Last Saturday I was a guest of honor at the 27th annual Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination.
For the past 27 years, the first Saturday in December is a huge event at the National Park in Sharpsburg, Maryland, about an hour’s drive from my house.
Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and other volunteers spent all day installing 23,110 luminaries (candles in paper bags full of sand) to commemorate the 23,110 soldiers killed, wounded, or reported missing in the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862.
The ceremony started promptly at 3:45 pm and featured distinguished speakers, a bagpiper, a color guard from the Army’s Old Guard unit, a choir, vocal soloists, and a bugle choir.
I was seated with Congressman John Delaney, former Congressman Roscoe G. Bartlett, Jr., and the wonderful Georgene Charles, founder and organizer of the Illumination.
I was particularly moved by Bartlett’s comments. He emphasized that all soldiers are remembered equally at the Illumination. Casualties are not broken into Union versus Confederacy, but rather have been united by their sacrifice. Noting the country’s current toxic political atmosphere, he held up the unifying aspects of the Illumination ceremony as a model for today’s leaders.
I had been asked to speak about the Girl Scouts and the Civil War. Since the movement began nearly a half-century later, I anticipated a very short presentation. But as I researched the topic, one very clear connection emerged.
Juliette Gordon Low was born on October 31, 1860; the Civil War began in April 1861. Her father immediately volunteered and left Savannah. Meanwhile her mother faced the added burden of being a Chicagoan living in the deep south. Her husband, brothers, and uncle were fighting on opposite sides, and her neighbors questioned her loyalty.
Daisy did not see her father again until she was three. She grew up knowing the hardships, stress, and anguish that affects a family when the father goes off to war. She also understood the heavy burden that falls on women at war, both mentally and physically.
That, I think is the connection between the Girl Scouts and the Civil War. The movement was only a few years old when the United States entered World War I, but Daisy knew immediately what role her girls could play. She made sure that Girl Scouts had the cooking, homemaking, and first aid skills that would allow them to keep the home fires burning, as men went to war and women went into the fields and factories. She dispatched her girls to ease the burden and worries of mothers and wives.
Back at the Antietam Battlefield, the sun was beginning to set and the distinguished guests lit the first luminaries. (I almost lit a few bags instead of candles, it was harder than you’d imagine!)
Slowly, volunteers lit the luminaries across the battlefield. As the sky darkened, the candles began to flicker brighter, until the entire park was aglow.
The ceremony ended with a 21 Gun Salute from The Old Guard and bugles sounding an echo version of Taps. Everyone returned to their cars and joined a slow procession through the park.
Girl Scouts have been a part of this tradition since its inception. I think Juliette Gordon Low would agree that it is an excellent form of citizenship training. The scope of the conflict becomes much more tangible through the luminary installation rather than a paragraph in a textbook.
©2015 Ann Robertson