It was 150 years ago: President Abraham Lincoln was elected amid the rising tensions that led to the Civil War.
The anniversary of Lincoln's election kicks off nearly five years of events by the National Park Service and others across the nation marking the Sesquicentennial of the war between North and South.
"We're trying to say it's more than battles," Park Service tourism chief Dean Reeder said of the Civil War commemorations. Lincoln's election helps frame the context of what would come, he said.
Coming on the heels of this year's polarizing elections, the anniversary echoes the nation's fractious mood back then.
"I think a lot of people will notice it was a contentious election in 2010, and it was a way contentious election in 1860," Reeder said.
A century and a half ago, in a nation already torn by disputes over states' rights and the expansion of slavery, the Democratic Party split into Southern and Northern factions. Lincoln, a Republican, won without a taking single Southern state. Within a month, Southern states began declaring secession.
Re-enactments of the 1860 election took place Saturday in Kentucky and at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, Ill.
In the months ahead, the Park Service will recreate Lincoln's journey from Illinois to the nation's capital and his inauguration in March 1861. Lincoln's route to Washington led through Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey.
"By the time he gets to Maryland, he's in enemy territory," Reeder said. "And he's the president of the United States."
Plans are well under way for many events next year: the recreation of Lincoln's inaugural in March, the war's first bloodshed in Baltimore when a Massachusetts regiment was attacked, the first battle at Fort Sumter in South Carolina and the first major land battle at Manassas, Va., in July 1861.
As many as 15,000 historical reenactors are slated to perform in the Manassas recreation for 25,000 spectators, organizers said. Later events will mark the battles at Antietam, Gettysburg and beyond.
The Park Service is working with dozens of partners to coordinate the many Civil War events planned through 2015 at more than 75 different battlefields and historic sites, as well as at museums and other privately operated sites.
Washington's tourism bureau, Destination DC, announced Thursday its promotion with the Park Service and others called "Civil War to Civil Rights." It will include exhibits at the city's museums, the opening of a new African American Civil War Memorial and Museum, the opening of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and other shows and attractions.
City leaders said they hope to showcase the capital's unique history of being surrounded by the Confederacy and give visitors a chance to see sites beyond the National Mall.
"It gets to be personal," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the District of Columbia in Congress, noting her great-grandfather was a runaway slave. "I hope we will open people's minds to just how historic this city is."
To commemorate Lincoln's election in Washington, tourism groups gathered Thursday with characters dressed in Civil War attire at the Willard Hotel. The hotel hosted a peace convention in February 1861 to try to save the Union.
This week, the National Archives will open the second part of its "Discovering the Civil War" exhibit with several rarely shown documents on view through April 2011.
It includes a proposed version of the 13th Amendment approved by Congress that would have prevented the abolition of slavery but was ratified by only two states.
From Nov. 11 to 14, original pages of the handwritten Emancipation Proclamation in which Lincoln declared the slaves free will be on display. So will the actual 13th Amendment as approved by Congress and signed by Lincoln that abolished slavery once it was ratified by the states in 1865.
Many more events across the country in the years ahead will highlight the key battles, their impact on the home front and the progress toward civil rights, according to the Park Service plan. A new website will launch this month with dates and details for Civil War enthusiasts to plan ahead.
Terence Heder, who is coordinating events for the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation in Virginia said personal, firsthand accounts will draw more attention than recounting who won battles and who retreated.
"We want to bring those stories to life because the history deserves it, the people who lived through that time deserve it," he said. "We want people to understand the battles had a context."