The Emancipation Proclamation is coming to a museum near you.

There is a very brief window of opportunity, from Thursday, Feb. 16 to Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012, to see the original Emancipation Proclamation on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Currently the museum is hosting an exhibit on the Civil War, entitled Discovering the Civil War. This exhibit, organized by the National Archives of the United States, went on display in Washington, DC to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the start of the war. It is now touring and Houston is the third stop on the tour.

Emancipation Proclamation Display
Emancipation Proclamation at HMNS!
Thursday, Feb. 16 – Tuesday, Feb. 21 ONLY
9 am – 9 pm

The premise of the exhibit, aside from remembering the Civil War, is simple and straightforward.

Since 150 years have gone by, nobody alive today has any personal recollections of the war. The question then becomes: “Where would one go in order to learn more about the Civil War?” One of the most logical answers is to go to the enormous collection of Civil War materials stored at the National Archives. Anyone interested in this topic will be glad to know that extensive portions of the Archive’s Civil War holdings are accessible online.

At the Houston venue, the topic of the Civil War is covered in three different ways, all part of one large exhibit. The largest footprint is taken up by the National Archives display. This is the traveling portion of the show, entitled Discovering the Civil War. One can see documents and photographs related to issues like the reasons for the war, raising an army, resigning one’s commission, letters home, medical care (or lack thereof), and a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. The other two sections do not travel and will be on display in Houston only.

Discovering the Front Line: Highlights from the Nau Civil War Collection takes the storyline into the realm of three dimensions. Here the visitor can see an extensive selection of uniforms, weapons, photographs, drawings, a very rare Confederate medal and other Civil War memorabilia from the John L. Nau collection. What struck me the most in this part of the exhibit is a display of a small Bible with a bullet hole in it. One can see the point of entry as well as the point of exit, on the side of the book. It is very likely that the owner survived being shot.

A small third component dedicated to the history of a Union warship, the USS Westfield, closes out the exhibit.

Originally a Staten Island ferry, the Westfield was acquired by the US Navy to serve in the West Gulf Blockading squadron. The ship took part in the attack on New Orleans, bombardment of the ports of Indianola and Port Lavaca ending up sinking on January 1, 1863 during hostilities blockading the port of Galveston.

The main portion of the exhibit, however, is the story of the Civil War as told through documents held at the National Archives. Within the array of documents, the one with the greatest historical importance would have to be the Emancipation Proclamation. Most visitors will get to see a copy; those who make it during the few days outlined above, will get to see the real thing.

While the Proclamation on display was signed on January 1, 1863, about six months earlier, in July 1862, President Lincoln read his “preliminary proclamation” to his Cabinet. On September 22, 1862, after the Union victory at Antietam, the President announced that if the rebels did not end the fighting and rejoin the Union by January 1, 1863, all slaves in the rebellious states would be free.

On December 30, 1862, work started on the final draft of the document.

The draft President Lincoln worked with on December 31 is considered the final draft. The principal parts of the document are written in the President’s hand. This final draft also shows an early version of “cut and paste,” as two paragraphs from the Preliminary Proclamation were clipped from a printed copy and pasted on to the final draft, in order to “save writing”.

In the early afternoon of Thursday, January 1, 1863, President Lincoln signed the document and by late afternoon the document was ready for transmission to the press (including the Washington Evening Star) and others. By about 8 PM, the transmission of the text over the telegraph began. From this point forward, the Civil war had the dual purpose of preserving the Union and ending slavery.

The original Proclamation normally resides in the National Archives in Washington, DC. The document is five pages long; initially all of these pages were tied with narrow red and blue ribbons, which were attached to the signature page by a wafered impression of the seal of the United States. Most of the ribbons remain, as do parts of the seal.

Emancipation Proclamation
Emancipation Proclamation at HMNS!
Thursday, Feb. 16 – Tuesday, Feb. 21 ONLY
9 am – 9 pm

What exactly did the Emancipation Proclamation mean?

It is perhaps easier to say what it did not do: it did not end slavery in the nation. Specifically, it did not set free slaves in those areas where the United States could not enforce the Proclamation.

In other cases, local laws and decisions had already set some slaves free. New Mexico repealed its slave code in December 1861 (Foner, 2010: 204). In 1862 the District of Columbia freed the slaves within its jurisdiction; the Proclamation did not make a difference either way in the District either.

What the Proclamation did make possible was for “such persons of a suitable condition [to be] received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service”.

President Lincoln recognized that it would take a Constitutional Amendment to abolish slavery.

This ended up being the Thirteenth Amendment. The Senate debated and passed this Amendment on April 8, 1864. The House of Representatives, however, initially rejected it. President Lincoln then took a more active role and suggested that the Republican Party include in its platform a plank calling for the abolition of slavery. The House of Representatives finally passed the Thirteenth Amendment on January 31, 1865. On February 1, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln signed a Joint Resolution submitting the proposed Amendment to the states. On December 18, 1865, Secretary of State William Seward issued a statement verifying the ratification of the 13th Amendment.

“It actually came to us.”

When the document was displayed at the Henry Ford Museum, thousands of people lined up to come see it. What impressed a young visitor the most was this: “It actually came to us. That we did not have to go all the way to Washington DC to see it. It came to us.”

I am sure that sentiment will be shared by our visitors – young and old – as they take in this historic document.

Reference
Foner, Eric
2010 The Fiery trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York.