Norwich — The city rang in more than just the New Year Tuesday, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation with bells, a 100-gun cannon salute and two different Abraham Lincolns.
Two years of planning that started with inspections and restorations of historic bells in church, firehouse and mill towers, continued last summer with the casting of the nation's first Emancipation Proclamation Bell, reached its climax Tuesday with an afternoon of celebration.
The first President Abraham Lincoln of the day, with a tired but unwavering hand put pen to paper late Tuesday morning at a rustic wooden desk in the lobby of City Hall.
Lincoln, portrayed by Lewis Dube, sat in front of the restored 1860-campaign banner and first read and then signed the historic proclamation that ordered slaves in the rebellious southern states to be freed.
"I have been shaking hands all day," he started. "My hand is nearly paralyzed."
He recalled how Lincoln's hand shook 150 years earlier with the gravity of the order he was about to sign, and remarked how people would think he wavered, "but I have never been more certain in all my life."
After about 200 people cheered and applauded when Lincoln declared the signing "done." Mayor Peter Nystrom, dressed in a tuxedo, then did some re-enacting of his own. Nystrom took on the role of 1863 Mayor James Lloyd Greene, who ordered and led an hour-long ringing of all city bells and a 100-gun cannon salute.
The celebration was a re-enactment of the events in the city on Jan. 2, 1863, when Greene ordered the city's bells to be rung and guns fired in response to Lincoln's signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
The city's Freedom Bell hung on a temporary stand in the City Hall plaza, where Nystrom and Norwich NAACP Branch President Jacqueline Owens led a procession of participants eager to ring the city's bell.
"It feels fantastic," said the Rev. Barbara White, pastor of the Evans Memorial AME Zion Church, after her turn at the rope. "It is a great day for me."
A short time later, Lincoln-Dube used a combination of charm, wit and years of studying Lincoln's acts and mannerisms, hosted more than 200 people gathered in the Wauregan Ballroom for a meet-and-greet. With help from First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, Eileen Baird, he answered pointed questions about slavery and the Civil War, the new Lincoln movie and several myths about his presidency.
"Welcome back to the Wauregan," Joe Brown said, greeting Lincoln. In 1999, Brown worked with city Historian Dale Plummer to save the then-decaying historic hotel from demolition.
Lincoln stayed overnight at the Wauregan during a March 1860 campaign visit to Norwich, when he read a speech that centered on slavery in the divided nation.
Lincoln-Dube said people often say to him "I saw your new movie."
"Yay!" he responds. "And I didn't even have to memorize the lines."
He said at one event where he reviewed a Boy Scout troop, a boy came up to him and asked quietly: "Do you really kill vampires?" referring to a very different Lincoln movie. Lincoln-Dube said he crouched down and confidentially whispered to the boy: "Yes."
Lincoln signed autographs at a makeshift U.S. Postal Station in the Wauregan that sold commemorative First Day covers featuring a new Emancipation Proclamation stamp and a depiction of the proclamation draped over an American flag. The covers and stamps quickly sold out before Lincoln and the crowd, led by a bagpiper, made its way to Howard T. Brown Memorial Park.
There, more than three dozen Civil War re-enactors manned six period cannons for a 100-gun salute over Norwich Harbor.
"The battery is waiting your command," Capt. Phil DiMaria of Battery B of the 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery, said to the president.
Despite the warning, the audience was startled at the first cannon blast.
City Historian Dale Plummer, chairman of the Emancipation Proclamation Commemoration Committee, said he knocked on doors at harbor-front condominiums in advance of the event to warn residents what would happen New Year's afternoon.
"They thought it was cool," Plummer said.
Plummer was pleased with how all events went Tuesday. He thanked the city Public Works Department for clearing snow from parking lots and sidewalks and the committee for its hard work.
The celebration took on a serious tone as the crowd made its way to Slater Memorial Museum, where several historic figures from the Civil War and abolition movement took turns at the podium to tell their stories.
Frederick Douglass, portrayed by Leo Butler, called the Emancipation Proclamation signing "a day unequaled in my lifetime," and said rather than July 4, Jan. 1, 1863 would be "our day" of independence.
Escaped slave James L. Smith, who opened a shoe repair shop in Norwich and founded Evans Memorial Church, reveled in the notion that some 4 million fellow former slaves could be freed by Lincoln's proclamation. Smith, portrayed by Edward Derr, thanked the president for his act.
The audience grew silent when Sgt. Henry West of Lisbon, a member of the Connecticut 29th Black Regiment, approached the podium. West, portrayed by wounded Vietnam War veteran K.R. Al'qahhaar, described when the regiment received their first rifles, knowing the fear southerners would feel seeing blacks wielding weapons. But they too felt fear of being captured. West didn't leave out another battle the 29th soldiers fought — to gain equal wages with white soldiers.
"Did you hear me?" he asked his audience. "They gave us equal wages."
Lincoln, this time portrayed by Howard Wright, received a standing ovation at Slater. He described the thought process of how he came to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Advisers urged him to wait for a Union victory before making the proclamation. He did so for a few months until Confederate General Robert E. Lee was driven back from the Potomac River.
As the earlier Lincoln said, his hand was nearly paralyzed by a morning spent greeting Washington, D.C., residents celebrating New Year's Day outside the White House.
"If my hand trembles while signing this proclamation, all those who examine the document hereafter will say 'he hesitated,'" Lincoln said, gesturing as if to sign the document. "'Abraham Lincoln.' That will do."
First Day covers
Commemorative First Day covers featuring the newly released Emancipation Proclamation stamp on an envelope depicting the Emancipation Proclamation over a draped flag can be ordered for the next 30 days.
Send orders with checks for $2 for each cover made out to "Postmaster" to the Oneco Post Office, 1104 Plainfield Pike, Oneco, CT 06373.