Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Antietam's Memorial Illumination: The Cost of Freedom

This past weekend, I was back in Maryland for the 24th Annual Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination. Every year, on the first Saturday in December, 23,110 candles are set out on the battlefield to represent each casualty who fell at Antietam on September 17, 1862. This event has grown over the years, and the turnout this year was among the highest ever by some counts. The Illumination gives us an opportunity to remind ourselves that 23,110 is not simply a number in a history book, but the number of men who experienced the pain, suffering, and misery of Antietam in a way that we will never understand. While we can never understand what they went through, perhaps by remembering them as real individuals we can at the very least appreciate what they did for this nation 150 years ago.

Whether Union or Confederate, whether defending the nation or seeking to split it, each man who fought at Antietam had a life, a family, passions, hopes, and dreams. That is what we seek to remember every year on the first Saturday in December.

We must also remember that this is not a "Civil War" event. This is an American event. On Saturday, the day of the Illumination, I was working the front desk at the Visitor Center, speaking with a gentleman and his wife. The gentleman had an ancestor who died at South Mountain, fighting in the 45th Pennsylvania. Thankfully, we were able to locate his ancestor's grave in the Antietam National Cemetery. We then started to discuss the Illumination, how best to see it, and what it meant. When I began describing the casualties for the gentleman, he began to tear up. He told me that he was a veteran of Vietnam, and seeing the candles reminded him of his friends who were lost in that conflict several decades ago. He then thanked me, shook my hand, and left. For this brave American Veteran, the Illumination was as much about those lost in combat in the 20th century as it was for those lost 150 years ago. This incident brought the candles to life for me in a new way this year, and reminded me once again that, no matter what year it is, American soldiers will always be willing to lay down their lives so that this nation might live.

In Memoriam
Pvt. Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry
Killed in Action, September 17, 1862

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