Sharpsburg, Md — On Saturday, one thousand volunteers placed 23,000 candles on the Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland. It was the annual illumination of grounds where nearly that number of Americans were killed, wounded or reported missing in the violent struggle to end slavery and preserve the union. The battle of Antietam took place on Sept. 17, 1862 in the woods, pastures and cornfields near the town of Sharpsburg and along Antietam Creek. For the last 32 years, the National Park Service has coordinated the illumination with a regiment of volunteers who come from all over the country to place small paper bags weighted with sand in long rows over the historic grounds. Each bag contains a 12-hour candle in a plastic cup.

Ranger Keith Snyder

“We have a waiting list of people who want to volunteer,” said Park Ranger Keith Snyder, who showed us around Saturday afternoon as the sun started to set. “The same people come back year after year.” And year after year, there’s a long line of cars, trucks and SUVs along Route 34 (Shepherdstown Pike) from Boonsboro as visitors drive along the park’s old farm roads to experience the illumination.

“It’s powerful,” Snyder said. “It gives you a sense of what that number, 23,000, really means.”

Why December when the battle was in September? “A lot of this park is still actively farmed,” Snyder explained, and that means waiting until after harvest of soybean and corn for the illumination. Also, with December sunsets before 5 pm, the full effect of the candles can be appreciated by the time the visitors start driving through the park at 6 pm. The caravans continue until midnight.

Snyder is correct. The illumination does make 23,000 real, and I felt that as I hiked around in the quiet after sunset. The small golden flames stretched for hundreds of yards on the sloping farmland. This is where men died or lost limbs in the fight over the future of a democratic republic in peril again 160 years later.

Remember … When you see white supremacists on the march, when you see images of the violent attack on the Capitol, when you hear again the voice of Trump and his enablers spreading lies that the 2020 election was rigged, remember: Hundreds of thousands died to end slavery and preserve the union. Americans of the mid-19th Century tested the dream of their democracy with cannon fire and Minie ball across farmland and forest. In the end, the union survived, though the racist vestiges of slavery remain with us. We have a lot more work to do to save American democracy from the march of white nationalism and the apparent preference some have for autocracy. Hopefully that won’t require a war. Hopefully — though I’m not yet sure what to rest hope on — Americans can get to a better place, with civil disagreement and not civil war, with more unity than division, with a new respect for democracy and the very real sacrifices our ancestors made to keep it alive.

Maryland monument: Roughly 65,000 Maryland men joined the Union while about 30,000 joined the Confederate Army.
Antietam Illumination 2021
Dunker Church at sunset
Sunset during the annual illumination at Antietam
The New York monument honors New Yorkers who served and sacrificed on Sept. 17, 1862: 65 officers and 624 enlisted men killed or mortally wounded; 110 officers and 2,687 enlisted men wounded and two officers and 277 men captured or missing.

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