January 31, 2009
They don''t celebrate July 4 in Vicksburg. They haven''t since 1863 when on that day Confederate General John C. Pemberton surrendered the city after a six-week siege orchestrated by Union General Ulysses S. Grant. Almost a century and a half later, Grant has returned to Mississippi, this time under much happier circumstances.
Friday evening, in a small room in Mississippi State''s Mitchell Memorial Library, Steve Ellis was interviewing Mississippi State President Mark Keenum about Grant''s papers, which later that evening would be formally presented to the library.
Keenum has been fielding questions about the Grant acquisition since the beginning of his presidency -- he''s been on the job a month. The papers, almost 10,000 linear feet of them, were housed at Southern Illinois University.
A schism between the Grant Association and SIU and an appeal by MSU history professor John Marszalek and Frances Coleman of the Mitchell Library has led to the papers coming South. The irony is inescapable.
Ellis asked Keenum if there''s any connection between him and Grant returning to the South at the same time.
"When you think of it, Mississippi had a lot to do with propelling Ulysses Grant to his place in history," said Keenum.
The brilliance of Grant''s strategy at Vicksburg has been compared with Napoleon''s. After Vicksburg Lincoln said, "Grant is my man and I am his the rest of the War."
Keenum also noted MSU''s first president (1880-1899), Stephen D. Lee, fought at Vicksburg and was later instrumental in establishing the national military park there. Lee had a home here and is buried in Friendship Cemetery.
A Jan. 18 story in the Chicago Tribune titled, "Ulysses S. Grant marches south again," quotes Keith Donohue of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission in Washington, which has provided $1.8 million of support to the Grant collection. "It is pretty funny," Donohue said. "The hero of the Union has moved to Mississippi."
The article goes on to note: "The Grant papers now reside ... in a part of the country where old traditions die hard. Not until the late 1990s did students at nearby University of Mississippi in Oxford stop flying the Rebel flag at football games."
"I think that we were chosen speaks volumes," said Keenum, who noted there are few universities blessed with presidential collections. He cited the University of Virginia with Thomas Jefferson''s papers and Woodrow Wilson at Princeton.
Later in the evening, speaking to a dinner gathering in the Grisham Room of the library Marszalek told the group he had planned to scream when this was all over. Instead the distinguished history professor and author produced a cowbell and rang it.
"I think if Grant and Steven D. Lee were here they''d be ringing cowbells, too," said Marszalek.
One thousand books on Grant along with copies of every known speech and letter written to or from the 18th president are in the collection, Marszalek said. Ninety filing cabinets worth.
Unable to attend due to weather in the Northeast, Frank J. Williams, Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court and president of the Ulysses S. Grant Association, addressed the group by phone.
"He (Grant) was inscrutable to his contemporaries. Sherman (William Tecumseh, who was a friend of Grant''s) said he is a mystery to me and I think he is a mystery to himself."
"His behavior toward Lee at Appomattox was beyond reproach," Williams continued. "It is important to get behind this man and try to understand him further."
Grant''s generous terms of surrender -- he allowed Lee and soldiers to keep their side arms and horses -- were credited with helping ease tensions between the two armies and helped the men of Lee''s army maintain a semblance of pride.
After his presidency, Grant went to work for a brokerage firm that went bankrupt. To fend off poverty, he wrote his personal memoirs as he was dying from throat cancer. He died within days of its completion.
The book became a best seller, earning Grant''s family more than $450,000. It has received wide praise for its lucid depiction of battles and its clear prose. About Grant''s memoirs, Mark Twain said, "the most remarkable book of its kind since the Commentaries of Julius Caesar." It should be noted that Twain was a principal in the firm that first published Grant''s book.
Friday evening Friends of the Mitchell Library President Chip Templeton with classic Southern grace welcomed the Union general and former president back to Mississippi, announcing, "President Grant now resides here in this library. Welcome to your new home, President Grant."
Write or phone Birney Imes at The Commercial Dispatch, 516 Main St., Columbus, MS 39701, 328-2424, or e-mail him at [email protected]
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.
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