Ulysses S. Grant marches south again
SIU loses archives to Mississippi State University
The University of Virginia has Thomas Jefferson, Columbia University has Alexander Hamilton. And for more than 40 years, Southern Illinois University had Ulysses S. Grant.
But that honor came to an unceremonious end last month, when the Carbondale campus was forced to relinquish the world's largest collection of Grant papers.
Following a nearly yearlong conflict with the school, the Ulysses S. Grant Association, which owns the material, recently relocated nearly 100 file cabinets crammed with documents and memorabilia to Mississippi State University.
No one will talk on the record about what prompted the move. But the long relationship between SIU and the association apparently soured last year when the group's executive director was accused of sexual harassment and was notified he would be fired from a teaching position at the university.
"It is pretty funny," said Keith Donohue, of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission in Washington, which has provided $1.8 million of support to the collection. "The hero of the Union has moved to Mississippi."
The Grant papers now reside in the library of a university whose first president was Confederate Gen. Stephen D. Lee and is 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.
The Magnolia State also was of singular importance to Grant's military career. Soldiers from Mississippi fiercely battled Grant's forces in Corinth and Port Gibson, and just across the border in Shiloh, Tenn., before his victory at Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, helped seal the Confederacy's fate.
Though many see humor or even irony in what could be called Grant's final journey to the South, it is a major loss for SIU.
Housing such a valuable archive brings prestige to a university, and the Grant project is one of the most prized collections of its kind, experts on the subject said.
"There was a time when Grant was not welcome here, but that's in the past," said Mark Keenum, Mississippi State's president. "We're very excited to have these historic documents."
Because official presidential libraries weren't created until the middle of the 20th Century, certain universities have become home to the papers of the earlier presidents. The University of Virginia, for example, has the Jefferson collection.
The Grant association, an outgrowth of the Civil War Centennial, hired John Simon as its executive director and moved a burgeoning collection on the 18th president to SIU in 1964. The university also provided a home for a staff of four.
"We had a vague memorandum of understanding," said David Carlson, SIU's dean of library affairs. "If we were working on it today, it would be a lot more specific."
Eventually, the library amassed hundreds of original and photocopied manuscripts, letters, artwork, diaries and other war memorabilia on Grant.
The material shed light on the Ohio native's time at West Point, his rise through the Union command ranks and his presidential leadership during Reconstruction. It provided resources on Grant's financial ruin and the writing of his famous memoirs on his deathbed.
Among the items are copies of Grant's order to remove Jewish soldiers from his military district, his handwritten State of the Union address (with notes in the margins) and letters to his doctor as he was dying of throat cancer.
Simon wound up editing 30 volumes of Grant's papers published by Southern Illinois University Press. He won numerous awards and helped the National Portrait Gallery and other institutions craft exhibits on Grant.
But last May, SIU informed Simon that he would be fired from his teaching job following accusations of sexual harassment, according to his wife, Harriet. Later that month, the association voted to break from SIU, said Chief Justice Frank Williams of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, the group's president.
When Simon died in July, the association selected a new executive director: John Marszalek, professor emeritus of history at Mississippi State and a biographer of William T. Sherman, the Union general who was one of Grant's closest friends.
In August the association sued, accusing SIU of wrongfully detaining the Grant papers and claiming to be the lawful owner of the entire collection. Last month, after reaching an out-of-court settlement, SIU relinquished the papers. Both parties said the settlement prohibits them from discussing their break.
Rod Sievers, an SIU spokesman, confirmed that Simon was accused of sexual harassment but said he could not comment further except to say Simon was never fired.
Shortly before Christmas, movers packed all of the items into trucks and shipped them to Mississippi State's Mitchell Memorial Library.
Grant's return to the state has inspired mixed feelings in the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which works to preserve and promote the legacy of the Confederacy.
" U.S. Grant is not beloved in the state of Mississippi," said Cecil A. Fayard Jr. of Biloxi, who serves as a leader of the organization. "Southern folks remember well his brutal and bloody tactics of war, and the South will never forget the siege of Vicksburg."
Marszalek, who will assemble a new support staff, said the association intends to complete editing of the Grant papers as well as a scholarly edition of his memoirs. Southern Illinois University Press will continue as publisher.
This spring, the board of the Ulysses S. Grant Association will hold its annual meeting at Mississippi State—its first ever south of the Mason-Dixon Line.