Although I've visited the Antietam National Battlefield numerous times, this was the first time there to experience the annual battlefield illumination, which is held annually the first Saturday in December.
Antietam is a, sort of, Mecca for my wife and I, as we both had ancestors who served in the same regiment in the Kanawha Division. We've been wanting to get there for a number of years to remember them at this event.
We arrived at the battlefield the morning of the event to watch the hundreds of volunteers setting the luminaries out. It was an interesting process to watch. The groups we observed had, obviously, done the task numerous times, because they had it down to a science. We travelled to the tower at the end of Bloody Lane and watched several groups working. It was a great vantage point.
The park closes at 3:00 pm the day of the event. Only the area of the battlefield north of Maryland State Route 34 is open for the tour. This is a driving tour, and the line forms along the berm of the state route.
The gate on the north side of Route 34 is the entrance. You are traveling in the opposite direction of the normal tour route. I knew that the illumination was a popular event, but didn't fully realize just how "big" it was. Our group arrived at the gate approximately 7:15 pm and started down 34 to take our place at the end of the line. We found it........5.2 miles later. It took about 3 1/2 hours to get back to the gate and actually start the tour.
Once we were in, the whole drive took approximately 45 minutes to an hour. It was truly a sight to see. 23,110 luminaries, representing the casualties of America's single bloodiest day, were out on the field. It was a daunting feeling equating each luminary with someone who was killed, wounded, or missing. Most of the luminaries are seen in the area from the visitor's center to the northern end of the Cornfield. There are also a couple of locations where you will see uniformed reenactors, who get the privilege of camping for the night.
Despite the long wait we experienced, I am in no way trying to dissuade anyone from making this trip. Rather, the opposite. Be advised, there is no stopping on the route. Also, try to take care of any calls of nature before leaving for the park. It may be a while before you see another rest room. My main piece of advice? Get there MUCH earlier than we did. This simple, yet moving display is something everyone should experience.
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