WASHINGTON — It was 150 years ago that Union and Confederate troops squared off at Antietam Creek, Maryland, - a major Civil War victory for the Union that some historians say changed the course of American history. That's because five days later President Abraham Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which eventually brought an end to slavery in the United States. Hundreds gathered to reflect on the nation's past at a remembrance observance at the Washington memorial that bears the 16th president’s name.
It was a day of remembrance for those gathered at the footsteps of the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate 150 years since the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.
Congressman John Lewis, the son of farmers and whose ancestors were slaves, is a winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. For him, this anniversary has significance beyond words.
"It tends to dramatize that as of 150 years that a son or grandson or a great grandson of a slave can grow up and be honored by presidents of the U.S., including an African-American president, and [be] serving in Congress. It says something about the distance we've come and a progress we've made as a people," Lewis said.
Ed Ayers, a history professor at the University of Richmond, says the best way to explain the history of slavery and the U.S. Civil War is to get everyone in the story.
"The fact is that it took everybody to make this happen. If you don't have a leader such as Lincoln who's willing to take all these chances, it doesn't happen. If you don't have an army to carry it through, it doesn't happen. If you don't have the enslaved people showing or longing their desperation and determination, it doesn't happen," Ayers said.
"We have a live audience today from schools, colleges and universities," Ayers said.
Ayers spoke in a discussion streamed live to students around the country, like those gathered at George Mason University near Washington.
Student Brittany Passmore soaked up the lessons of the day.
"So when they talk about Abraham Lincoln using it as a political move, it's interesting to compare it to the political moves today in respect to the elections that are coming up," Passmore said.
Hollywood actress Alfre Woodard read from a slave woman's memoir written in 1861.
"Slavery is terrible for men but it's far more terrible for women, all you happy free women," Woodard read.
For Woodard, the Emancipation Proclamation is not just a document: "It is the beginning of America really becoming America. So that's a big celebration that belongs to all of us."
That lesson was not lost on the students attending the ceremony..
"To have the opportunity to understand the full impact it has had on the entire nation and not just slaves makes it more of a formidable piece of history,” said student Sean Smith.
The proclamation originally freed only the slaves in rebel states during the Civil War.
But many historians say Lincoln's original hand-written document, which rests in the National Archives, was the first step in a long process of expanding civil rights to all Americans.