The original Emancipation Proclamation is part of a sweeping
Civil War exhibition at the Tennessee State Museum.
The National Archives building in Washington, D.C., houses the largest repository of Civil War records, and starting in February, some of these rare documents will be in the South.
“Discovering the Civil War,” a limited-engagement traveling exhibit, opens on Feb. 12–President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday–at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville, Tenn., and continues through Sept. 1. This is the only southern stop on a four-city national tour that included Detroit, Mich., and Houston, Texas. “Discovering the Civil War” includes an opportunity to view the original Emancipation Proclamation that turns 150 years old on Jan. 1, 2013.
“It is an extremely fragile document, and its condition can be made worse by exposure to light,” said Miriam Kleiman, public affairs specialist with the National Archives.
For this reason, it can only be on display for 72 hours. The actual hours will be divided over seven days, beginning when the exhibit opens and running through Feb. 18. A facsimile replaces the original document for the duration of the exhibit.
The Great Emancipator?
Whether Lincoln was the Great Emancipator has been hotly debated. The Emancipation Proclamation is important because it led to the 13th Amendment in 1865, which freed 4 million enslaved people. However, the Proclamation freed slaves within states that were in rebellion against the United States; other states were exempt.
Most scholars agree Lincoln abhorred slavery, but he was not an abolitionist. Dr. Jerald Podair, associate professor of history at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., calls Lincoln a “reluctant emancipator.” He didn’t really want slavery to end, but he did not want it to spread to non-slave states.
“By 1862, it was becoming obvious that there was no going back to the United States the way it was,” said Podair.
Dr. Mary Mitchell, associate professor of history at the University of New Orleans, agrees that Lincoln wasn’t a true abolitionist but more of a “political animal.”
“Lincoln was personally opposed to slavery and thought it a moral wrong, but he was never an outright abolitionist; he was a politician,” she said. “He inches toward emancipation over the course of the Civil War.”
Scholars have noted the document lacks Lincoln’s usual fire-in-the-belly soaring rhetoric. Podair observes the document reads like a “bill of lading.” However, it is still an important document.
“If there was no Emancipation Proclamation, there would be no 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. If there were no 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, then there would have been no Civil Rights revolution. And if there was no Civil Rights revolution, we’d live in a very different world today,” Podair added.
Mitchell agrees the document’s place in history is tremendously important.
“It changed the course of American history and turned the tide of the war,” she said.
About the Exhibit
“Discovering the Civil War” is not a static, chronologically arranged exhibition. Instead, 21st-century technology allows visitors access to early 19th-century treasures. Digital documents will scroll across a touch screen, allowing visitors to select and access the documents for a closer inspection.
Arranged in 12 themed sections, the exhibit offers a glimpse of original and facsimile letters, diaries, photos, maps, petitions, receipts, patents, amendments, and proclamations. Notable sections include “Raising Armies,” which examines how both sides quickly created massive armies. An important document in this section questions why women shouldn’t fight in the war. “Finding Leaders” focuses on the important task of retaining leaders and includes a replica of Robert E. Lee’s resignation. “We Were There” examines records from soldiers and their families. An important document in this section is a bill granting a $12 monthly pension to Sarah Emma Edmonds Seelye, who disguised herself as Frank Thompson during the war.
“Two 13th Amendments” compares the unratified (1861) and the ratified (1865) amendments. The 1861 amendment would have prevented the government from ever interfering with slavery, while the 1865 amendment freed 4 million men and women held in bondage. “Endings and Beginnings” looks at the devastated South as it began to rebuild after the war and examines the role the government played in creating a new social, political, and economic order, while “Remembering” looks at how the war impacted the lives of those who lived through it. Books, monuments, cemeteries, and commemorative event documents are all part of this section.
Tennessee State Museum
Lois Riggins-Ezzell, Tennessee State Museum executive director, was confident the museum was big enough and had the right archival expertise to house the exhibit. So along with her staff, she flew to Washington, D.C., to present documentation for consideration. She felt Tennessee was an ideal choice because it is centrally located and easily accessible from most southern states. After the visit and a long wait, Riggins-Ezzell received the call that they had been selected.
“This is a chance for middle America to enjoy this rare and unusual opportunity,” she said.
Riggins-Ezzell said she hopes that visitors will leave believing that America is the greatest nation that ever existed. She believes the documents are important because it shows that, “America had taken a stand on how we were going to treat humanity.”
“Although we are a nation of great flaw, tragedies, and mistreatments, we constantly tried to reinvent ourselves and came back to the table as just, fair, and with the belief that all people are truly created equal,” she added.
Myra Faye Turner is a new contributor from New Orleans, La.
Jan/Feb 2013 Issue
Juneteenth Remembers Slavery’s End
Juneteenth is the African American celebration commemorating the end of slavery. Its origins trace back to June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce the war had ended and slaves were free more than two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Several stories circulated why there was a delay. According to one legend, the original messenger was murdered on his way to Texas. Another claimed the news was deliberately withheld by slave owners to keep their slave labor. Still another claimed the news was withheld by federal troops who wanted the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest.
Juneteenth celebrations (sometimes called Emancipation Day) embrace the past, while encouraging participants to strive for future achievement. Events include music, picnics, church events, skits, informational booths, and more.
– Myra Faye Turner
Black Union Army soldiers in Port Hudson, La., who were known as the Corps d’Afrique. National Archives photo
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