Mississippi's Ironic Presidential Library
Only a year old, the Presidential Library of Ulysses S. Grant is a major coup for The Magnolia State.
by Judy Smith
To be home to a presidential library is quite an honor, but it’s ironic that the 18th President of the United States and the conquering Civil War general from the North would find a posthumous home in the land that he defeated. Did fate have a hand in bringing this extraordinary leader’s papers down South to Starkville?
“The establishment of the U.S. Grant Presidential Library at Mississippi State University is a tribute to the quality of scholarship, archival pursuits and digital traditional library access offered here,” says MSU President Dr. Mark Keenum. “We value the fact that MSU is one of only five universities in the nation to be entrusted with the responsibilities of hosting and growing a presidential library. Moreover, we see the Grant Library as a key component in forging a more profound understanding of the complex history of the Civil War and Reconstruction from a very unique perspective in a unique setting.”
Still, how exactly did Mississippi gain this major coup and become the location for this noble honor? As with any story, this one begins at the beginning to illustrate how a few twists of fate brought the prestigious Grant Library to the Magnolia State. In 1962, the Ulysses S. Grant Association (USGA) was founded by the states of Illinois, New York and Ohio – the three states in which Grant lived – and by the major Civil War historians at the time.
“The purpose of the commission was to collect copies of all Grant letters and other papers and letters written to him and publish them in the ‘Papers of Ulysses S. Grant,’” explains Dr. John Marszalek, executive director of the Presidential Library of Ulysses S. Grant.
The papers were first located at Ohio State University and, from 1964 to 2008, housed at Southern Illinois University. USGA published the first volume of its collection in 1967. By the time the material made its way to MSU in 2008, 30 volumes had been published, and two more have since been published there. Plus, work is being done on a “scholarly edition of the Grant memoirs,” Marszalek says.
In July 2008, USGA’s board of directors chose Marszalek as its new director and managing editor. The association has been looking for a new location for its materials due to irreconcilable differences with Southern Illinois, and that’s when MSU stepped up to the plate and offered the perfect solution.
“The material came to MSU because MSU provided USGA with the necessary support to advance USGA’s mission and presented the board with the most convincing proposal of all those institutions interested in becoming the new host institution,” Marszalek explains. “Two interim MSU presidents and the permanent president worked with the Dean of MSU Libraries and me and the board to accomplish the new agreement.”
As they say, the rest is history. The personal papers and effects of the leader of the Union army and the nation moved to its new Southern homeland, and in May 2012, the USGA collection was officially deemed the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library. Housed in Mitchell Memorial Library on the campus of MSU, it’s quite an impressive library and collection. Consisting of more than 15,000 linear feet of material, the collection ranges from original documents to photocopies of every letter Grant wrote and every letter written to him. There are also 5,000-6,000 volumes of books about Grant and his era.
“We have an excellent collection of original Grant photographs and prints, one of the best in the world, and memorabilia of all kinds, from the 19th century to today, including contemporary busts,” Marszalek says.
Some of the most interesting pieces of memorabilia include the Grant Family Bible, an opera shawl the Grants purchased in Paris during their post-presidential world tour and more than 20 scrapbooks kept by Julia Grant and those belonging to other members of the family. There is a teapot the Grants used in their home, a piece of special Grant White House china, and many original Grant family letters – some written after USG’s death and into the 20th century.
The collection is open to all researchers interested in learning more about Grant’s career and life, and digital collection that goes along with it can be accessed through the center’s website.
The South is home to presidential libraries for Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Baines Johnson. Various Southern universities have presidential publication series but not presidential libraries. “The Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library demonstrates that Mississippi State University and its libraries can be ranked among the leading institutions in the nation,” Marszalek says.
“The Grant Presidential Library brings prestige to MSU and underscores the university’s commitment to academic excellence, a commitment in this case that brings a treasure of information to students and scholars,” Michael Ballard, MSU professor and coordinator of the Congressional Collection, adds. “The fact that much of the content of the Grant Library is shared with the world via the Internet further emphasizes that the university’s outreach to all mankind exceeds its roots of engineering and agricultural superiority.”
It’s obvious that Marszalek and his staff are quite proud of their university’s coup. As director, he hosts visits from school field trips, the general public, well known scholars and visitors from around the nation. (MSU also hosted the USGA annual meeting in May.) In addition, he finds time to travel around the nation to make presentations about the collection.
To give much-needed space to the growing collection, MSU is planning to add another floor to the top of the university’s Mitchell Memorial Library. “Thanks to the talents and hard work of our staff and of the MSU Libraries as a whole, we have organized our collection to maximize its use,” Marszalek says. “Yet, we continue to find new treasures regularly in our vast holdings.”
While some might still ponder why The Magnolia State is home to this Northern leader’s papers, many see it as a perfect tribute to Grant and a sign of progress as a nation. To Ballard, the fact that Grant’s papers are located in Mississippi is “further proof of the enlightenment of a state that progresses continually despite its detractors. It is more than irony that Grant’s papers are in Mississippi, it is altogether fitting,” he says. “I believe Grant meant it from his heart when he said after the war, ‘Let us have peace.’ What better symbol of that peace could there be than the presence of his presidential library at Mississippi State University?”
Photos courtesy of Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library.
Judy Smith is a freelance writer living in Laurel, Mississippi. She has a bachelor’s in Journalism and Paralegal Studies, master’s of Science in Mass Communications and PhD in Communications, all from the University of Southern Mississippi. Her work has been featured in DeSoto Magazine, Rankin Living Magazine, Northside Sun Magazine, Country Roads Magazine and Mississippi Magazine, and she also writes about events for VisitSouth.com. Overall, Smith enjoys covering concerts, the arts, sports, travel and history.