Steve Mullen: What would Ulysses do?

March 17, 2010 2:10:00 PM

Steve Mullen - [email protected]


It''s worth taking a tour of Mississippi State University''s newly digitized version of "The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant", a chunk of the president''s writings and other Grant-related items now housed there. The volumes are fully searchable, and it''s amazing both how much information is there and how much time can be sucked away as you scroll through Grant''s correspondence.


Of special interest is Grant''s time in Mississippi during the Civil War, documented through his letters and telegrams sent from the battlefield.


I''ve only spent a few hours on Mississippi State''s well-designed site, but did a quick search for Columbus and yielded a few references to the Friendly City. Grant, upon taking Vicksburg, moved on to capture Jackson. One of his letters reveals he used cavalry as a ploy to keep the Confederates from sending reinforcements from Columbus to aid their comrades in the capital.



"I am just sending out all the force that can be spared from here to drive the enemy from Canton and Jackson, with instructions to remain at Canton for a few days and scout with the Cavalry as far Eastward as possible," Grant wrote to a subordinate. "Columbus Miss., is a point of vast importance to the enemy and if threatened would necessarily cause the enemy to detain a large force at that point. The Cavalry will try to create the impression that they were going there."


While Grant seemed more interested in capturing Jackson, Memphis, and Corinth, others under him were chomping at the bit to take Columbus. Gen. Stephen Hurlbut, who served under Grant, reveals in a letter he has drawn up a plan to take Possum Town, if only Grant would give the word. "Lee is raising quite a force from Columbus to Grenada and needs breaking up," writes Hurlbut to John A. Rawlins, another general under Grant. "I shall smash him effectually when we go on the Columbus Expedition."


The Lee he refers to is not Robert E. Lee, but Gen. Stephen D. Lee, the cavalry commander whose Columbus home is now a museum next door to the Columbus-Lowndes County Library. Lee would survive the war, move to Columbus and go on to be the first president of the college that now holds Grant''s papers -- 147 years after they were all traipsing back and forth through the mud and the heat, trying to drive one another out of Mississippi.


I''m not the best-schooled student of history, but from what I understand, the "Columbus Expedition" never played out. Columbus is still here, and Lee survived to help found Mississippi State, so I''m guessing Gen. Hurlbut didn''t get to implement his master plan. At any rate, folks in Columbus had their hands full caring for the wounded, sent down here from Shiloh and Corinth.


Corinth, Clinton, Yazoo City, Raymond, Canton -- even Iuka -- are all mentioned by Grant. I picture him in a tent, in his wool uniform, suffering in the heat and humidity, scrawling away at these letters as he swats away mosquitoes and Mississippi''s other assorted indigenous flying critters. I wonder how many sheets of paper he crumpled up and threw to the ground in disgust, his words rendered illegible by sweat dripping off his brow onto the page.


In actuality, he probably dictated to an underling most of the time. But it''s entertaining to think of the conquering general''s adventures in the Hospitality State being as uncomfortable as possible. (That''s not to say the war didn''t end as it should have.)


Reading the papers reminded me of an old friend of my father''s who had a hunting camp near Bolton, halfway between Clinton and Vicksburg. I remember visiting one time while a kid years ago, and going relic-hunting with a metal detector. The area apparently hosted a rear encampment during the siege of Vicksburg -- Grant''s old stomping grounds, only miles from our house. I remember finding a mini ball, one of the millions of .58 caliber bullets that Union troops fired at Confederate soldiers.


I wouldn''t call it "mini" if it came smashing through my thigh bone, but I wasn''t on the naming committee.



The horse he rode in on


I wonder if Grant''s army ever trudged through the neighborhood of Highway 45 Alternate, near the Clay County line. I imagine the rebel Stephen D. Lee and his compadre, Nathan Bedford Forrest, rode their mounted soldiers through at some point. I wonder how they''d all react to the only pony around today -- the 20-foot-tall one, in all its silver, anatomically correct glory, in front of the Pony strip club.


The Pony was on State Rep. Gary Chism''s mind Tuesday. The Columbus Republican called in to make sure we knew that Gov. Haley Barbour signed Chism''s bill giving county supervisors more control over where strip clubs can locate, and, I suppose, what types of (ahem) decorations they can place outside their businesses.


The bill, Chism said, sprang from "that 20-foot statue out there with the red bikini on it."


For the record, the silver stallion no longer has the bikini, which was awkwardly strapped on after folks complained.


The bill, which goes into effect July 1, won''t affect the Pony retroactively.


Chism also reported that the Legislature has two contentious issues left -- settling on the budget, and restoring the Mississippi Department of Employment Security, which administers the state''s unemployment insurance. The agency''s reauthorization is tied up over a spat between Democrats and the governor, surrounding the use of federal stimulus money to augment unemployment benefits.


As for the budget, lawmakers may downgrade their tax revenue estimate for the coming year, making this tight budget year even worse.


Imagine state tax revenues are a Civil War soldier who just took a mini ball to the thigh bone. Not pretty. What would Grant do? He''d tell us to take a lesson from Vicksburg -- all we can do is hunker down and wait it out.


Steve Mullen is Managing Editor of The Dispatch.