Things to Do

Weekend Wonder: An Illuminating Civil War Experience

The annual Memorial Illumination at Antietam National Battlefield shines a light on that battle’s tragic history.

The Battle of Antietam, on September 17, 1862, was the bloodiest single day of fighting in this country’s history, with nearly 23,000 Civil War soldiers left wounded, missing, or dead.

The scale of such loss is hard to fathom. Which is the point of the annual Memorial Illumination at Antietam National Battlefield, this year scheduled for Saturday, December 13. On that evening, some 23,000 candles—one for each soldier—will blaze across the battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland.

Visitors cannot walk the battlefield or get out of their car; drivers simply inch along the five-mile route (using only their parking lights), a process that takes about 45 minutes.

“As you’re driving through the park, you have a stunning visual effect because the terrain at Antietam is very rolling,” says Susan Trail, the superintendent of Antietam National Battlefield. “You’ll drive around a corner and you’ll see a large group of candles. Then you’ll see another group. After a while, it’s almost overpowering, in terms of the numbers of candles and thinking of these as individuals who fought in the battle and either died or went missing or were wounded. It’s very evocative.”

In a few spots along the route, you’ll see volunteers in Civil War uniforms posed around campfires, to further add to the atmosphere.

If you’re thinking that this event—now in its 26th year—would make a perfect Instagram shot, you’re thinking about it all wrong.

“If you’re there with your iPhone or your point-and-shoot, the photos are not going to turn out,” because it’s so dark, Trail says. “It’s really something to be savored with the senses.”

It’s a popular event, typically drawing up to 10,000 people. The first visitors are allowed to drive in at 6 PM, and some people line up hours in advance. The line of cars can be up to two hours long, and there are no bathrooms along the way. Trail’s advice? “We cut the line off at midnight. Whoever’s in line at midnight gets to go through,” she says. “It has in the past been better to come later; the line tends to be shorter as the night goes on.”

Directions and more visitor tips are available online.

Executive Editor

Sherri Dalphonse joined Washingtonian in 1986. She is the editor in charge of such consumer topics as travel, fitness, health, finance, and beauty, as well as the editor who handles such cover stories as Great Places to Work, Best of Washington, Day Trips, Hidden Gems, Top Doctors, and Great Small Towns. She lives in DC.