In 1863, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant continued his rise from relative obscurity to nationwide fame by defeating Confederate forces at Vicksburg, part of a series of victories that propelled him to the highest ranks in the U.S. Army. Over 150 years later, Mississippi is once again the site of Grant’s rise to prominence, this time through the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library at Mississippi State University.
Grant’s life was marked by dramatic swings in fortune as he went from failed farmer to Civil War hero and president of the United States to cancer-stricken, destitute victim of a Ponzi scheme. John F. Marszalek, MSU Giles Distinguished Professor Emeritus and executive director of the Ulysses S. Grant Association, said Grant’s reputation has had similar swings since his death in 1885.
“One of the things about Grant is that his reputation has gone up and down,” Marszalek said. “In the late 19th century, he was considered the greatest American of that period. Grant’s tomb had more visitors than the Statue of Liberty. That lasted into the ’20s; then his reputation went down into a trough with historians calling him a butcher or corrupt. Those misconceptions became a big deal.”
The misconceptions were part of what sparked the creation of the Ulysses S. Grant Association, formed during the Civil War centennial in the 1960s with the goal of publishing the complete papers
of its namesake.
Headquartered in Mississippi State’s Mitchell Memorial Library since 2009, the Grant Association and the MSU Libraries have made thousands of documents on Grant’s life available to researchers and the public. By creating a central place to study Grant’s life and times, historians are painting a more complete picture of Grant, Marszalek said.
Earlier this decade, the 32nd and final volume of Grant’s papers was published. Now, prominent authors such as Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Chernow, of “Hamilton” fame, are writing new biographies of Grant after spending weeks in Starkville to research at the Grant Presidential Library.
“That has helped to change the whole perception of Grant,” Marszalek said. “I like to brag that the Grant Association had a lot to do with it because it made a lot of things available. What we’ve done here at Mississippi State is make it even more accessible. The result has been a different perspective of who Grant was.”
Chernow’s “Grant,” released in the fall of 2017, received widespread media acclaim and was a New York Times best-seller. In his review of the book, former President Bill Clinton noted, “If we still believe in forming a more perfect union, [Grant’s] steady and courageous example is more valuable than ever.”
Chernow described in the book’s acknowledgments how the collection housed at Mississippi State and the university’s staff helped him bring Grant to life.
“In addition to the fifty thousand documents from the published papers, the library contains another two hundred thousand documents that never made it into print—a scholarly feast for anyone remotely curious about Grant,” Chernow wrote. “I especially profited from the numerous oral histories, profiles, newspaper interviews, letters, and diaries that conjure up Grant with extraordinary vividness.”
The success of Chernow’s biography has resulted in opportunities for Grant’s story to be told to larger audiences. According to Deadline reports, “Grant” is set to become a major motion picture as Lionsgate and Appian Way acquired movie rights to the book. The same outlet reports that Steven Spielberg will direct the film and Leonardo DiCaprio will play Grant. A six-part History channel docuseries based on “Grant” is also in the works.
Historian Charles W. Calhoun recently released a book on Grant’s presidency, a time period that is often under a critical eye from historians. However, Calhoun, who did research for his book at MSU, embraces the criticism of Grant’s presidency and offers a re-evaluation of the country’s 18th president. The Library Journal said in its review that Calhoun “offers a balanced treatment of the Grant administration that will likely be definitive for many years.”
In addition to these books by external researchers, Marszalek and fellow USGA editors and MSU Libraries associate professor David Nolen and publications editor Louis Gallo released a completely annotated version of Grant’s classic memoirs in 2017. These memoirs provide a modern context for Grant’s writing and have been so well received the historians have been offered a contract by Harvard University Press to write an annotated version of William Tecumseh Sherman’s memoirs.
“The general’s reputation has been trending upward as recent historians strive to replace the powerful stereotype of the top Union general and two-term president as a butcher commander and failed chief executive,” UCLA historian Joan Waugh wrote recently in the Civil War Times. “Their collective work has provided a measured and often more appreciative evaluation of the soldier-statesman’s event-filled life and vital legacy.”
A recent poll among presidential historians shows that Grant’s stature is continuing to rise. In C-SPAN’s survey of presidents, Grant has risen 11 spots to No. 22 since 2000. Most presidential rankings have remained relatively steady, with Abraham Lincoln maintaining a firm grip on the No. 1 spot.
Bringing Grant’s story to MSU
While Grant’s story can now be found atop best-seller lists and, soon, on the big screen, it’s also being told in a new state-of-the-art museum at Mitchell Memorial Library.
The gallery is part of a $10 million addition to the library that was opened with a celebration in November 2017. The new space also includes a gallery for the Frank and Virginia Williams Collection of Lincolniana, new storage for MSU’s Congressional and Political Research Center, office space, a preparation room, a reading room and cold storage. MSU President Mark E. Keenum worked with the Mississippi Legislature to secure bond funds for the library expansion.
The new galleries feature four life-size statues depicting different stages of Grant’s life: West Point cadet, Civil War general, statesman and writing his memoirs at the end of his life. Interactive screens provide details of Grant’s life and address the myths that have plagued his legacy.
“When school kids come, they always are learning something because they want to press the buttons and open the drawers, which we encourage,” Marszalek said. “People seem to really love that stuff, even the adults. You can’t drag them away. They want to push all the buttons and read everything.”
Display pieces, such as some of Grant’s paintings and other artifacts, help put Grant’s life in perspective. Nolen, who spent four years researching Grant for the annotated memoirs, said his story is one that resonates with almost any visitor.
“This really is an amazing and kind of quintessentially American story that still resonates with people,” Nolen said. “I’ve heard that from several different people. They come out of the museum and they say, ‘I learned things I didn’t know about, and I was moved emotionally in a way I didn’t anticipate.’”
Although having the Union general’s presidential library in the heart of the South often surprises people, it is located in an area that was central to Grant’s military career. The Battle of Shiloh, and Grant’s ensuing Mississippi campaign that ended with the Siege of Vicksburg, helped endear the general to Lincoln, with whom he formed a pivotal relationship in the final years of the war.
Now, Grant’s legacy lives on in a presidential library that is located almost exactly halfway between Shiloh and Vicksburg. Often, visitors will stop by the library while driving from one park to the other.
There is also interest among MSU students, who can now visit a presidential library in the same building where they meet to work on group projects. In addition to enjoying the galleries, students also have access to high-quality archival material for research.
Frank J. Williams, retired Rhode Island Supreme Court justice and longtime president of the Ulysses S. Grant Association, said the presidential library complements the various Grant historical sites across the country. He donated a photobook from Grant’s funeral, which captures in great detail the massive celebration of Grant’s life that took place in New York. In the new gallery, visitors can flip through a digital version of the book, complete with accompanying information on the pictures.
“We can be very proud of the fact that MSU has one of the premier presidential libraries in the country,” Williams said.
More Celebrations to Come
Ulysses Grant Dietz, a great-great grandson of the former president, did not always tout his connection to one of the most well-known men in American history. In his early years, he went by “Grant.”
“I wasn’t particularly proud of the name because the automatic response was always bad,” Dietz said. “His reputation was really low because of all this bad history that had been written.”
By the time Dietz went to boarding school, he took on the name “Ulysses,” which caused him to be involved with various Grant organizations, including the Grant Association. He visited Starkville for the grand opening of the new museum and again for the USGA’s annual meeting in May. He was among numerous descendants of Grant that attended the annual meeting.
There are historical Ulysses S. Grant sites in New York, Ohio, Illinois and Missouri, but Dietz said Starkville is now the “emotional epicenter” for Grants.
“Having this library and having it here really means a lot to me,” said Dietz, who lives in New Jersey. “So much of the negative stuff about Ulysses S. Grant was all about politics between the North and the South, and Grant was the victim. To have this here is a triumph of truth over myth, for both the North and the South. This is a triumph for Mississippi State, but I think it’s also a real triumph for the Grant family.”
As the USGA continues its research and outreach activities at MSU, it will also have a major celebration to plan in the coming years. A bipartisan U.S. Senate resolution placed the organization in charge of the national celebration marking the 200th anniversary of Grant’s birth in 2022.
The bicentennial will mark another opportunity to bring Grant back into the public conscience. Williams said the commission plans to have a national bicentennial event at the presidential library in Starkville.
AN EXTAORDINARY GIFT
Rhode Island couple’s donation makes MSU one of the nation’s foremost centers for studying the Civil War and its leaders
Retired Rhode Island Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank J. Williams first became interested in Abraham Lincoln when he spent every day of sixth grade sitting under a classroom portrait of America’s 16th president. His teacher encouraged him to read and learn more about Lincoln, and he has not stopped learning about him since.
The lifelong pursuit led Williams and his wife, Virginia, to spend decades acquiring Lincoln artifacts. Having amassed what was considered the largest privately held Lincoln collection in the country, the couple donated the items to Mississippi State in 2017.
With MSU also serving as home of the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library, the Frank and Virginia Williams Collection of Lincolniana makes MSU a national leader in the study of the American Civil War.
“If you study Lincoln, you really have to study Grant,” Williams said. “When we saw the way the Grant collection was treated when it moved from Southern Illinois to Mississippi State, it became clear that this was the right time and place to donate our collection.”
The assortment, valued at approximately $3 million, contains over 16,000 books and pamphlets plus 20,000 items relating to Lincoln and the war, including statuary, prints, original artwork, political paraphernalia, photographs, currency and postage stamps. MSU Libraries faculty and staff are working to digitize portions of the materials. The most prominent pieces are on display in a gallery adjacent to the Grant exhibits.
Williams said he hopes visitors to the gallery will take away lessons from Lincoln’s life as he did.
“I wanted to be a lawyer because Lincoln was a lawyer,” Williams said. “There’s not a day as a lawyer, a judge and now a mediator that I am not influenced by Lincoln’s character.”
Considered one of the country’s foremost experts on Lincoln, Williams has written or edited over 20 books on the president. A decorated U.S. Army veteran, he is an adjunct professor at the United States Naval War College, where he teaches a class on Abraham Lincoln and statesmanship.
The former judge has served as president of the Ulysses S. Grant Association since 1991 and was instrumental in bringing the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library to MSU. He said he will continue to amass Lincoln materials, which will be donated to MSU over time. Frank and Virginia have also funded an annual lecture on Abraham Lincoln and Civil War studies.
“One reason we gave this collection to MSU is to help continue healing,” Williams said. “We wanted this to go to a place in the South for that very reason. It was exhilarating to see the collection on display because we’ve never had the space for all these treasures. A number of alumni came up to us at the grand opening and thanked us for what we did, and that means a lot.”