The exhibit is organized by topic rather than chronologically like most Civil War museum exhibits. It emphasizes a wide range of documents, records and artifacts that have been preserved at the National Archives.
"What we are trying to do is tell you the little-known stories and also some seldom seen documents and unusual perspectives on the war," Bustard said during a preview of the exhibit Monday.
On Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln made good on a pledge issued 100 days earlier, signing a final proclamation declaring all slaves in states in rebellion against the Union to be free.
The proclamation wouldn't end slavery outright and wasn't even enforceable at the time by Lincoln in areas under Confederate control. But the president made clear from that day forward that his forces would be fighting to put the Union back together without the institution of slavery.
Along with the original proclamation, the exhibit also displays the original signed copy of the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery in 1865, and an unratified 1861 amendment that would have prevented the federal government from interfering in slavery.
"We didn't want to give people the impression that the emancipation was one moment, that slavery ended from the Emancipation Proclamation for example," he said. "We wanted to get across the idea that the end of slavery was really an uneven and unsteady process but that the United States moved a tremendous distance from 1861 and 1865."
The exhibit also features several interactive elements, including a video of reunions of Civil War troops, readings of letters sent home from the front lines and touch screens that allow visitors to explore historical documents.
The exhibit originally opened at the National Archives in 2010 and traveled to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., and the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Houston before making its final stop in Nashville.
The proclamation has been rarely shown because it was badly damaged decades ago by long exposure to light. For many years, it was kept at the State Department with other presidential proclamations before being transferred in 1936 to the National Archives.