Sunday, December 6, 2009

Illumination--December 5, 2009

Every year for the past two decades or more the first Saturday of December marks the illumination of the battlefield. On that day (and the night before) thousands of volunteers place more than 23,000 candles on the field, each representing a casualty of September 17, 1862. The candles, which can burn for five hours, are encased in paper bags which are weighed down by a cup or so of sand. The effect, once lit, is unforgettable. The visual display of 23,000 casualties laid out from the Joseph Poffenberger farm on the northern edge of the field to the Burnside Bridge and beyond to the south is hard to describe. Just when you think you have seen all that a field of candles can offer, you crest a rise and before you lies other fields stretching on into the night each bearing their illuminations--their memories--of lives changed on this field those many years ago.

This year an early Nor'easter roared up the Atlantic coast. These storms, originating in the Gulf of Mexico, are snow machines. Their counterclockwise rotation wicks moisture from the warmer Atlantic and dumps it over the cold continental air mass--a conveyor belt of moisture turning to snow propelled by stiff winds.

The combination of the heavy wet snow that fell and the winds conspired to test the best plans of the volunteers (and the National Park Service). All day, the volunteers struggled with their task. The snow, melted around the warm lit paper bags, collapsed them onto the candles which either extinguished the flame or sent everything up in one conflagration. By late afternoon, nearly all bags were soaked and the prospect of an illumination dimmed.

Instead of despair, the volunteers felt that they had done what they came for--to honor the memories of those whose lives forever changed that day. One Boy Scout, who had been working on the field for the better part of 8 hours said that he now had some appreciation of what the winter at Valley Forge might have been like. Others were satisfied that they had done their part and had done it well. For all on the field, NPS Rangers, volunteers, and others December 5, 2009 will be recorded in the oral history of the illumination for generations to come--"Remember that snowstorm? That wind wouldn't let up. I wonder if anyone found my lost glove? What're you going to do? It's Mother Nature."

Picture captions from top to bottom:

1. Looking north into the teeth of the storm from S.D. Lee's position on Antietam Ridge. The carefully laid rows of candles recede into the distance toward the Maryland Monument.
2. Looking west, a group of volunteers tending a candle in the far distance. The 20th New York Monument and the Visitor's Center stand to the right.
3. A volunteer, one of thousands who traveled from all over the country to create the illumination. The near-horizontal snow blowing southward.
4. NPS Rangers--the best--out since morning manning the traffic check points and still maintaining a sense of humor.
5. One of the few candles that defied the elements--at least for awhile. The bag sagging from the snow collapsed a few minutes later extinguishing the flame but not the memory.

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