Excitement built through the early part of last week as 21,015 visitors viewed the Emancipation Proclamation during a 36-hour vigil showing at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan, from 7 p.m. on Monday, June 20 through 7 a.m. on Wednesday, June 22. Museum officials had to cut off the queue at 10:30 p.m. on Tuesday to insure that everyone waiting in line would have a chance to view the document.
It was truly amazing to see people waiting up to 7 or 8 hours to see the document issued and signed by President Abraham Lincoln as a formal proclamation of freedom for all slaves and an invitation to black men to join the Union Army and Navy. The proclamation didn’t insure every slave’s freedom at the time, but it did draw attention to the issue of slavery as a major impetus behind the War Between the States and resulted in almost 200,000 soldiers and sailors joining the Union’s Army and Navy to fight for their own freedom, and the freedom of others.
We checked out the lines snaking through the museum during the initial evening of the document’s display. We opted to skirt the crowds during the wee hours of the morning by skipping the line to file by the proclamation and simply viewing the Museum’s limited-engagement exhibit from the National Archives. It turned out to be a good decision for us as the exhibit itself wasn’t crowded at 2 a.m.
The National Archives show is a traveling exhibit that utilizes various documents, photos, and other records of some of the little-known stories to put a human face on the war and the issues that rent our country apart during the mid-1800s.
The exhibit includes a lot of interactive elements that engage viewers by allowing them to see what it is like to follow the path of evidence through bits and pieces of information to discover a fresh perspective on a war that many of us learned about as school children, but may not feel a close connection to the people who lived, and died, during the conflict.
One interactive video display allows visitors to follow in the footsteps of a researcher as he discovers the truth behind an execution order issued for a half dozen soldiers. What happened? Why did it happen? Who lived? Who died? The answers are all in various scraps of information in the National Archives, which, when put together, reveal the result of the order and why events unfolded as they did.
Another touch-screen based exhibit allowed visitors to discover connections between many of the major players, in the North and in the South, during the Civil War. I never thought about it before, but the exhibit shows how many of the war’s participants knew each other well before the war and ended up on opposite sides of the battle lines during the war.
We were even able to sneak a peek at the Emancipation Proclamation itself as a section near the end of the exhibit overlooked the glass-encased document and the rotating groups of honor guards, garbed in replicas of Civil War-era uniforms, standing at attention before it.
Discovering the Civil War, the National Archives exhibit, continues at The Henry Ford through September 5, 2011.
© Dominique King 2011 All rights reserved