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.”

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