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The Power of Candles at Antietam
Copyright © 2016 by Don Mercer
As I drove toward Sharpsburg, Maryland, on a bleak, mostly overcast day on Saturday, December 3, 2016, I was giving thought to just what the battlefield at Antietam would be like and what the experience would hold for me. The previous afternoon, I had visited the New Market, Virginia, Civil War battlefield. And this morning, I had just walked some of those fields again in which a long ago battle had occurred in 1864. Then I had gotten back in my car and headed north to Maryland and the battlefield at Antietam, yet another sad chapter in our nation’s history.
With some irony, I had never previously set foot on the New Market Battlefield, although the participation by 257 cadets from my alma mater, Virginia Military Institute, or VMI, in that battle on May 15, 1864, had become legend. This battle is the only one in the history of the United States in which a student body fought as a unit. Ten VMI cadets fell that day, mortally wounded.
To be sure, as I drove mostly on back roads, as my general preference is to avoid the Interstate system when feasible, I reminisced of the numerous occasions that I have visited Arlington National Cemetery. Those times have been on more than a few occasions to attend the burial ceremonies for friends and close acquaintances, most from the bygone days of the War in Southeast Asia, known to many as the Vietnam War. Yet that cycle has begun anew with some who survived that war and are now eligible to be buried there, as with one of my roommates from VMI who died in 2010. Our ranks are now thinning once again.
Then there was a visit to the American Cemetery at Coleville-sur-Mer on the coast of Normandy in May 2008. The clean geometric lines and diagonals present in the cemetery created such symmetry among the nearly identical headstones – differentiated only when seen at a distance by the appropriate religious symbol. I could not help but feel a chill run up my spine, as I stood in that cemetery overlooking the English Channel, or La Manche (“the sleeve”), as the French term that body of water.
Attempting to comprehend the intensity of the battle that raged on the beaches of Normandy beginning on D-Day – June 6, 1944 – and in the days that followed remains impossible for me to grasp in its entirety. Yet there lay at Coleville-sur-Mer the remains of 9,387 men and women who gave their lives in the fight to bring freedom to Europe. And those are only representative of the many who are buried elsewhere and who also died in Operation Overlord, just one segment of the brutality that raged around the earth during World War II.
Then there are my visits to The Wall, the memorial to those who died during the war in which I fought. I paused with that thought in realization of the trend that seems to be so repetitive – America is more prone to be forever at war than at peace. That is a tragedy for all Americans, not only those on the front lines who bear the direct impact, but also for all their families and loved ones.
My visit to Antietam on this particular date was purposeful, as the National Park Service oversees the efforts of more than 1,500 volunteers who work to place small luminaries across vast areas of the battlefield for just one night each year. December 3 was to be that night in 2016.
I had been in contact with Ranger Linc Beers in order to obtain the necessary permit allowing me to photograph in certain areas of the event. With any luck, I would be able to shoot, as desired, and then join the lengthy line of cars in order to drive the approximate five miles through parts of the National Battlefield Park, as I hoped to view the full extent of the Annual Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination.
This ceremony is held each year in order to honor those soldiers, who fought for both the Union and the Confederacy, and who fell during the Battle of Antietam. That number involves the placement of 23,000 candles, one for each soldier who was killed, wounded, or missing in that battle.
The sheer number is somewhat mind-boggling, but the time frame in which those numbers were accrued takes your mind to a new and tragic plane, for the battle began in earnest around 6 AM on the morning of September 17, 1862, and was drawing to a close by 6 PM that evening. In just twelve hours, 23,000 soldiers gave their lives either through deaths or wounds in defense of their respective beliefs.
As with the war in which I fought, though, I imagine that most men under arms were far more focused on saving their buddies than raising their guns in pursuit of any politicians’ high-minded ideals. While the fight for and against slavery were prominent causes during the Civil War, there were others to include a highly industrializing North pitted against a predominantly agricultural South, having different and conflicting ways of life, to be sure.
With my aviation background and penchant for math, my first thought, as I drove up, down, and over the small hills of Maryland’s farmland was to translate the number of 23,000 into one hundred aircraft, with each one carrying 230 passengers and crew, crashing during a 12-hour period. Taken one step further, one such crash would have to occur once every 7.2 minutes, as there are 720 minutes in a 12-hour period … a life taken or changed forever in less than every 2-second period of time for that 12-hour duration.
I arrived at the battlefield’s Visitor Center in the mid-afternoon and, as I had planned, and had the opportunity to walk the areas on which I had my permit to shoot. With sunset at 4:47 PM, I had ample time to scout the area; and I hoped that, following my efforts at photography, I would also have time to join the procession of cars that would be making the slow winding drive through designated sections of the battlefield. This drive would allow me to gain a full appreciation for all 23,000 luminaries set out for the occasion.
The Park Rangers were advising that the line generally took two hours to get to the point of entering the battlefield. That would prove to be accurate, with another hour to drive slowly through the Park in the lengthy line of cars and pick-up trucks. It was as if an immense funeral procession was underway.
As the sunlight faded behind the now overcast clouds in the early evening, the candle luminaries grew in prominence from the first of several of my chosen vantage points. I shot in silence, although there were several other photographers present, but most all kept to themselves, which added to the somber mood prevailing in the Park.
Just before 7 PM on completion of my shoot, I returned to my car and exited the Visitor Center lot to drive east on state route 34. I passed the appointed point of entry to the battlefield for the procession and drove a few miles before the line of cars on the opposite shoulder ended, with yet other cars pulling over to join the file. Finding a restaurant, I thought perhaps that the line might shorten while I enjoyed my dinner.
After an excellent meal, I turned west, only to find that the line had lengthened somewhat. I pulled over and crept in line, which took right at two hours before entering the battlefield.
At first, as I climbed a small hill, there was a single line of luminaries on the shoulder on each side of the small paved road. That was reminiscent of the many times that I had landed on some runway at night and then taxied into the ramp in order to park my aircraft when flying in the Air Force, Virginia Air National Guard, and also in general aviation planes.
Once I crested the first of numerous hills, the line of luminaries on each side of the road became two deep, two geometrically aligned rows of small paper bags, with some sand in the bottom to hold them in place, and with a candle, now each having been lit by all the volunteers, glowing inside the bag. As I rounded a turn, the luminaries became three deep with rows set some approximately fifteen feet apart, both vertically and horizontally in long lines that ran, in some cases, to the horizon.
Then there were rows of split rail fence with candles between the road and fence and also set in rows behind the fence line. As I wound my way onto the vast battlefield, with parking lights only in use at the direction of the National Park Service, I crested yet another small hill. There, before me lay thousands of small lights stretching over acres of farmland, sloping slightly upwards from numerous swales.
The impact of the luminaries certainly had the desired effect on me, as to the enormity of lives lost and ruined in that battle. The sight was truly sobering.
As I continued to drive through the battlefield, yet more acres of small lights, each representing one life, could be seen glowing in the crisp, chill air of the evening. It was an astounding sight, one for which I had not totally prepared myself.
I could not help but think about those whom I have known who died in war or had their lives forever changed, as the result of serving our nation. And yet, I found the occasion to be one that was most worthwhile. It was a small tribute, giving of my time to honor those who paid such a dear price on that long ago day in our nation’s history.
To be sure, for me, the utter futility of war, both in our Civil War, as at Antietam, and in so many others across the globe in which our politicians and generals have waged, was in the forefront of my mind this night. I have arrived at a point, as a veteran, at which I am of the opinion that so many of the wars my beloved nation has fought have been in vain, with little to nothing really accomplished other than lining the pockets of many in our military/industrial complex. We continue to fight with off-again, on-again strategies, if any actually exist, flawed tactics, and absurd Rules of Engagement, or ROE. And, yes, the above is the short version, and, yes, sugar coated, of my opinions.
In closing I offer several lines of verse from a poem, “Shot Down,“ which I wrote to honor two men in my US Air Force unit who were killed in action (KIA) in the early morning hours of October 1, 1970, near Tang Kouk, Cambodia – Lieutenants Garrett E. Eddy and Michael Stephen Vrablick. These lines seem to be every bit as fitting for those who perished and were wounded at Antietam, as with the circumstances in which these two pilots gave their lives in combat:
You can only sit and wonder;
Today, we have when, where and how.
But even though we know the answer;
Can’t help but ask why, even now.
Virginia Beach, Virginia
December 6, 2016