A powerful and poignant tribute to Civil War soldiers takes place each December on the rolling hills near Sharpsburg, Maryland. The Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination honors those men who fell during the battle of Antietam in 1862.
As many as 1,400 volunteers prepare a candle for each man who fell during the Battle of Antietam in 1862, and arrange them over the field.
As dusk falls, candles begin to glow.
A five-mile driving tour takes visitors winding through the battlefield.
Around each bend, over each rise—more candles. There are 23,000 candles, one for each missing, wounded, or killed soldier.
I spent many years wandering the field and reading about the battle while researching Too Afraid To Cry: Maryland Civilians in the Antietam Campaign. I know the numbers by heart. And yet, the Illumination brings a more visceral kind of understanding. The sheer volume of luminaries is overwhelming.
At the same time, each fragile flame is precious. Every candle represents not just one life lost or changed forever, but a cascade of grief that included family and other loved ones. Every candle represents dreams unfulfilled, accomplishments undone, children unborn.
Last September, on the 150th anniversary of the battle, I had the enormous honor of speaking at the battlefield. My presentation focused on local civilians, but the greater message was the same: In this place, good people suffered and died. I did my best to convey what I know of those events in 1862, but I’m sure that the impact of hearing my words pales against the experience of seeing the Memorial Illumination .
I write this on one of the shortest, darkest days of the calendar year, as our nation mourns the tragedy in Newtown, CT. I share these photos in the spirit of faith and hope to all those who have lost loved ones, recently or long ago. They are not forgotten. They will never be forgotten.
The Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination is held in cooperation with the American Business Women’s Association and the Washington County Convention and Visitors’ Bureau. For more information, visit the Antietam National Battlefield website.