Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Must Visit: Antietam Memorial Illumination

Photo by Phil Romans. Creative Commons Licensing.
This time of year I often get nostalgic for my college days, though perhaps not for the normal college-nostalgia reasons. For four great years, I got to live in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. This allowed untold hours exploring the Gettysburg battlefield, and the opportunity to forge great friendships with folks with a similar interest. My location also provided ready access to other Civil War battlefields, especially Antietam. During my four years I visited Sharpsburg more times that I can count now, though my favorite time to visit the site of America's bloodiest day was always the first weekend of December each year.

Photo by Phil Romans. Creative Commons Licensing.
In general, I love December. The five weeks or so that kick off with Thanksgiving and end with New Years might just be my favorite time of year. I love admiring my Christmas tree each night, or viewing other houses all decked for the holidays as I drive or walk about town. Back in college though, the first weekend in December meant holiday lights of a much more somber and moving nature: the Antietam Memorial Illumination.

Before arriving at Gettysburg - I had never heard of this amazing tradition. Each year on the first Saturday of December, Antietam National Battlefield honors the casualties of the battle with an incredibly moving light show: volunteers light up the fields outside of Sharpsburg with 23,000 luminaries, one for each soldier killed, wounded, or missing during the battle.

I still remember clearly my first Illumination experience in 2001, traveling with Gettysburg College's Civil War Club - which made the trek with two college vans each year. As we approached the battlefield along the Boonsboro Pike (Route 34), I discovered the popularity of this event. We pulled the vans off to the side of the road several miles short of the primary event entrance--Richardson Avenue--and joined the long line. Typically the wait to enter the Park stretches up to two hours. If you go - make sure you bring along some food and drink, and something to entertain yourself as you wait.

We made it to the front of the line and turned on to Richardson Avenue eventually. Here signs directed  drivers to use only parking lights, and our driver began to play Ashokan Farewell (a bit of mood music I suppose). At first, the luminaries simply lined the road in pairs, but as our van took one of the first corners a vast field filled with lights came into view. You might imagine what 23,000 lights looks like in your mind, but until you see it there is no way to describe it adequately. I remember too that in addition to the amazement of seeing the vast fields lit up, I also came away astonished by the distance covered by these lights: the tour stretches nearly 5 miles in length.

Photo by Eric Gilliland. Creative Commons Licensing.

I was hooked after my first experience, and returned twice more during my college years. I missed one year due to an early season snowstorm. In my opinion, the Memorial Illumination is an incredibly unqiue way to take a moment during the busy holiday season to honor those who fell long ago, and to contemplate the human toll of war. It's also heartening--given the numbers that turn out each year--to see how many people agree with me.

Since college I have not had the opportunity to attend an Illumination. I hope one day to make it back. But until I do, each year at this time I take a moment to think about my experiences attending the Illumination, and to remember those who gave the last full measure of devotion.

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