In this season of light, one poignant event held every December remembers all the men who fell during the bloodiest day in the Civil War.
The Memorial Illumination takes place on the first Saturday of December, in 2013, on Dec. 7.
Visitors drive the five mile route through the battlefield. It’s slow and respectful — and awe-inspiring. So many lights! So many fallen soldiers!
You have to attend this silent vigil well-prepared.
Even if you arrive late, you will wait on the side of the road up to two hours. We thought we were smart when we arrived well after the 6 p.m. start time. Hah! We pulled off the road with lots of other cars and waited. For a long time. In fact, the candles stay lit past midnight. A park ranger said visitors have to be in line before midnight for admittance — and even at that time expect a line of several miles!
Go before you leave your house. There are no restrooms. In fact, no one is allowed to leave their car during the Illumination.
Antietam’s Visitor Center will close at 3 p.m. that afternoon.
Bring something to while away the time. We had a snack or two and Christmas tunes for the CD player. You will be waiting on a dark country road with very little to see except for the sky and other motorists making their way to Antietam. And you might want to bring a blanket so you can keep cozy through the frigid evening.
When the line begins to move, remember you are probably still far away. Soon enough you will be inside the boundaries of Antietam.
Once you enter the Civil War battlefield and take note of the endless rows of luminaria — lunch-size paper bags each holding a lit candle — I predict you will be glad you waited there on Route 34 for what seemed like forever.
Drive slowly. You have to but you’ll want to so you can take a look at individual candles. Each one glows for one of the 23,000 men who perished, were injured or went missing during what is still considered the single bloodiest day of battle in American history.
Not only was that September day horrific, it was historic — marking a turning point in the war and leading to President Lincoln’s issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
For just one night, the lights shine near monuments, beside split rail fence and in row upon row across the rolling fields of this battlefield near Hagerstown.
Then suddenly, you’ve reached the last few yards, just enough for a final look at the touching tribute, before you head back into the cold night of December.
Only rain can stop the memorial illumination. If it does rain, the event will be rescheduled for Saturday, December 14. Weather.com is predicting fair weather for the Sharpsburg area that night.
Text by Mary K. Tilghman
Photos courtesy National Park Service