By COLLEEN MCCARTHY
Some of the most important documents in Civil War history are right here in our own community at the Mitchell Memorial Library at Mississippi State University.
The Ulysses S. Grant Association has called Mitchell Memorial home for nearly three years. Grant was a military commander during the war and helped lead the Union to victory. He later became the 18th president of the United States. The association has worked for decades to collect and protect documents from Grant’s life.
“The idea was to preserve and to publish Grant’s writings. And the result is the 31 volumes that they published before it came here,” John Marszalek, executive director of the association and managing editor of the Grant Papers project said. “We published the last one, and we’ve got another one coming out sometime later this year. And then we’re working on the Grant memoirs. That was the whole idea.”
The association started out at Ohio State University, then spent decades at Southern Illinois University before coming to MSU in late 2008. The association has thousands of documents from Grant’s life, from information about his childhood to letters during his Civil War experience and his presidency. Many of the letters are about official business between government and military officials, but they also have personal correspondences between family and friends.
“The collection itself consists of copies of every known Grant letter, anything that he wrote and anything that was sent to him. It’s a massive collection,” Marszalek said. “I like to call it one stop shopping, because you can come here and find anything there is to know about Ulysses S. Grant, his role in the Civil War, his presidency, the gilded age. And we find things all the time. There’s always stuff out there, but as far as we know we have most of it.”
The association owns many original letters and documents, but they also have thousands of copies.
“We have many originals, but most of them are copies because they’re all over the world,” Marszalek said. “Right now, one Grant letter was selling for $42,000, so nobody would be rich enough to buy all of them. A lot of them are in the Library of Congress.”
Since the association’s move to MSU, they have worked hard to make sure their collection is available to the public.
“Until it came here, all this material was not available to researchers, it was just there for the editors. And we said when it came here that we were going to open it to scholars to come. That’s one of the major changes that we’ve taken on,” Marszalek said. “We have digitized all of the 31 volumes of the Grant Papers. We are the first editorial project to do this. And we’re the only ones that have put it on our website for free. And it’s searchable, and that’s the great thing.”
Their collection is not limited to documents, but also includes memorabilia. They recently acquired the Grant family Bible, on which an inscription dating Grant’s marriage to his wife, Julia can still be read. They also have scrapbooks that Mrs. Grant kept over the years, filled with newspaper clippings about her husband from all over the country. And they have the personal diary of Orville Babcock, who served as an aide to Grant during the war, in which he mentions the fall of Vicksburg.
While their collection is impressive, they do not yet have the money or space to display the documents and memorabilia to the public.
“It’s important for people to realize that this isn’t a museum, that we have material, and at times, we can take the material out. But sometimes people come in here, and I’ve heard them say ‘Where’s the Grant museum?’ and really this is a research collection. Even the memorabilia is part of a research collection,” Ryan Semmes, assistant archivist with the association said.
“We’d like for anyone to come in at any time, and if we do have things out, we’d be happy to show them to you. I just want to end the misconception that we have things on display all the time. We have so much, there’s just no place to put it.”
They hope to one day have display cases and the ability to create exhibits that will be open to the public. And while they can’t have the items out at all times now, they still welcome visitors.
“But if groups would like to come to see the material, and let us know ahead of time by contacting Elizabeth Coggins, we’re more than happy,” Semmes said. “We have two groups from Starkville High coming next week. We’re always happy to accommodate.”
Despite that minor setback, the project has become incredibly successful. The Ulysses S. Grant Association has become the standard from which other similar projects are trying to model themselves. They have been visited by well-known historians from all over the country.
The association’s partnership with MSU has been instrumental in its success. Not only have they received support from the faculty, but students from all concentrations are working with the project to help with combing through thousands of files.
Currently, the association is working on publishing letters and documents that were not included in the original 31 volumes of the Grant Papers. Many of the documents have never been made public before.
For more information about The Ulysses S. Grant Association, visit http://library.msstate.edu/USGRANT  or check out their Facebook page.