 feet per second. One survivor said it felt like 'being hit by a club, followed by scalding water.'" • Article

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Saturday's Antietam Memorial Illumination: Each of 23,110 candles represents a soul

The familiar Dunker Church at Antietam (NPS)

The soldiers, Georgene Charles says, still walk the fields of Antietam.

Volunteers often have company as they set out 23,110 candles -- one for every casualty in the momentous Sept. 17, 1862, Civil War battle – for the annual Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination.

They might perceive a chill. Or the presence of someone looking over a shoulder.

"The volunteers feel the soldiers out there. We just know they are telling us, 'Keep doing this,'" says Charles, founder and general chairman of the event, marking its 25th year this Saturday, Dec. 7.

The candles, positioned in brown bags weighted with a little bit of sand, speak for themselves during the illumination, which is expected to draw between 1,500 and 3,000 vehicles for a 45 minute-1 hour solemn drive through the northern portion of the battlefield in Sharpsburg.

Walking up Bloody Lane (Judi Quelland, ©Valley Studio)

The sight of thousands of flickering candles, lined up like soldiers along the rolling hills of western Maryland, is breathtaking.

“After 25 years, your mind cannot get wrapped around about what you are seeing,” Charles told the Picket on Wednesday. “We take you back to 1862. You will see nothing commercial and no signs.”

“None of the bags are marked Union or Confederate. This memorial honors those who paid the last full measure of devotion, on the altar of freedom,” said Tom Riford, president and CEO of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“It is awe inspiring. You don’t realize what 23,000 lives are until you a get a visual representation,” said Tom Jones, acting chief ranger at Antietam National Battlefield.

N.Y. monument (NPS)
The battlefield, the tourism bureau and the American Business Women’s Association are sponsoring Saturday evening’s illumination, which begins at 6 p.m. The last car will enter at about midnight, officials said.

Here are some key details for Saturday:

-- The main entrance to the event is Richardson Avenue off Maryland Route 34. Visitors begin lining up in early afternoon on the westbound shoulder of Route 34. The wait from the line of cars can be up to two hours long, park rangers caution.

-- Stopping or exiting vehicles during the event is not permitted and there are no bathrooms.

-- Pedestrians are not allowed to walk along the 5-mile drive.

-- The visitor’s center closes at 3 p.m. in preparation for a ceremony honoring the nearly 1,500 volunteers who set out and pick up the candles.

-- There is no fee, but donations are accepted. Each vehicle will receive a brochure.

-- The weather forecast is mostly favorable for this weekend, with a wintry mix expected Sunday. If it turns worse, the event would be rescheduled for Dec. 14.

(Judi Quelland, ©Valley Studio)

Officials advise visitors to monitor the park’s website or call the visitors center at 301-432-5124, which opens at 8:30 a.m. Saturday.

The Battle of Antietam – America’s bloodiest single day -- ended the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia's first invasion into the North and led to Abraham Lincoln's issuance of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, according to the National Park Service.

Jones says 3,654 men were killed and 1,771 were captured or missing. Nearly 18,000 were wounded in places now part of the American military lexicon – Dunker Church, Bloody Lane, the Cornfield and Mumma Farm.

Volunteers set out the candles, made to specification by Root Candles in Medina, Ohio, by 11:30 a.m. the day of the event. The lighting of the candles begins at about 2 p.m. or 2:30 p.m. 

One person can, with favorable conditions, light 100 candles in 15 minutes. “We can light that battlefield in an hour and a half,” said Charles.


The candles are in “soulful” brown bags rather than white ones, which, Charles said, would appear garish in such large numbers. “It would have looked like marshmallows. We wanted to make it look more of a remembrance,” she said.

“The candles will burn in snow and rain. You can close those bags slightly in the top. Our biggest problem is the wind. We have had 35 mph winds.”

Candles burn until about 6 a.m. the next day. Volunteers then return and pick up the bags.

Without its legion of volunteers since 1989, the annual illumination would not happen, said Charles.

Some individuals and civic groups, including Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, have been volunteering for years. They work in all kinds of weather, sometimes sleet, to set out the candles. Along the way, they become stewards of the battlefield, according to Charles.

The organizers will have a private ceremony at about 4 p.m. Saturday for those who have helped out.

Maryland monument and luminaries (NPS)

A special component this year is the participation of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) the Army’s ceremonial unit. Members will present the colors and perform a 21-gun salute. A bagpiper will play “Amazing Grace” and Echo Taps will sound over the hills.

“This is a time [for volunteers] to gather together and view their works. It is a somber and spiritual time for them,” said Charles. “It affects different people different ways. Some came to see lighting of candles. They translated it to this [candle] being a person. This is a soul.”

The volunteers, who come out year after year, are allowed to view the illuminated battlefield first.

The Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination this year is presenting a scholarship for the first time. It also has a book in the works and is working on becoming a foundation, according to Charles.

Organizers say their costs are about $15,000 a year; area businesses provide in-kind or donated services, such as a sound system and trailers to carry the candles to the battlefield.
Another view at Bloody Lane (NPS)

The park, visitor’s bureau and donations from illumination visitors help cover the expenses.

The route is reverse of the normal driving tour of the Antietam battlefield. Motorists first drive up to Bloody Lane, where they can gaze at 11,000 candles between the viewing tower and the visitor’s center.

“When they crest the hill by the tower it just hits you,” said Charles. “People are crying at the end and people have come back to the donation station to give more.”

Reverence for the sacrifice of soldiers who died or were wounded at Antietam extends to visitors themselves.

Motorists are asked to use parking lights only, but that can be difficult because of newer technology, according to the Jones, the acting chief ranger.

People use pieces of paper, carpet or other material to shield some of their lights.

“They have been very inventive,” said Charles.

Brown bags are made of sturdy material (Judi Quelland, ©Valley Studio)

In addition to the thousands of candles, visitors will see two small campfire encampments of re-enactors portraying Union and Confederate soldiers.
The Picket asked Charles whether 25 years of organizing the event makes the effort become rote.

“Absolutely not. Every year, I am seeing it like the first time.”