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Antietam illumination sparks visitors' interest in history

Antietam illumination sparks visitors' interest in history

A program to commemorate the casualties of the bloodiest one-day battle in American history will take place on the evening of Saturday, Dec. 7 at Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg.

Keith Snyder, the battlefield’s chief of resources, education and visitor services, said 23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing after twelve hours of combat on Sept. 17, 1862, at the Battle of Antietam.

At the illumination between 6 p.m. and midnight, there will be one candle lit to remember each of those soldiers.

“People say it’s awe-inspiring. The biggest thing is, it’s one of the best ways ever to get a sense of the enormity of the carnage that is the Battle of Antietam,” Snyder said.

The driving tour is about five miles long. Vehicles use parking lights only and continue along the path without stopping. Walking is prohibited for safety reasons.

“There is a line of cars,” Snyder said, “and it’s overwhelming. You keep going and you think you are done and you’ll come over another hill and there will be another 1,000. And then you turn a corner and there will be another thousand. It’s a bit overwhelming, just the sheer numbers of it.”

Some people have the misconception that the illumination is a holiday program because it takes place in December. That is not the case, Snyder said.

“It is done this time of year for two primary reasons. One, we want the maximum amount of darkness since it is a nighttime program, and two, we have to get all the crops cleared from our fields so we can use them,” he said. “This commemorative program needs open fields and darkness.”

The Memorial Illumination will commemorate the casualties of the bloodiest one-day battle in American history on the evening of Saturday, Dec. 7 at Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg. (Submitted photos)

The illumination is a 31-year tradition, with around 1,000 cars traveling through the national park each time. It is an effective way to spark an interest in history for some, and to convey it to others.

“It’s pretty significant. It’s become an iconic event at the park,” Snyder said. “Like I said, it’s just a great opportunity to put some meaning behind the number. You can throw numbers around all day long, what 23,000 really means, but when you see five miles of casualties, those candles put into perspective how massive this event really was.”

Approximately 1,000 volunteers mainly comprised of Boy Scout troops and community groups assist with the event. A couple of weeks before the illumination, a volunteer crew assembles the luminaries.

“They put sand in the bottom of the bag, and a candle inside of a plastic cup. The candle and the cup go inside the bag, and they do that 23,000 times,” Snyder said.

The luminaries are placed 20 per box. On the morning of the event, 1,150 boxes are distributed across the fields. Each volunteer group is designated different fields. They begin placing the candles in the morning and start lighting them around 2 p.m. The candles continue to burn for about 12 hours.

Visitors to the battlefield come from across the region including the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. areas.

“It is one of the largest luminary programs in the country that has that many in one place at one time,” Snyder said. “That’s kind of cool.”

The main entrance for the tour is not the main park entrance. The illumination route begins on Richardson Avenue off Md. Route 34.

Brochures are distributed at the entrance. There is no admission fee to the event, but donations are collected. Snyder advises visitors to go to the park website for detailed information.

“We reverse traffic flow in the park because it works better for this event,” he said.

At times, visitors can wait up to two hours in line to enter. The tour takes about 30 minutes.

“Make sure you have gas and that you go to the bathroom. And bring hot chocolate to drink in the car,” Snyder said.

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