September 11, 2013 9:38:09 AM
Slim Smith - [email protected]
From one perspective, it might seem odd that the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library would be located in Mississippi, where Grant's siege of Vicksburg in July 1863 was a decisive moment in the defeat of the Confederate Army during the Civil War.
In a state where you can still purchase T-shirts bearing the cartoon image of a Rebel solider with the inscription, "Forgot? Hell No, I ain't forgot!" that Grant's papers would be preserved with honor at Mississippi State University seems far-fetched.
But the more you think about it, the less incongruous it should seem.
Few have thought about it more than Dr. John Marszalek, History Professor Emeritus at MSU and executive director and managing editor of Ulysses S. Grant Foundation.
Tuesday at the Columbus Rotary Club meeting, Marszalek playfully suggested that MSU's Mitchell Memorial Library was the obvious venue for the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library.
"There are several reasons," Marszalek said. "First, if it hadn't been for Vicksburg, nobody would have ever heard of Ulyssses S. Grant."
Marszalek suggested whimsically that Grant was himself a "Bulldog,'' noting some a copy of Harper's magazine that depicted Grant as a bulldog in its cover illustration and a 1864 letter from President Abraham Lincoln to Grant urging his general to "hold on with a bull-dog grip' in pressing the fight against weakening Southern forces.
In a more serious vein, Marszalek said that while Grant was a tenacious fighter, he held his Southern adversaries in high esteem, a fact that Marszalek became evident in studying Grant's correspondence.
"In fact, Stephen D. Lee, a Confederate general who was later the first president at Mississippi State, became very close to the Grant family," Marszalek noted. "He was there at the dedication of the Grant memorial. Simon Boliver Buckner, who surrendered to Grant at Fort Donnelson, visited Grant shortly before he died of throat cancer in 1885. Grant couldn't speak, so he communicated by writing notes to Buckner."
In one note to Buckner that was preserved from that meeting, Grant expresses his affection for the South and said that, for all the death and destruction that came from the Civil War, it was necessary to keep the nation as one.
Upon the dedication of the Grant memorial, Mississippi Governor John M. Stone sent his regrets, assuring the Grant family that Mississippi held Grant in "sincere affection."
Founded in 1962, The Grant Foundation began collecting the papers and mementos of the nation's 18th president. After two years at Ohio State, the Grant Foundation moved its collection to Southern Illinois University, where it remained 44 years until the death of Foundation director John Y. Simon.
Marszalek, a long-time member of the Grant Foundation board, replaced Simon as director in 2008, when the collection moved to Mississippi State.
Marszalek brushes off any suggestion that he single-handedly brought the Grant papers to MSU.
"The reason we came here is that Mississippi State did the best job of convincing the Grant Foundation that this was the best place to be."
Last May, in honor of the Foundation's 50th year, the Grant Foundation designated its collection as the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library.
With the support of Mississippi State, Southern Illinois University, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Foundation has published Grant's papers in 32 volumes.
In the process, the Foundation has collected more than 200,000 photocopies of every letter known to have been written by or to Grant. The Presidential Library also contains a large collection of photographs, prints, art work and scores of other memorabilia.
With the impending donation of 4,000 books on Grant donated by a prominent historian, the Presidential Library will have 10,000 books on Grant and will soon be expanding its library space when MSU builds a fourth floor at Mitchell Library.
"It really is an extraordinary collection," Marszalek said. "For historians, students or anyone who wants to know about the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, it's a wonderful resource."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]