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Minnesota's Soldiers Honored at Antietam Memorial Illumination

The Maryland Memorial during the Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination

The Maryland Memorial during the Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination

Last weekend, as the sun began to dip on on hundreds of hallowed acres in western Maryland, an army of volunteers knelt down, fire in hand, lighting more than 23,000 candles.

It's a ritual that has taken place every December since 1988 at the Antietam National Battlefield just outside the town of Sharpsburg.

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At twilight, 23,110 luminaries are lit, one for each soldier who was killed, wounded, or declared missing during the bloodiest day of the American Civil War. Once darkness cloaks the landscape, the park's paved roadway is opened up to the public to drive the five-mile path that winds through the grounds, making it the largest memorial illumination in North America.

Among the 23,000-plus honored are 122 members of the First Regiment Minnesota Volunteer Infantry.

On September 17, 1862, the 435-strong regiment, part of a Union force of totaling 75,000, clashed with General Robert E. Lee's Confederate army of 38,000 men.

Members of the First Minnesota were thrust into battle early in the day as part of the Union's ill-fated assault on a part of the battlefield called the West Woods.

The regiment was positioned on the extreme right of the leading brigade. As they burst through the woods, the First Minnesota was exposed to heavy fire from both flanks.

While the regiment would suffer less than other Union forces, its casualties were significant. A total of 122 men where either killed or wounded.

The bloodiest single day in American military history would ultimately end in a draw, but it gave President Abraham Lincoln the perceived victory he needed before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation that would come less than four months later.

Every December, vehicles start forming a line to enter the illumination. Cars proceed through the grounds with only their parking lights on, candles dotting the landscape for what seems like forever. On the side of the road, re-enactors huddle by campfires.

For more information, go to the National Park Service web site: The Memorial Illumination

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