WASHINGTON — As New Year's Day approached 150 years ago, all eyes were on President Abraham Lincoln in expectation of what he warned 100 days earlier would be coming — his final proclamation declaring all slaves in states rebelling against the Union to be "forever free."
A tradition began Dec. 31, 1862, as many black churches held Watch Night services, awaiting word that Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation would take effect amid a bloody Civil War. Later, congregations listened as the president's historic words were read aloud.
The proclamation would not end slavery outright and at the time couldn't be enforced by Lincoln in areas under Confederate control. But the president made clear from that day forward that his forces would be fighting to bring the Union back together without the institution of slavery.
Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, after the Battle of Antietam, announcing that if rebel states did not cease fighting and rejoin the Union by Jan. 1, 1863, all slaves in rebellious states or parts of states would be declared free from that date forward.
This year, the Watch Night tradition will follow the historic document to its home at the National Archives with a special midnight display planned with readings, songs and bell ringing among the nation's founding documents.
The official document bears Lincoln's signature and the United States seal, setting it apart from copies and drafts. It will make a rare public appearance from today to Tuesday — New Year's Day — for thousands of visitors to mark its anniversary. On New Year's Eve, the display will remain open past midnight as 2013 arrives.
"We will be calling back to an old tradition," said U.S. Archivist David Ferriero, noting the proclamation's legacy. "When you see thousands of people waiting in line in the dark and cold ... we know that they're not there just for words on paper.
"On this 150th anniversary, we recall those who struggled with slavery in this country, the hope that sustained them and the inspiration the Emancipation Proclamation has given to those who seek justice."
The National Archives allows 100 visitors at a time into its rotunda, where the Emancipation Proclamation will be displayed along with the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. On the busiest days, 8,000 people file through for a glimpse of the founding charters.
Performances and re-enactments are scheduled to continue throughout New Year's Day. The U.S. Postal Service will unveil a new Emancipation Proclamation stamp as well.
This special display is just one of many commemorations planned in Washington and in churches nationwide to mark the anniversary of Lincoln's actions to end slavery and end the Civil War.
In Washington, the Metropolitan A.M.E. Church, where abolitionist Frederick Douglass was a member, will host a special 150th anniversary service.
History lovers say this is a chance to remember what the Emancipation Proclamation actually signified.
Lincoln wrote in part: "I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward, shall be free."
He went on to say the military would recognize the freedom of slaves, that freed slaves should avoid violence and that freed slaves could enlist in the U.S. armed forces.