Drive Through the Memorial Illumination at Antietam National Battlefield
160 years ago, on September 17, 1862, one horrific military battle marked a watershed moment in the American Civil War and, inevitably, shaped our nation’s history.
The bitter war between the states, waged for 17 months up to that point, had dragged the Confederate Army into Union territory: the Appalachian foothills of Maryland. Soldiers converged at quiet, rolling farmlands along the banks of Antietam Creek in Sharpsburg, MD.
A peaceful span of countryside turned into a battleground afflicted by fire, smoke, and ruin. Twelve hours of merciless combat led to the deadliest single-day of battle in U.S. military history. Over 23,000 soldiers or nearly one of every four men present that day became a casualty: killed, wounded, missing, or captured.
While the Battle of Antietam resulted in no conclusive victor, the savage battle was a turning point in the American Civil War. The South’s march into the North was repelled. Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee’s Maryland Campaign was over.
Claimed as a Union victory, the pivotal battle near Antietam Creek delivered President Lincoln the assurance he needed to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation that freed enslaved persons throughout the South. To the people of the North, the nation was saved.
Today the Antietam National Battlefield is a solemn place of remembrance and the adjoining Antietam National Cemetery is the final resting place of Union soldiers who died during the battle. Protected by the National Park Service, it’s one of the best-preserved Civil War sites in the nation.
Looking at the present-day battle site with its modern visitors center, paved parking lot, and neatly marked trails, it’s hard to imagine the horror and calamity on that September day in 1862.
To help illustrate the overwhelming loss experienced by both sides at the Battle of Antietam, the National Park Service hosts an annual Memorial Illumination on the first Saturday of December. This year’s moving tribute will be held on December 3.
Scores of volunteers light over 23,000 luminaries placed throughout the hallowed landscape. Once the sun goes down, motorists line up to drive through the endless rows of flickering candles. Each light represents a life forever changed, and altogether, the glowing tribute symbolizes a nation irrevocably scarred.
This year I will drive my car through the luminary tour route to reflect on an event that shaped the United States and to honor the soldiers who fought and died, on Maryland soil, in one of the greatest military battles in U.S. history. There’s no memorial of its scale anywhere in the country.
The 5-mile driving tour is very popular with the local community and history enthusiasts. Plan ahead with these tips:
Opening hours: 6 PM to midnight. Make sure to get in the line for cars before midnight! Cars are allowed to enter the event until midnight.
Cost: Free and open to the public. No tickets or reservations are required.
Driving directions: From Boonsboro, MD, travel west along Route 34 to the Antietam National Battlefield. Enter the park by traveling west on Route 34. Line up on the shoulder of the road. Pay attention to signage marking the tour route. Traffic control volunteers will keep things moving.
Wait times & instructions: Be prepared to wait in the line of cars for a few hours. Once you start the driving route, it will take 30-45 minutes to complete the 5-mile route. Vehicles must turn off their headlights and keep a good distance from one another. Stopping a vehicle, exiting a vehicle, and walking are not allowed.
Facilities & concessions: There will be no concessions available. You are encouraged to bring water and snacks along for the ride. Portable toilets will be accessible along the tour route.
This article is sponsored by Visit Hagerstown and Washington County. Washington County has something for everyone. Come explore our Civil War battlefields, take in a show at The Maryland Theatre, or expand your horizons at The Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. Adventures abound here—hike along the Appalachian Trail, bike the C&O Canal, and explore the beautiful five national parks and eight state parks within our county. Visit our quaint towns of Boonsboro, Clear Spring, Funkstown, Hancock, Keedysville, Sharpsburg, Smithsburg, and Williamsport via our Scenic Byways. The journey is the destination, offering country charm, boutique shopping, and beautiful wineries and breweries with spectacular vistas.
About the Author
A native of Las Vegas, NV, Chelsea Milko currently resides in the historic neighborhood of Charles Village in Baltimore, MD. Her foreign policy career and travel obsession has taken her to over 45 countries, including to Uganda where she served as a Peace Corps Volunteer. A new resident of Maryland, Chelsea loves documenting her local adventures through writing and photography. Follow her on Instagram @themilkoway.