The Civil War comes alive at Greenfield Village this weekend with a sesquicentennial celebration of the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April 1865. Visitors will feel the spirit of the era as they are immersed in painstakingly accurate period activities and re-enactments.
The Henry Ford's Civil War Remembrance is the most authentic way to celebrate Memorial Day weekend and to reflect on the estimated 750,000 people who died in the war.
The event features hundreds of Union and Confederate re-enactors, civilians, musicians and historic presenters, all in period clothing. There are also dozens of exhibits, demonstrations and hands-on activities designed to give attendees deeper insight into this crucial time in American history than the average textbook can muster.
Jim Johnson, Henry Ford senior manager of venue events, says it's important to teach young people about the Civil War because its effects still ripple through our country today.
"The end of the war is a pivotal thing, and it's very symbolic of how the country got brought back together," Johnson says. "There's parts of the country where there's still struggles going on."
Johnson says the event will explore how the war's end and Lincoln's assassination came to define our country going forward, for better or worse.
"It had so much to do with the fits and starts as far as really making us into the country we are today," he says. "There's a lot of speculation if Lincoln hadn't been killed, how the South would have been treated. Maybe Reconstruction wouldn't have been such a failure."
The Civil War Remembrance will feature living history activities, including live artillery demonstrations, period music performances and insights from historians. Most exciting, though, is the chance for kids to join a mock military company. Johnson says the experience is usually very eye-opening for kids, who are often misled about what it was like to actually experience the war.
"There was lots of downtime, and lots of things going on in camp life," he says. "There were a lot of interesting things soldiers did for fun to pass the boredom. Hearing from the guys that have done the research on what it would have been like to move with the army and live in the camps, it's a rare opportunity to do a deep dive into life in the 1860s in the U.S."
Visitors will a chance to learn more about the chair Lincoln was assassinated in, which is on display in the "With Liberty and Justice for All" exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum. Experts will be in the Village to answer questions. Henry Ford purchased the chair on the open market in 1929, and it has long been one of the museum's most treasured and unique artifacts.
Johnson says visitors will learn about the chair's fascinating history in a version of the exhibit that ran in April, from its time as an employee break chair at the Smithsonian to the origin of its mysterious dark stain.
"Everybody assumes that's blood from when Lincoln was shot," Johnson says. "It turns out from decades of people putting their heads up against the back of the chair it's picked up a dark black oily stain. We have done tests on the chair and there are a couple of spots, up towards the top and the towards the front of the seat, that do test positive for blood. Whether it's Lincoln's blood or Henry Rathbone's, who was stabbed trying to fend off John Wilkes Booth, we don't know."
The event closes on Monday with a Memorial Day celebration, and Greenfield Village will participate in a national moment of silence at 3 p.m. Monday as signaled by the Armington & Sims shop whistle.
Steven Sonoras is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.
Civil War Remembrance Weekend
Saturday - Monday
20900 Oakwood, Dearborn
Free with Greenfield Village admission